X Prize winner Very Light Car gains weight, goes electric

Heft increases, but aerodynamics at Edison2 still stunning. New EV set for 310 MPG equivalent as the company tinkers with different fuels and designs. They've even put a Smart engine under the hood.
Written by Mark Halper, Contributor

Remember the 830-pound Very Light Car from a year ago? It won the Automotive X Prize award for advancing a new generation of super fuel-efficient vehicles. The 4-seater wowed at 102 miles per gallon.

Well, you could change its name to One Ton Transport if you were so inclined, because the VLC has put on weight. The production version will tip the scales at around 1,200 pounds according to the car’s producer, Edison2, of Lynchburg, Virginia.

Look past the extra heft, and something else has changed.You might recall that the VLC surprisingly featured an internal combustion engine – an eye opener in a world that seems focused on electric motors as the path to automotive energy efficiency and CO2 reduction.

Well, guess what?Edison2 now has an electric version of the VLC, called, of course, the eVLC (pictured above, right and below). And eVLC will weigh yet a little bit more than the internal combustion version.

“We expect an 1100- or 1200-pound production car, a bit more if electric,” Edison2 spokesperson David Brown told me in a lively email exchange yesterday. The current fiberglass test electric model weighs 1,031 pounds, but a production version, made from different materials, would exceed that, he said.

The main reason for extra pounds on the electric version is the battery.

“Batteries are heavy. The energy contained in 6 pounds of gasoline (1 gallon) takes 300 – 500 pounds of batteries to store. So an electric version of our car will be heavier than an ICE (internal combustion engine),” Brown said.

Although the VLC has put on a few pounds, the car’s “supremely aerodynamic” design supports commendable mileage performance, as the car has recorded the “the lowest coefficient of drag ever seen for a 4-seat vehicle at the GM Aero Lab,” Brown said. “Our VLC with a 10 kWh battery can go further than a Nissan Leaf with a 24 kWh battery.”

It’s not clear whether the internal combustion version still tops 100 mpg. But Consumer Reports has calculated that the electric version gets the equivalent of 310 miles per gallon, based on preliminary data from Edison2’s testing.

It will still be “several” years before any version of the VLC is ready for the market, Brown said.The company is experimenting with different fuel sources. Last year’s internal combustion (ICE) model ran on 85 percent ethanol (E85).

Edison2 has also tinkered by putting an engine from Daimler’s Smart car under the hood. It expects to have built a fourth prototype by the spring that “may be electric, hybrid, gasoline, E85 or diesel,” Brown said, although he noted Edison2 “is not likely” to continue with E85. “Likely we will make versions with different power sources.” The varied fuel approach echoes comments yesterday by Ford chief financial officer Lewis Booth.

The VLC gained weight because Edison2 has changed some materials.

“For the X Prize, we used a carbon fiber body, simply because when you are making only a few of something choices are limited," Brown said. "The eVLC has a fiberglass body, which is similar in weight to aluminum. We are committed to keeping this car affordable by using non-exotic body materials: aluminum, composites and plastic.  The chassis and some structural components are steel, the rest mostly aluminum."

At 1,200 pounds, jealous rivals might bandy the One Ton moniker, but I’ll stick with Very Light Car. I ran a cursory Internet check to identify the world’s lightest vehicles. It looks like the VLC easily beats them all. The website ecomodder claims that the Smart Fortwo Coupe out-thinned all other N. American cars last year at around 1,830 pounds, much heavier than VLC's 1,200-pound prototype. That was followed by the Lotus Elise at 1,984 pounds, Lotus Exige’s 2,077, Mazda2’s 2,306 and Toyota Yaris Hatch/Sedan’s 2,313. The Tesla Roadster weighed in at 2,729 pounds, which made the list’s “honorable mention” but not its top 10.

To compare the VLC to concept cars that have grabbed the spotlight recently, Audi’s 2-seat Urban Concept weighs 1,058 pounds, and VW’s NILS single-seater weighs 1,014 pounds. That makes Audi and VW lighter than VLC, but the two German vehicles accommodate fewer passengers.

The 50 percent weight gain at Edison2 reaffirms that a concept car is, as the name says, a concept subject to change.

What matters in the end, more than the heft, is the performance. If someone built a cement car that achieved 300 mpg, that might be a good thing - especially if the CO2-belching cement industry were to shift to carbon-light production methods (I’ll blog on that another time).

As the song says, it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.

Photos: Edison2

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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