Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Car of the Future

Donna and Ben in a Tesla Roadster at the factory in San Carlos, California

Fifteen years ago, my brother
 Harold, (father of the geostationary communications satellite) and I (father of two sons) started a company to build a hybrid-electric powertrain for passenger automobiles. Our goal was to radically improve fuel efficiency, to reduce emissions to trace levels, and to achieve these goals without sacrificing the vehicle’s performance. Indeed, we were promising a high cruise speed, a zero-to-60mph acceleration in under six seconds, and a comfortable interior seating five passengers.

To achieve these ambitious goals in a full-size car, two key components had to be developed.
 Rosen Motors created a magnetically levitated flywheel, while our sister company, Capstone Turbine, innovated a 30kW micro-turbogenerator using just one moving part and turning on air bearings. The flywheel was remarkable, spinning friction free at 55,000 rpm and providing the impressive acceleration. It also recaptured the regenerative braking energy. The microtubine, operating at an efficient and constant 96,000 rpm, was the source of cruise power.`

After four years of development, a Saturn sedan was outfitted with the Rosen Motors powertrain and made its maiden test drive at the
 Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamund, California. The car started, it accelerated, and it ran laps. The flywheel worked, the turbine worked, the car worked. Proof of concept.


But what rhymes with proof is “poof.” During 1996 and 1997, we met with top executive and engineering managements of nine of the world’s major automobile manufacturers. We showed them our theoretical advantages and our actual results. Yet we were unable to convince any of them to invest in and adopt our hybrid technology.

In retrospect, we were too early with the hybrid concept – it was still many years before the Prius arrived on the scene. And we were much too aggressive in our technology choices. Unlike the fast-moving telecommunications and computer industries where Harold and I came from, the auto industry embraces new technology with all deliberate gradualness. I mean really slowly.

And when hybrids did finally emerge from the auto industry, they employed a conventional small internal combustion engine for cruise power and batteries for surge power. No turbines, no flywheels. For Rosen Motors, it was too much, too soon.

So in 1997, we shut down Rosen Motors. But all was not lost. Capstone Turbine is now a public company and the world leader in the nascent microturbine business. And the Rosen Motors flywheel patents are the basis of the
 Pentadyne flywheel storage systems that replace lead-acid battery UPS systems. Rapidly-growing Pentadyne is a leading provider of these clean-energy products.

But back to new-technology cars.

Advances in battery technology over the last decade have created the opportunity for all-electric powertrains to be commercially viable. The pioneering General Motors
 EV-1 battery-powered car of the 1990s failed, among other reasons, because the range was limited by its use of lead-acid and later nickel-metal-hydride batteries.

But with the advent of more efficient lithium-ion batteries, an all-electric car with acceptable range became possible. Indeed, start-up Tesla Motors will start shipping its Roadster, with just under 7,000 lithium-ion batteries powering it, in the first quarter of 2008.


2008 Tesla Roadster

Tesla's lithium-ion-powered concept has already had an automotive industry impact well beyond Tesla itself. Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman and champion of the radical new plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt, gives this credit to Tesla for the GM project:

"That tore it for me. If some Silicon Valley start-up can solve this equation, no one is going to tell me anymore that's it's unfeasible."

Newsweek, Dec. 31, 2007 issue

The $100,000 Roadster is Tesla’s initial model. Based on the two-seat Lotus Elise sports car, the Roadster will incorporate whiplash acceleration (zero to 60 in four seconds), ticket-garnering high speed (130 mph, electronically governed), and an acceptable 245-mile range. In a few years, Tesla will offer all-electric sedans, and at a lower price.

Because only batteries are used as an on-board energy source, no gasoline -- none -- is consumed. But if one were to convert the energy used by the coal or natural gas at the central power plant to generate the electricity for recharging, it would be the equivalent of 135 miles per gallon. And, of course, there are no vehicular emissions.

To recharge the Tesla from a fully discharged battery, it takes 3½ hours from a 220-volt line, and 11 hours from a 110-volt line.

Video of our visit to Tesla factory Oct. 30, 2007, for a test spin.

Donna and I were early purchasers of the Tesla Roadster – we will get delivery of serial number seven, or more succinctly, 007. And while the car is not inexpensive, I’ve learned that it’s a lot cheaper to buy a car than build a car company.

Delivery was supposed to have been in the summer of 2007; now it's scheduled for first quarter 2008. Which has led some wags to say that Tesla is the car of the future, and always will be. But looking at the world through my Rosen-colored glasses, I'm more sanguine .

Although the Tesla is all-electric, there is still a connection to the Rosen Motors hybrid. J.B Straubel, the chief technology officer of Tesla, was one of the early engineers at Rosen Motors. So, in a sense, our dream of a green, high performance car is finally being realized, albeit in a different form and from a different company.


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