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 Thursday's Child
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at www.aycinena.com. She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

Car Talk: Wright Stuff, Wrong Speed

 
September 4th, 2009 by Peggy Aycinena

If you missed the opening keynote at Mentor Graphics’ globe-trotting EDA Tech Forum at the Santa Clara Convention Center on September 3rd, you missed hearing from the future of the automobile industry.

Ian Wright, Founder & CEO of Wrightspeed, spoke for an hour on Thursday morning and articulated his vision for the future of electric-drive vehicles. He started by announcing a revolution is at hand, but then spent the next 60 minutes explaining why the migration from combustion-engine vehicles to electric-drive vehicles will take place over the next decade at an evolutionary, not revolutionary pace.

Additionally, and despite the sexiness of the one-off Wrightspeed X1 roadster on full display in the center of the EDA Tech Forum Exhibition Hall, Wright also carefully explained during his keynote address that it’s not the family car, or light-weight, high-performance race cars, where the immediate implementation of electric-drive will succeed.

Instead, Wright said that over the next decade, big old kludgy bread trucks, FedEx delivery vans, and the ubiquitous Number 1 vehicle sold in America, the Ford F1-150, as well as many other types of pick-up trucks, will convert to electric-drive at such a pace that by 2019, upwards of 50 percent of the entire class of “high annual fuel consumption” vehicles and fleets will have left their combustion engines behind.

Per Wright, the tipping point that guarantees the requisite 3-year payback for the cost of converting to electric-drive in big, heavily used, gas-guzzling vehicles is only $3 to $4 per gallon of gasoline. For the “family car”, however, you’ve got to see gas skyrocket to $17 a gallon to defend the economics, and 3-year payback, of transitioning from combustion engine to electric drive.

Hence, fleets of trucks and delivery vans may be distinctly less sexy than roadsters, and designed to meet a far different set of performance metrics, but Ian Wright maintained that it’s these types of work-horse vehicles which will be at the front line of the massive “revolutionary” change to electric drive.

x1-front-34-high1
If that’s the case, why does Ian Wright need to show up at engineering conferences like EDA Tech Forum with his speedy X1 in tow? Who cares that his handcrafted vehicle, which looks like a cross between a cantilevered bridge and an old-time go cart, can beat a top-of-the-line Porsche or Ferrari in a classic 0-to-60 mph dust-up?

Well, if you were running a conference and wanted to raffle off a joy ride in a proof-of-concept vehicle, do you think anybody would interested in winning a trip in a FedEx Van? Right. Wright.

Of course, you’d want to raffle off the chance to experience 0-to-60 in 2.9 seconds in a way-cool go-cart, equipped only with shoulder restraints but no visible roll bar.

Also, if your keynote speaker said he was developing “scalable digital drive system platforms”, do you think hundreds of people would show up to hear his talk? Right. Wright.

If, however, your speaker used to work at sexy Tesla Motors, and now heads up Wrightspeed – invoking his own name, and Wilbur & Orville all at the same time – wouldn’t you want Mr. Right to show up with something that made everybody think about Tesla, even if only subliminally?

Okay, enough of all of that. So, what else is Ian Wright’s crystal ball telling him? Per his talk:

* Electric drive is completely, totally going to be the future of the vehicle industry, with the motor driving the wheels directly. Forget the transmission (and, ergo, forget Tesla’s 6831 Li-batteries strapped to same), because sleek, brushless motors (with no more moving parts than 3 ball bearings and a couple of gears) are going to be doing the job, placed right at the wheel.

* Cars are no longer about the magic of superb mechanical design. Going forward, cars will be about the magic of battery systems, electric motors and drive electronics, generator control systems, vehicle dynamic controls, the UI, and software control planes. In other words, cars are going to be about the uber-business model of Wrightspeed.  Forget Detroit. The buzz has moved to Silicon Valley.

* Although the jury’s still out as far as the battery is concerned, Lithium chemistry that will win in the end, as opposed to a host of other contenders including nickel-metal hydride (NiMH). Plus, Lithium’s not an environmental toxin. QED.

* The reason the time frame for conversion to electric-drive should be revolutionary, but is actually evolutionary, is because the national infrastructure and the grid are just not ready. Wright said you can head out from California today, destined for New York, in your combustion-enabled vehicle without worrying about finding gas along the way. If, however, you set out on that same trip in an eVehicle, you should be sure to pack some worry along with the luggage. Where are you going to recharge your eV along the way?

* No matter how much Spectrum and Science Friday may wax poetic over fuel cells in trains or streetcars, the future’s about batteries, batteries, and more batteries. There’s no distribution system in place for Hydrogen, nor any plans to put one there, according to Wright. So, if you don’t like batteries, you’d be far better off putting your money on natural gas, a widely available domestic product, than to go with the sci-fi enthusiasts’ fuel-cell vision of the future.

* Ditto for photovoltaics. There’s just not enough real estate on top of a car, bus, or train to capture the photons needed, especially in places that don’t enjoy the sunny clime of Southern California or Arizona. Of course, if somebody were to produce some kind of breakthrough with the photovoltaic thing, that might change. But, remember: Wright’s talk was all about evolution, not revolution.

So, is it disappointing that the Wright Speed for this evolution is one that recognizes the realities of the engineering challenges and the national infrastructure? Absolutely not, because Ian Wright is the future of the automobile industry. And change takes time.

It also takes money.

Have you got a spare $40 million dollars sitting around? If so, give Ian a call, because you should be hitching your star, your investment dollars, your design expertise, and your vision of the transition to electric-drive to his organization, his system-level design scheme, and his X1 roadster and vision.

The future of the automobile industry is upon us, and Wrightspeed’s going to get there – wherever and whatever there is – a lot faster than anybody else.

In about 2.9 seconds.

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