Sunday, April 13, 2008

the future of the Tango

This is the email I asked Rick Woodbury of Commuter Cars to be able to share with you. His comments are in boldface. He makes a lot of sense. BusinessWeek thinks so, too.

I'm thrilled--I saw your car on TV in Atlanta 2 or 3 years ago and thought it was THE solution--and, it was fast and kicked up a lot of dust and leaves.

My first word was "Buick" over 60 years ago. Cars are important.

Thanks for noticing.

In case you have time for it, here is my view of the future of the Tango:
I've heard that to innovate, you don't give people what they ask for, but rather watch what they do. I've been watching what they do for over 50 years and I find it interesting that people driving cars by themselves with 4 empty seats around them jam up all the freeways, streets, and parking spaces in cities throughout the world at an incredible waste of time and resources.

It's as if people in a crowded subway all wore back packs that were 4 times bigger than they are.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, at Texas A&M University, there are 67-billion dollars wasted every year due to congestion in the US. There are 5.7-billion gallons of gasoline wasted. This would fill tank trucks lined up end-to-end, from NY City to Las Vegas and back. That's just the gasoline wasted due to congestion!

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics there are 118-million workers in the US. Of them, 92-million drive by themselves to work every day with 4 empty seats. That's roughly 90% of all of the cars and roughly 80% of all workers that are driving solo in a car 4 times larger than needed.

Unfortunately, small cars don't solve the problem. A Mini-Cooper takes relatively the same space on the freeway as the largest SUVs because they both use a full lane and both must have similar braking distance from the car in front.
Motorcycles could solve the problem as they can fit two-to-a-lane but are unsafe, offer no protection from the weather, and give little room to carry things. Because of that only 0.6% of workers use motorcycles and bicycles combined. Public transit is only 4.9% because it only works well in extremely dense cities or corridors.

A freeway lane is 12-feet wide by federal standard. A truck is 9' 4" from mirror to mirror. That leaves 16" of clearance on either side. In order to double a freeway lane's capacity, a car would have to be a maximum of 40" wide in order to have the same clearance in a 6' lane. The Tango is only 39" wide, so it easily fits in a half-lane. The University of California Transportation Dept. and Booze-Allen-Hamilton did a study on a narrow car of nearly the same dimensions as the Tango and found it would increase lane capacity from 2,000 cars per hour to 4,400 cars per hour.

For a car to be 40" wide, it would require one of two methods for stability. If it tilted like a motorcycle it would have to have either manual or electronically controlled tilting. Both could be problematic. If the system failed in a turn it could be fatal. To control the weight of a protective cage manually is not reasonable as you can imagine a bicycle with hundreds of lbs overhead and to the sides.

Battery-electric is the answer--and for many reasons. The lead-acid batteries provide just enough weight in the Tango to achieve the same rollover threshold as a Porsche 911. As you have seen in the video, they also provide plenty of power. This is because, using the same kind of motors that pull 100-car freight trains in one gear from 0 to 90 mph, fit nicely in the space between the rear wheels leaving the rest of the bottom of the car for batteries. The two Tango motors actually produce more than twice the torque of a Dodge Viper V-10 engine.

So, in order to get the Tango to the mainstream as quickly as possible, it will require overcoming the obvious objections--primarily rollover and safety. As I mentioned, we've achieved the static rollover threshold of a Porsche 911. Seeing videos of the Tango racing around corners and parked perpendicularly on a 30% grade with people trying but failing to push it over should eventually sink in and convince people that its looks are deceiving. Even I, who know the rollover chrematistics well, was trembling when I parked it on upper Stanyan St. in San Francisco. It's a 30% grade with a stairway for a sidewalk. After rocking it with my terrified stepsister inside, I was finally relieved of my fears. It just looked like it would fall over. I wish I could display the photo on my cell phone here.

For the Tango to get a foothold so that the doubling of lane capacity can be achieved, it must have immediate advantages over a standard car. In California, Europe, and the Orient, lane-splitting is allowed for motorcycles, some of which are 5" wider than the Tango. The Tango is actually 5" narrower than a Honda Gold Wing from mirror to mirror. I've noted situations where traffic jams were so bad coming off of the San Francisco Bay bridge that the motorcycles were traveling in 20 seconds the distance that it took cars to travel 20 minutes--a 60 to 1 advantage. The Tango could have done the same.

So in philanthropy, one can give the golden egg, or give the goose that lays the golden egg. I believe that funding commuter cars is like the latter. It is Commuter Cars' goal to put 150-million Tangos on the roads of the world within 30 years or hopefully as little as 15. I believe that when the average commuter sees the benefit, enjoys the freedom and excitement of driving a Tango, that they will naturally gravitate toward a tipping point just as the Model-T and the PC did, and people will wonder how we ever got along without them.

150-million Tangos, possibly $3-trillion in sales, may sound like a lot, but it's only about half of the SINGLE-occupant commuters in the world. In the US alone, roughly 1/3 of the world automotive market, it would have the following effect. There would be a savings of $39-billion in retail cost of gasoline to consumers which would be replaced by $5.2-billion dollars of electricity at retail based on $.10 a kWh. It would also probably save most of the $17-billion in wasted gasoline due to traffic congestion. The electricity used may not all be clean, however, it could be, and naturally will be, as clean sources like solar and wind become more commonplace and economically feasible.

Best wishes,


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