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What’s Faster than Tesla? Wrightspeed’s Hybrid Car & Truck Dreams

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Shortly after Ian Wright, founder of startup Wrightspeed and part of the founding team of Tesla Motors (s TSLA), drove his electric race series hybrid car the X1 around the track at the Mazda Raceway in Laguna Seca, Calif. earlier this month, I grabbed him for an interview. “How was the ride?” I asked, under a bright blue tent shading his race car’s batteries (which can quickly overheat) from the hot blaring sun. He joked: “It would have been a lot quicker except for all of the Teslas holding me up.”

Electric drive-train performance is Wright’s passion. It’s what drove him to leave Tesla a year after Tesla’s original CEO and co-founder Martin Eberhard convinced Wright to help build the (now public) electric vehicle startup in 2003, and it’s why he left Tesla to found the high performance electric drive-train startup that now bears his name. The X1 — which is an early version of the drive train that will be the heart of a high performance hybrid he calls the Supercar — can go 0 to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds. Tesla’s Roadster can go 0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds.

Wright, who while at Tesla helped write their business plan, raise money from investor and now-CEO Elon Musk and seal Tesla’s Lotus deal, tells me he built the X1 to demonstrate how much performance he could get out of electric and series hybrid cars (electric vehicles with a combustion engine assist) without having to sacrifice efficiency. “You can get as much power as you want and it doesn’t make them any less efficient,” said Wright. Contrast that with traditional cars, where the trade-off for efficient cars is that you can only have a certain amount of power, he explained. The license plate of the X1 reads “170MPGE.”

There’s enough power in his design that for the next generation of his X1 prototype (which will be a series hybrid), he’s hoping to be able to go 0 to 60 in under 2.5 seconds with continuous 1,000 horse power. The barrier to getting more power than that will be the fact that the X1 uses street tires (not high-performance racing tires), and Wright says he’s put 8,500 mostly street miles on the X1, commonly driving his kids to school in the car.

Unlike the Tesla vision of using an electric sportscar to move into selling mainstream electric family cars (Tesla’s Model S sedan is due out in 2012) Wright has designed his high performance electric drive train to sell first to race car builders — cars that need 1,000 horse power with a weight of 2,500 pounds. Wright says he already has two automaker customers that are building Supercar designs, one building a high performance car based on the power train design, and the other converting an existing car using Wright’s power train. Wright says the customers created their products in about 18 months.

The race car market is only so big, however — although as Wright puts it, it’s got “great halo effects and good margins.” That’s why Wrightspeed also plans to use its hybrid drive-train system technology to eventually sell into the medium-duty truck market, and is starting out by selling a hybrid conversion kit to companies with truck fleets.

As TruckingInfo put it, medium duty trucks — those commercial vehicles that haul anything from food to furniture — are “the workhorses of the American economy,” and use over 8 billion gallons of fuel per year. Reducing this fuel consumption by just a fraction is both a major market opportunity and can also make a significant dent in carbon emissions. Financier T. Boone Pickens is also eyeing this market by backing natural gas truck conversion kits.

Wright explained to me that because his hybrid drive-train tech has significant power compared to its light weight, it’s a good fit for converting trucks and can save companies some 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of gas per year. That turns out to be a 3-year return on investment for the cost of fuel. Companies that use trucks in urban areas — which are constantly stopping and starting — or that drive a lot of hills (Wright has one customer in a hilly part of New Zealand) will be able to get particularly good fuel efficiencies with the conversion kit.

Truck fleets are also a good market opportunity for the startup because companies need to upgrade their fleets to meet the latest diesel emissions standards and Wright says his hybrid gas turbine design has already been certified by the California Air Resource Board for 2010 emission standards. Powertrains for fleet trucks also commonly wear out, and could use 2 or 3 throughout the lifetime of a truck, so a retrofit market already exists for trucks, says Wright.

Wright says in terms of both the Supercar and the truck conversion kits, you’ll be able to see products on the market in “about a year.” The business model at this point is to make the technology to sell to automakers, not for Wrightspeed to become an automaker itself, says Wright — noting how much money it took Tesla to become a car producer (including a $226 million IPO, a $465 million DOE loan, and $200 million in six rounds of equity financing).

At this point the technology is still under development. The X1 could only do 2 laps around the track at the Laguna Seca raceway at full power because it’s so high performance that it quickly eats up the battery life. Or at least two laps are the sensible limit before the battery gets so hot that it gets “closer to thermal run away,” says Wright. (i.e. it could blow the heck up). When he says this during our interview, I look to my right, where an ambulance is casually idling on the track.

Wright clearly likes to push boundaries — he’s an electrical engineer, who spent 20 years building broadband networking products and later electric drive train technology, and has worked mostly for startups first in New Zealand and later in Silicon Valley. It’s a quality he shares with Tesla’s now dominant force, investor and CEO Elon Musk, who Wright says invested in Tesla after just a 2-hour meeting with him and co-founders Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning: “That’s the kind of investor you want to find,” says Wright. (Perhaps not the kind Eberhard wanted, but that’s a different story).

Like Musk, Wright also made a nice chunk of change with the recent Tesla IPO (albeit at a lot smaller scale than Musk), and on the day of the IPO Wright’s 180,000 shares (at $17 a share) were worth about $3.1 million. We’ll see if Tesla’s stock can maintain that price up until the 6-month lock-up period, where most of the shareholders can then start converting stock into cash.

Overall, Wright says he’s happy with the way the Roadster turned out. “It might have taken longer and cost more than we had wished, but at the end of the day the Roadsters are really good cars,” says Wright. Tesla’s recent successes with its IPO and its latest Toyota deal will also no doubt pave the way for battery-based car startups going forward. And in particular, it could open up a lot of doors for the high performance vision of one of Tesla’s original pioneers.

Watch a short video clip of my interview with Wright at the Laguna Seca raceway below, and look for our upcoming episode of Green Overdrive for a complete run down of the X1, as well as footage from the race-cam (and Wright’s infamous spin on turn 6).

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6 Responses to “What’s Faster than Tesla? Wrightspeed’s Hybrid Car & Truck Dreams”

  1. Wright has been running around in the same Ariel Atom with AC Propulsion power train for at least 5 years now. Looking forward to the track video.