It’s a fascinating phenomenon, how new trends and technologies just seem to keep sneaking up on us, in ever-increasing frequency… changing the game, almost in front of our eyes.
And the really big ones can catch us totally unawares. One day, we glance up, and a technology is exploding all around us, splattering us with evidence. It’s as if someone threw a bunch of firecrackers in a patch of watermelons.
Exhibit A is the Porsche EV trend. I blinked a few times and, boom, Porsche introduced the Cayenne Hybrid, announced a Panamera Hybrid, announced a Boxster E all-electric roadster, announced a production 918 hybrid supercar and took their GT 3R-Hybrid racecar to the track, and won.
Then I read in the Wall Street Journal about how, with federal government funding, several companies are installing thousands of home and public car chargers, up and down the West Coast, to lay “the groundwork for a national network, part of a costly experiment to see whether Americans will embrace electric cars.”
And the Level 3 charger, a commercial use only, 480 volts DC, 85 amps version for this test, will charge a car in a maximum of 26 minutes, which isn’t exactly stop and go, but does almost become viable, if one does a bit of shopping at the next-door mini-mart and adds a bio break.
And I picked up the October 2010 issue of GT Porsche magazine, to read about how “a guy working out of a restoration and custom shop in Tallahassee, Fl has quietly beaten them all to building a zero-emission, all electric 911 road car.”
Then it hit real close to home. I bumped into a guy named Mike Owens at a local Porsche club event. He said his company is building EV versions of 356 Speedsters and 550 Spyders. Out of a local restoration and custom shop.
Firecrackers and watermelons? I take it back. It’s more like howitzers and shrapnel, on the battlefield of America’s and the world’s roads.
Want to peak under the curtain? I did. So I met up with Mike, who it turns out is in charge of Business Development for a firm called Duke’s Garage, which is actually, you guessed it, a custom and restoration shop, owned by Duke Altschuler and his wife Melisse Perre.
Mike tells me that Duke really “likes” cars. Which is a bit like saying Enzo Ferrari really liked the color red, but so be it. And his wife really likes the environment. So, after years in “oil,” they began collecting, customizing, restoring and experimenting.
And along came Mike. “He liked my spirit,” Mike says today.
“Duke thinks most new cars look basically the same,” notes Mike. “What Duke likes are lines, personality, design, character. Traits that should never be thrown away. But in a modern, responsible context.”
What I found at the shop were several candy-apple tangerine-flake projects… and a ‘65 Mustang, two VW Beetles and a utility van, all converted to electron power… along with a gleaming silver 356 and another gleaming silver 550.
Or so I thought. Mike told me they’re actually Beck kits, running the increasingly ubiquitous lithium-ion battery packs.
Mike invited me to drive one. And I did. And it felt like a 50-year old 356, squeaks and all, until you put your foot down and felt that all-torque, no hesitation jolt in your back.
But I didn’t go very fast, and I didn’t go very far. I started peppering Mike with performance questions.
And his response was “70, 7, 70. That’s the mantra we use. Seventy mile range, seven hours to charge and 70 mph top speed.”
I started losing interest as fast as a punctured party balloon can lose air. Until Mike told me “it’s not for you. You’re not our market.”
And who is? “Oh, we’ll put a Subaru engine in one of these, if that’s what you’re interested in. But the market is mother nature types, usually in their 40s, with kids in school. They want a runabout, an economical roadster, something that looks good, takes you where you want to go around town and shows everyone you’re on the side of the angels, especially when it comes to ecology.”
I had more questions. How do you compete with the big manufacturers? What are the challenges? Can anyone do this? And, of course, how much?
“The battery management side is key,” says Mike. The motors have been around a long time. And everyone buys from the same battery suppliers. If someone comes up with a better battery, that’s where the line forms.
The real challenge is in creating a custom interface, monitoring heat, voltage and current, noting state of charge, rpm, error codes, AC regeneration when braking, ensuring everything’s working in harmony. Writing the code to make all that happen.
“We have an engineer working on it. Plus it doesn’t hurt that I have an EE degree,”
says Mike. “If you can master the technology, you can sell the component as a stand-alone part for all sorts of uses. Like solar and wind-powered homes. Sailboats.”
Mike notes that, for example, in electric stoves, 50 percent of the energy used to heat the burner is wasted. “Nobody knows why,” he says. “If you could raise that to 80 percent, think of the efficiency gain.
“And then, apply that to, say, regenerative braking.”
To which I ask Mike what makes him believe he can do it, against the brute engineering force of the world’s car and home and boat manufacturers?
“You have to understand. A lot of this is like kissing frogs, hoping for Cinderella. We’re at an inflection point. There will be big winners. Unlike the multinationals, we can quickly take chances, find out what works. Turn and go in another direction, if that’s what’s needed.
“If the oil ever dried up,” says Mike, “you’d be amazed at what people would kick out.”
Meanwhile, the 356 and the 550 come with leather interiors, VDO instruments and a high-quality fabric top. They list for about half of what a Tesla would cost, before state and federal rebates.
I wonder if they’d future-proof their vehicles, for new bombshells of technological advancement. Yeah, they probably would. Especially if it’s their own advances.