My day at the AltCar Expo in Santa Monica, Calif. was pretty much over. But as I was heading through the parking lot back to my carbon-spewing Mazda3 I happened upon a guy exiting the cockpit of a bullet-shaped "cabin motorcycle." I recognized it immediately as one of the winners of the Automotive X Prize, the $10 million competition to build a production-capable car that gets at least 100 miles per gallon or the energy equivalent (MPGe).
The parking lot was almost empty and the guy was alone, far from the maddening crowd of alt-vehicle enthusiasts from earlier in the day. I approached him and did a low-key convincing for a ride. "Get in," said Felix Wagner, president of Peraves AG, maker of this thing.
I stowed my camera in a small cubbyhole above the backseat headrest and climbed in. Wagner told me I was sitting in one of the most aerodynamic vehicles ever produced. That did not surprise me, as my knees could've served as armrests for the driver. I'm not very big, though Wagner said he's accommodated passengers over six feet. (With a shoe horn?) I've never ridden in the passenger seat of a glider, but this might be what it feels like, at least to sit in.
Wagner explained that this model, called the Monotracer, is equipped with the internal combustion engine, while the prize-winning version, the E-Tracer, is outfitted with an electric motor and drivetrain by AC Propulsion.
The Monotracer drives essentially like a motorcycle, though slowing down to a stop is accompanied by the mechanical sound of the outrigger wheels deploying (either mechanically or manually) and the sudden feel of four-wheel stabilization.
The gas-powered Monotracer does 0-60 in 5 seconds, which is about normal for a motorcycle, with a top speed of 150 mph. Wagner said the ICE version gets 50 mpg. That's decent fuel economy for a motorcycle, I believe, and perhaps more impressive due to the extra weight of the shell.
But it's a far cry from the award-winning E-Tracer, which has 204 hp-equivalent and tests at 180 - 220 mpg equivalent. The E-Tracer accelerates from zero to 60 in about 6.6 seconds and can get close to 200 miles in range, depending on how it's driven. Wagner says it will charge in one hour off a standard 120v outlet. Not bad.
The ICE version is actually being produced, is on sale in Europe and is certified by the U.S. EPA. The E-Tracer will be available soon in America as well. But Wagner admitted the vehicle fits a very small niche of new technology tinkerers with $80 to $100 grand to play with, which might be about 100 Americans.
Wagner said the team invested $250,000 in the design, engineering and construction of the E-Tracer. With their internal testing, Wagner said they knew they had bested the benchmarks and gave themselves a 50 percent chance of winning. It was a reasonable business chance, Wagner said. They pulled in the $2.5 million alternative class prize.
The test drive made me wonder why we haven't heard more about all-electric motorcycles. And it also made me ask how this vehicle won the X Prize, which was designed to award the "car" that gets the highest fuel efficiency. This is hardly a car; it's an enclosed motorcycle, with motorcycle handlebars, instrument controls and build.
Wagner admitted as much. "Our worry was about fitting into the X Prize guidelines, which were written for cars," he said. He said new rules were introduced three days before the competition started, which caused a great deal of angst for many competitors.
"Our competitors complained about E-Tracer not being within spirit of competition, but we fit the rules," he told me. "How do you interpret the rules?"
I likened it to the America's Cup, when catamarans were allowed to compete against outraged teams of the traditional monohulls-and destroyed them. Ultimately, this is not an everyday practical alternative to cars, and the people at Peraves admit that. But the project has at least succeeded in helping us to rethink mobility. And the technology built into the E-Tracer will most likely show up in more practical solutions we yet can't imagine.
When we arrived back at the parking a rep from the AltCar Expo approached Wagner and asked him if he had the proper Expo documentation to do a test drive. "Sorry, no," he admitted, a rules bender once again.