CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — Oliver Kuttner is tired. He’s tired of your attitude. He’s tired of your conclusions. Mostly, he’s tired because he just returned from Germany and is so jet-lagged he’s almost drunk. Germany was good. They get it in Germany. They definitely get it in China. Not here. Not in America. You don’t get it, and even if you do get it, you’re not doing anything about it.
Edison2, the team of gearheads and former racing engineers Kuttner assembled to build one of the oddest cars you’ve seen, won the Automotive X-Prize. His funky, futuristic gas-powered Very Light Car gets 102.5 mpg and weighs 830 pounds. But he won’t build it. If he does build it, he almost certainly won’t build it here.
Oliver Kuttner is honest. Regardless of whether you think what he says is the raving of a mad inventor or God’s own truth, there’s no doubt Kuttner believes every word. As proof, the first thing he says during a screening of Revenge of the Electric Car at the University of Virginia is, “I’m sorry, I slept through half the film.”
Bold, given that he’d been invited to address the crowd gathered to see Chris Paine’s follow-up to Who Killed the Electric Car. Bolder still, he’ll spend roughly the next two hours trying to convince these folks electric cars are kind of a bad idea, even if they are inevitable.
These things would seem preposterous, given that the electric version of the Very Light Car is the best-performing EV yet measured by the EPA. His car achieved the equivalent of 350 mpg in combined city and highway driving, more than three times better than the Nissan Leaf.
The earnest college professor and EV collector moderating the evening’s discussion attempts to compliment Kuttner on this impressive feat. Kuttner attributes the figure to “accounting” and dismisses the praise with a weary wave.
Oliver Kuttner (that’s him on the left in the lead photo) is not Elon Musk. He makes this point a number of times. He’s stayed awake through enough of the film, and is familiar enough with Musk, to know he does not want to go down that road.
He’s not going into manufacturing. Are you crazy? Sure, he admires Musk. Who wouldn’t? But he’s convinced that Musk will spend a billion dollars pursuing his dream, then eventually sell all his technology to Toyota and break even. If he’s lucky.
Sure, Kuttner’s got an order for 2,000 cars. But there are plenty of people who can build a factory. He can’t. He won’t. Name an American automaker of any consequence that started in the past 50 years and remains in business. Kuttner doesn’t want to be Preston Tucker.
Stop Making Sense
Oliver Kuttner doesn’t know where his car is, and the communications manager for his company is catching on that I’m taking notes on my iPhone as we huddle around this man. This man who won’t stop talking. Who won’t stop making sense.
“He’ll write down everything you say and he’ll put it on the Internet,” the communications guy tells Kuttner. “He writes for Jalopnik.”
It’s a warning. The communications guy would rather Kuttner go home. He has Kuttner’s keys and knows where the car is parked. The movie is over, the panel discussion is done and we’ve been kicked out of the theater. We’re standing in the foyer. We offer to help get Kuttner back to his car.
Oliver Kuttner likes the Chinese. Visit a Chinese factory and you’ll see equipment. So much new equipment. Gleaming equipment built in Europe. The Chinese want to build things. They want to build things like his Very Light Car, with its proprietary suspension and outrigger wheels like an F1 car and crazy low weight. You want a 400-pound car? Kuttner can give you a 400-pound car. But that’s too light. It’ll blow into your neighbor’s yard. The lightest you can practically build is 1,000 pounds, and anyone who builds a bigger car is wasting energy.
The Chinese are a perfect market for cars. They don’t know what a car is supposed to be. The idea of owning one is new. There are no preconceptions, not prejudice. The Chinese want to save fuel. The same is true of India. Kuttner would build a car in India. That’s another huge population.
And how do you improve the environment if everyone in India owns a car? Go ahead, America, and drive all of the Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts you want. They won’t fly in India. How will you power them? They can’t even keep the lights on. Electric cars in India? You’re dreaming.
Cosco builds shipping containers. It wanted to build trucks, so it did. Tons of them. It can build cars, too.
American Cars Aren’t Really American
Oliver Kuttner is worried. He’s worried about America. He’ll always keep his design center in Virginia. He loves it here. But Americans don’t make things anymore.
Your NAFTA cars aren’t really built here. They’re assembled here. They’re assembled from parts built in another country and shipped to Mexico. They’re not American cars. Not really. There’s no political will to build anything, to invest in manufacturing. Half of our economy is healthcare and financial services. What do we build here?
People took the wrong lesson from Solyndra. We need more Solyndras, not fewer. It’s a $500 million failure, sure. But that money was invested. It’s not a total loss. If you want to make something you must try to make something. So what if you fail 90 percent of the time? The 10 percent of the time you do succeed leads to something like Silicon Valley. We need ten Silicon Valleys.
Oliver Kuttner is pessimistic. Someone thought a high-speed rail line from Washington to Boston was a good idea. They spent 30 years on it, then died. It didn’t happen while they were alive. Kuttner will be damned if he’s going to beat his head against the wall for 30 years and then die.
Oliver Kuttner also is optimistic. Germany was good. The people at Siemens and Bayern are open to his idea. They have the money. But it could be India. Or China. Anywhere. Kuttner knows he’s got the right idea. Someone will buy into it. Someone will produce it. It’s only a matter of time. Don’t worry.
He’s happy he didn’t get a Department of Energy loan. They develop the solution, then hand out money to achieve it. What do they know? The companies getting that money are using it to build the same ol’ car. It’ll never work.
And because Kuttner’s firm didn’t get that money, it’s more thoughtful. It isn’t building a car. It’s refining it. Everyone’s trying to build cars with carbon fiber. His original design was carbon fiber. It was easy. But it’s a joke. All carbon fiber does is trade saved energy costs to increased material costs. His new designs are aluminum and steel.
Gordon Murray is a smart guy. He built the first mass-produced carbon fiber car. Now he’s talking about using steel tubes and composite tubs and plastic bodywork. What does that tell you?
It’ll Work Out
Oliver Kuttner doesn’t know where his car is. I don’t know where his car is, but the PR rep from the University of Virginia does. I follow them, but realize I don’t know where I am or how to get home. No worries. Kuttner takes me home in his VW Jetta TDI.
He’s not worried about talking to me. He doesn’t know what time it is. He may not even know what day it is. He’s exhausted. I feel I might be taking advantage of him, writing down everything he says when he’s clearly exhausted. But he knows what he’s saying.
It’s better to be open, he says. It’ll all work out.
Photos of the Very Light Car during the Progressive Automotive X-Prize testing: Edison2