Friday, November 20, 2009

Homegrown Electric Vehicles

So, yesterday I went to a little social event for greenies at Davis' Restaurant in downtown Eugene (I would have put a link to their website, but they have not one). It was hosted by Helios Resource Network, and co-hosted by Arcimoto, and the CEO (who I kind of hate for being successful at 23) gave a brief speech about their company.

Arcimoto is a start up producing electric vehicles, and they are doing it a little bit differently. They are working with technology that has been around for long enough to be cost effective to produce an affordable car, one that you can plug in to a conventional wall socket for all of its juice needs (they claim it charges fully in 6 hours), and they are making it look pretty spiffy too. While most electric cars have specially designed engines and crazy battery technology in order to move the weight of a full sized vehicle, Arcimoto is solving the problem by making a much smaller car!

This is a really simple, elegant and in hindsight obvious solution to the problem of engineering an electric vehicle. They went with a three wheel chassis (the car registers as a motorcycle, technically), and made a body just big enough to fit two comfortably. The result is a much lighter car that can be moved by a much smaller motor, and powered with a much more simple battery.

Now for the next part, which is possibly even cooler: they plan to manufacture and sell the cars locally. You may wonder (as I often have) why there aren't already electric cars everywhere, if it's so easy to make them. The answer is really stupid: big car companies can't figure out how to make a profit off of them. Currently most of the money in the car business is in service, and electric cars don't need any much service at all (a DC motor may need the brushes replaced once every seven years, and other than that it is good to go). Conventional autos need tons of service, so the car companies are willing to deal with marginal profits on the vehicles with a guarantee of years of necessary repairs (this is a gross over simplification, but it captures the basic idea).

So the Arcimoto solution: side step the existing auto industry entirely. Figure out the local market, set the price point for a decent profit, and let the consumer drive maintenance free for 7 years. Ford and the others are so locked into their current (lack of) profit models that they can't imagine doing anything like this (which is why they love hybrids so much: call it green without actually changing much).

The Arcimoto Pulse is not exactly perfect, a brushless motor would be better and the lead acid battery has its own ecological issues, but it is leaps and bounds ahead of an internal combustion vehicle in the sustainability department. Especially when the whole local production thing is taken into account. So I give the Pulse a huge thumbs up. If every city a company like this, generating electric cars locally, we would see a lot of innovation, a much more interesting market, and better air quality. Now if we could just stop getting our electricity from burning coal...

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