Ron Mathis is the Chief of Design for Edison2 and has 30 years of experience in professional racing — he’s worked for the likes of Audi, Jaguar and Dodge. Right now he’s helping to run a team of 70 highly specialized individuals in hopes of bringing home the X prize for the world’s most efficient vehicle. The Very Light Car is the foundation of their entries in the competition, and as the name implies, the vehicle is very light. Brakes, which typically weigh over a pound, only weigh a few ounces in the Very Light Car. Right now the final stages of the competition are being held in Michigan and the validation stage in August will determine the winners.
Inhabitat: Give us a rundown of the three cars left in the competition.
Ron: We have three cars in the X-Prize competition finals. Two of them are in the Mainstream class (meaning 4 seats and luggage space) and are very close to identical; the other is in the Alternative Tandem (two seats, one behind the other) class. We entered multiple cars so that simple bad luck such as a flat tire would not take us out of the competition.
Inhabitat: When did you first start building the cars?
Ron: There are lots of possible answers to that! Seriously, the cars draw so much on the accumulated experience of our team that we can almost be said to have started building them with erector sets when we were kids. The direct ancestors to the actual cars we have in the competition we started building a couple of years ago.
Inhabitat: You started off with 5 cars and are now down to 3 for the final stages. Why five different designs? Why not put more focus on less?
Ron:With finite resources of people and time, it’s a balancing act. We entered 5 cars and turned up for the first event with 4. The car we’ve lost along the way (it had a bought-in engine component fail) was an earlier generation prototype but the 3 still in the competition are mechanically very similar. This works for us when, for example, we can have a car in the emissions lab at the same time we have another in the wind tunnel.
Inhabitat: What are you most proud of with regards to the competition and with your team’s performance?
Ron: I’m enormously proud of our team and the cars we have designed. For me personally, the proudest moment is when someone who understands what they’re looking at says “nice job”.
Inhabitat: What have you struggled with during the competition? Design problems, production, racing, issues with the actual competition itself, or something else?
Ron: All of the above! It’s never easy to do a car, especially one that breaks as much new ground as the Very Light Car, but overcoming problems is what we do at Edison2. We like to think we have done so elegantly.
Inhabitat: What do you think of your competitors? Who do you think is doing an good job or has a really great design?
Ron: There’s a respect between the competitors in the X-Prize, and rightly so, because we all understand what the other guy had to do to be there. They are all brave efforts from some clever and hardworking people. There is something to learn from each competitor’s car.
Inhabitat: If you could start over, (assuming you had the money…) what would you do differently?
Ron: Does that include knowing what I know now? If it does, we would do a similar car but it would be nicer still and a generation closer to being available to buy.
Inhabitat: What technologies are holding you back? Battery technology, fuel, lightweight materials, or is a combination of a number of things?
Ron: That’s a difficult question to answer. GM never hid the magic carburetor that tripled gas mileage, and magnets that clip around the fuel line to align the ions (so the infomercial said) don’t work either. 100mpge and 200 mile range and 4 seats and acceptable performance is an extraordinarily difficult task and there’s a reason Edison2 is the only entrant left in the Mainstream class. Also, we took the X-Prize requirement to design for production capability seriously and have a car which can be made economically with low investment. We are very pleased that we have achieved this with good design and regular, everyday materials – steel tube for example – and do not rely on bleeding edge technology and exotic, expensive materials.
Inhabitat: What do you think car companies can learn from you and the whole competition? What technology or system will car companies actually take and utilize after the competition is done?
Ron: To our pleasure the best of them are already learning it: light weight and good aerodynamics are the only absolute virtues for economy and efficiency. To apply them well, we’ve had to invent some neat stuff like our in-the-wheel suspension systems. We think some of what we have done will find a lot of applications.
Inhabitat: The prize money certainly can’t be the main reason you’re building these cars. What’s motivating you? And what do you hope to accomplish when it’s all done?
Ron: For me personally, after messing about with very fast cars for 30 years, this is like the beginning of the second act of my life. It’s so cool to be involved with Edison2 and work on something that might do a bit of good for the world. I hope we can continue what we have started here.