Ian Wright is CEO of Wrightspeed, the Californian company working to bring high performance electric cars to the market. Before founding Wrightspeed in January 2005, Ian was vice-president of vehicle development at Tesla Motors. Last week at an electric sportscars event in San Francisco organized by BAIA, Ian presented the X1 prototype to a group of car enthusiasts and business people. I invited him to participate in the following interview to delve deeper into some of the interesting topics that were brought up during his presentation.
Ian, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your company?
Sure. I have an engineering background, mostly in data communications equipment. But I used to build and race cars as a hobby, when I lived in Australia. I’ve always been interested in performance cars, and also in electric cars. I guess the engineer in me likes the unbeatable efficiency, and the nice match of the torque curve to the demand. But in the past, I didn’t think it was worth building electric cars, because the batteries just weren’t good enough to make an interesting car.
Now they are… if you wanted to, you could build an electric car with 500 mile range. Or more than a thousand horsepower. Or one in which the batteries would last 15 years, and 250,000 miles. But you can’t do all of that in the same car, and you can’t make a cheap electric car. So trade-offs are necessary.
But one trade-off suffered by internal combustion (IC) cars does not apply to electric cars. In an IC car, if you design for performance, the car will be thirsty even if driven carefully. If you design for efficiency, the car will be slow. This is not true for electric cars. You can design for very high performance, without any loss of efficiency (compared with low performance electric car). Possibly even at some efficiency gain.
In 2005 I founded Wrightspeed to build extreme performance electric cars, which would make use of this very interesting property of electric drive-systems. The first thing I did was build a high performance prototype, to test the concept, and to gauge customer reaction.
The X1 prototype seems to be showcase to attract investorsʼ attention and to display your skills in building high-performance electric cars. What did you learn from that prototype and from people's reactions to it?
It’s been very educational. I expected that the X1 prototype would appeal only to a very narrow slice of humanity: some subset of racing drivers. And part of the objective was to get a sense of the size of that slice – would it support a startup company?
Also, I didn’t really expect any media attention, and I did expect that the prototype would be something that anyone could drive.
I was wrong on all counts. (I did predict the actual performance numbers, and the car actually meets the predictions. So the engineering was OK…)
Firstly, the styling, concept, performance, and the fact that it’s electric, appeal to an amazing wide spectrum of people. Not just racing drivers. From little kids (I’ve done show-and-tell at a couple of schools) to strong silent types driving pickup trucks, to grandmothers, homeless people up in SF, professional racing drivers, and even most of the law enforcement people I’ve met…
I’m collecting some great stories. Perhaps my favorite so far is about the very elderly lady I met outside Bucks in Woodside one day. (There was the usual crowd around the car.) She was walking very slowly by, using a cane, and stopped to ask all the usual questions. She asked very good questions, and was obviously fascinated. Her last question was “And how much will the production version cost?” I said “Oh, about $120k.” She thought about this for a moment – clearly weighing the cost/value – then said “Well! That’s less than the Rolls!” And off she went.
And the car has had some awesome media exposure: Business 2.0, Autoweek, Discovery Channel, PBS, KRON4, IEEE Spectrum, Wired, Die Zeit, Radio NZ, Robb Report (March feature article)… without any requests from us. Before that first test, the drag race against the Carrera GT, November 2005, I did call a few journalists, to suggest that there might be a story about to happen. Not one called me back, and I thought “I guess they are not interested in electric cars. They’ve been there…”
The next TV piece is Discovery Channel, end of May.
And the hardest lesson was foreshadowed by the friend I took for the first demo ride. He said, as we parked after the ride, “You know Ian, this is too much car for most people.” A couple of weeks later, I met a mutual friend, and let him drive. He normally drives a Porsche Turbo, and I coached him on the fact that there is so much torque, that if you are not going exactly straight, using full “throttle” will cause the car to spin. Immediately. It’s catchable, but everything happens fast, so you have to be in a heightened state of adrenalin… It was Highway 9, out of Saratoga. There were very slightly damp patches… he did the first corner fine, right at the point that I thought was the upper end of safe. The next corner, he wasn’t going too fast, at all. But before he straightened the wheel, he nailed the accelerator. The rear tires can only do so much, so… around we go. He lifted his foot immediately, but forgot the opposite lock. Sadly there was a power pole there… No injuries, just the feeling of being a helpless passenger. I hate that.
It took a while to absorb that lesson. We plan for the production car to have stability control, preventing this kind of accident. There’s quite a bit of development involved.
In order to build your prototype you had many options. Why did you choose the Ariel among the several "rolling chassis" available (e.g., Ultima, Noble)?
Well, I’d driven one, with 190hp Rover engine, a few years before. And fallen in love. It’s the lightest thing out there that you can drive on the street. And Simon Saunders, the designer and founder of Ariel, is a really interesting guy. I’ve learned a lot from him. I’ve met Lee Noble, the designer of the Ultima and the Noble (but haven’t driven his cars). He’s a really interesting guy too (England seems to be the place for this sort of thing.) But in the end, I was looking for the lightest weight. 1500 lbs for the complete car was the target. I missed by 36 lbs.
The electric car is a hot topic with new companies and products (Tesla, Zap, etc.) popping up every other day. How do you plan to compete with them?
I don’t. I plan to compete with Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, and to some extent Mercedes. The electric car companies intend to compete ultimately with Toyota. They are selling efficiency; I’m selling performance. Extreme performance. I do think it’s great to have several startup companies in California attacking different parts of the market.
According to your CBO (Chief Business Officer) Marv Bush (source), your plan is to build a car with electric motors on each wheel. Some expert believes that this is not a viable solution for high-performance cars. What is your opinion on that?
Hmmm, sounds like a cocktail party misapprehension. It’s certainly true that motors in the wheels increase the unsprung mass to a very large degree. And in performance cars, ultimately, it’s all about getting the most grip from the tires at all times. And that requires keeping them in contact with the road, which is much easier if the weight that moves up and down with the tire is very low compared with the weight of the rest of the car. There are also subtleties to do with feedback to the driver through the steering wheel (self aligning torque, confused by driving the front wheels), and the fact that the way electric motors scale, it’s lighter to make one big one than 4 smaller ones, for the same peak power.
It’s also true that we have no intention of using motors in the wheels. We are building extreme performance cars, not buses.
Switching from gasoline to electricity could have a strong impact on many aspects of a car, from the shape to the weight distribution. What differences can we expect to see in the next electric car?
Good observation. There is certainly more freedom about mass distribution, and possibly less cooling air required. Stay tuned, the next version will be quite different from the prototype. Sorry I can’t say more right now.
You're showing your ideas and skills in order to raise the first round of funding. Based on this experience, do you have any recommendations to share with other new entrepreneurs?
This is the first time I’ve actually built a working prototype before looking for funding. I recommend it, if it’s at all possible. It keeps you talking to customers, anchored in the real world, and it proves a lot to potential investors.
We can say that the recent BAIA (Business Association Italy America) event held at the ClubSportiva in San Francisco has been very successful. What has your experience been like with BAIA?
Great! I didn’t know what to expect, but I had a great time. Good people, great questions, good food! I’ve met some interesting people.
I would like to thank Ian Wright for taking the time to speak with me today, and Cristiano Sacchi for his invaluable guidance in helping me understand technical aspects of high performance cars. If you have any questions for Ian or for BAIA, please leave a comment below, and we will be glad to answer.