EV cars not a priority for NZ's Telsa co-founder

The Kiwi who co-founded the world’s most famous electric car brand is now thinking really big … but not about EVs for personal transport. They’re a frippery, he suggests.


DUBIOUS about electric cars successfully fulfilling a rapid charge ideal as a Big Oil breakaway?

So it is the man who co-founded the world’s highest profile EV marque.

Ian Wright, a New Zealand-born engineer and entrepreneur who 14 years ago involved in the start-up of the mega-brand that we know today as Tesla Inc, is not buying into the ‘EVs will save the day’ ideal, at least not in the short term.

Nor is he exactly enthused by recent suggestion New Zealanders should right now be forgoing the forecourt for plug ‘n play.

First reaction when told that, in the week before a whistlestop visit to his homeland, the Automobile Association went public suggesting Kiwis need now to think about using EVs over fossil-fuelled vehicles for all but long trips is a look of … ? Well, I’d translate it as incredulity.

His confusion about why the ‘motorists’ voice’ would propose this seems to deepen when I explain that this is at a time when, though EV interest is growing, it is far outpaced by an increasing national taste for orthodox cars – something like 300,000 new and used came into the country last year alone. While the Government holds high hopes of the national EV fleet hitting around 64,000 vehicles by 2021, we’re currently a long way short – the registrations count has just clocked over some 3600 units.

So, as much as he applauds the positivity, he cannot help but wonder if there’s more than a touch of … erm …. naivety to the AA’s line.

“I think those numbers suggest a one percent of the light vehicle market, which about what it is in the US, too,” he comments.

“And this is, you know, 10 years after the first Tesla was available. There are lots of EVs available now, and yet this is still clearly early adopter territory. There is still no mass market take up of these things at all. And I think the fundamental reason for that is that they are too expensive.”

So those initial EV adopters should not expect to go down in history as revolutionaries? A shrug and a dry laugh: “Well, there are early adopters for all kinds of things … there was a whole market for pet rocks at one point.”

He’s not knocking the tech per se. “EVs are a lot of fun to drive, they’re nice in all sorts of ways.” They’ll have their day. Ultimately. The thing is “they’re expensive and there’s a limited number of people who will pay that premium. And I don’t see that you can get them down (in price) to where a premium isn’t going to be a barrier.”

That’s not simply a reflection of the high price of the technology, batteries in particular. Equally as inhibitive is the annoyingly vexatious reality about the global oil stock. Basically, the growing trend to fracking and ability (or willingness) to tap into fields previously deemed uneconomic or tenable means barrel prices are low and pump stuff still so cheap that it raises probability we could safety remain wed to what the EV brigade likes to call ‘planet killers’ for years to come.

That doesn’t diminish the good arguments for going electric regardless, but it does tend to give good excuse for the non-committed to find reasons not to.

“The United States has already pushed ahead of Saudi in respect to oil production and reserves,” sighs Wright.

“It has proven reserves of coal – about 500 years’ worth – and 500 years of natural gas. With unconventional methods such as fracking, there’s probably something in that order for oil, too, so we’re not running out of fossil fuel any time soon.”

In any event, prioritising EVs as light, mainly personal transport is just the wrong idea, he contends.

If we’re looking to make truly significant change to our global reliance fossil fuel reserves, it’s logically better to start big – which means putting aside electric cars and instead first focussing on powering up development of heavy vehicles that use so much more fuel and spew so many additional exhaust nasties.

How big? The biggest. “I would argue that you will be much better off electrifying buses, garbage trucks, heavier vehicles that are burning enough fuel and putting out enough nasty emissions in an urban drive cycle that it is really worth taking to the electric.”

It’s a smarter economy of scale. Cleaning up commercial and industrial fleets will make a bigger difference to pollution and fossil fuel problems than getting commuters into electric vehicles.

“I think that makes a lot more sense. If you can offset enough fuel, enough emissions and enough maintenance costs that you can get the payback time for the extra capital down in the three to four-year range then you are not talking about relying on early adopters, you’re talking about mass take-up.

“I think you’re going to see a fairly rapid change … heavy duty diesel engines are going to slowly disappear from urban centres. They’re noisy, and smelly and inefficient.”

You might already be aware this Kiwi is auctioning his words; his company, Wrightspeed, which operates out of a former US Navy air base in San Francisco, specialises in developing heavy-duty range-extended electric vehicle powertrains to the point where some are operating daily on Californian roads.

