There’s a lot of impressive stuff going on in the automotive world right now. The once-revolutionary Prius is taking a back seat to the new generation of electric head-turners, like the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf, and the emperor of them all, Tesla. Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but you get the idea. There’s a race going on for most fuel-efficient, and it’s carried the cutting edge of the industry back into the electric car market. This is a great thing, and even though we’ve got a lot further to go, we ought to be happy with the gains that we’re starting to see on the road.
But even these cars that seem so revolutionary…aren’t. What we’re seeing today is the second coming of the electric car (see Mass Transit and the Restructuring of Cities for more info), and while this is undoubtedly a move in the right direction environmentally, it doesn’t bring with it a critical reexamination of the car as a whole. Even these most exciting new cars are just cars, but electric.
To build a car that can really change the game, you have to think outside the box. That’s what Joe Justice is doing with his SGT01 car and his network of volunteer mechanics called WikiSpeed. Let me start by saying the SGT01 isn’t electric. It isn’t even a hybrid. But it is one of the most fuel-efficient, intelligently designed cars ever made. It gets 104mpg city and 114mpg highway, which with a 4-gallon tank gives it a range of 400 miles. Couple that with 0-60mph in 5.5 seconds and 5 star crash safety and you’ve got a pretty good car. Oh, and it only costs $25,000.
Okay, I know that last part sounds impossible, and it probably is, but not as impossible as you might think. See, what Joe Justice is doing differently than most is building light and building modular. An extruded aluminum chassis and a carbon fiber body make the car only 1,042lbs, about half the weight of the Prius. Less weight means more fuel efficiency and more speed. But the really cool part about this car is the second way Justice is changing the game: modularity.
One of the core concepts behind WikiSpeed cars is the ability to swap components. This doesn’t mean you get to choose between real or faux paneling, or how many cup holders. If you owned a WikiSpeed car, for about $1000 you could take it into the shop and get the body swapped for a newer model. Or if a more efficient (or powerful) engine came out, just bring your car in and let them upgrade it. The idea is that the car isn’t a single entity, it’s a modular assembly of parts that can be traded in or upgraded at will.
I can’t say this enough: this is a brilliant idea. Think about choosing a car to buy right now; it isn’t an easy decision to make. Even the most fuel efficient cars on the road are going to be hopelessly outstripped in 6 or 7 years, and a good car ought to last you more than that. What if you go gasoline, and the electric infrastructure blows up in a few years while oil prices skyrocket? What if you go electric, and it never really pans out, and breakthroughs in hydrogen technology make it the dominant automotive tech? With a modular car, you don’t have to worry about it, you can just take it in and have them swap the engine for a better one. And as your car begins to look dated, you can upgrade it’s appearance. Or the audio input, or the GPS system, or anything else you don’t like!
As far as WikiSpeed cars actually go, well, they’ve still got a long way. The car is only a prototype right now, and WikiSpeed is desperate for more capital investment. The modular system they have in place is highly efficient, but still pretty ugly. And most of the work being done right now is volunteer work, so the car is far from being profitable. But I think its value lies in its vision. There are good ideas here that deserve to be considered by major companies and demanded by consumers.