So far, the fleet is relatively small and still operating in the trial phase, but big American outfits are on board – Fed Ex, the first to see the potential, has since 2014 been running two delivery trucks with Wrightspeed drivetrains.

A major Sonoma County rubbish collection and recycling company is also converting its heavy-duty trucks to this tech and America’s biggest big rig maker, Mack, has also now involved in a development programme, to the extent it has provided a vehicle for conversion into a dumpster, the long-term view being to use it as the basis for a series production model if everything comes up Green.

There’s a New Zealand link, too, with Wellington-based New Zealand Bus, which is converting the capital’s 57 trolley buses - and several hundred diesel buses to the Wrightspeed hybrid system - a $43 million refit that allows ongoing life for vehicles that, with the trolley network being scrapped, would otherwise have been dumped. The prototype is now undergoing testing.

Wrightspeed doesn’t see itself going into the vehicle-making business directly, as Tesla did. The brand’s technology is proprietary. The idea is to license this IP to major vehicle makers, perhaps elevating the Kiwi’s small operation a Tesla equivalent within trucking. That day might be close; Wright cannot say much, but indicates wheels are turning, deals in the making.

Wrightspeed is certainly gaining attention in all the right places. Aside from winning over Mack, it is partnering with a renowned manufacturer of heavy-duty specialty drivetrains, AxleTech International of Michigan, to provide high power regenerative braking systems.

US media reports it has also tapped experts from Tesla, Ford and Cummins to expand its supply chain team and provide its powertrain technology internationally.

Heavy-duty garbage trucks are eminently well-suited to this conversion; the daily functionality, which involves lots of hard revving and frequent stopping, that makes them copious users of fuel also plays to the strengths of the Wrightspeed tech. The connect is so obvious that Wright cannot believe he failed to see it. In fact, he says, he was oblivious to how useful his system would be to that industry until an operator mentioned it.

Then again, until 14 years or so ago, EVs of any kind weren’t a consideration – though you could say electricity has always run through his veins.

Everything started after growing up on a New Zealand farm he went to Australia in 1980 to pursue an electrical engineering degree, ironically never completed. By 1993 he was in the United States, having been recruited by a Silicon Valley networking company. From there it was to Cisco Systems then to optical switching equipment developer Altamar Networks.

Then he met his neighbour. Entrepreneur Martin Eberhard, who liked to polish his investor presentations by testing them on friends, hoped to start an electric car company with his business partner Marc Tarpenning — an aspiration Wright initially thought was “nuts” regardless that he had built and driven race cars as a hobby and knew how to put cars together.

After some hectoring from Eberhard, Wright capitulated and became a co-founder. You’ve surely heard of their enterprise. They called it Tesla Motors.

He didn’t stay long, leaving after about a year, for reasons not disclosed. Tesla’s story is well known; it is the EV industry darling child, a global giant that has since branched into energy, battery and solar power systems.

Does Wright wish he’d stayed the course? There’s a wry smile: “That’s always a mixed question. I would be quite wealthy if I had.”

(That’s verging on understatement: US media speculate the 180,000 shares he sold after the company went public in 2010 — then worth about $3 million — would be worth more than $45 million today).

“On the other hand, I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun building Wrightspeed and I think what we are doing there is not just an early adopter thing, it’s not just for aficionados. It is going to go mainstream.”

As for his thoughts about where Tesla, under Elon Musk, is now? “Well, I think they’ve changed the world.”

Back in 2003, the original involvers’ original vision was always to change the way people perceived electric cars. Back then the Californian mandate for introduction of EVs had just been repealed, so those few that were around were removed from the road scape, most infamously of course General Motors’ EV1.

“After the EV1s were all crushed by GM quite literally the only new electric vehicle you could buy was a golf cart. We wanted to change that. Back then, if you asked people what they thought of EVs they’d tell you about a vehicle that was heavy, ugly and slow – a golf cart. That’s not what they say now.

“So I think Tesla has succeeded beyond our original dreams at changing our public perception. All the big companies have followed and the Model S has shown that if you put a well-engineered, nice, higher performance car out there than people love to drive then it can change the world. It did. It has.”

So why, then, is Wright nonetheless sceptical about the longevity of the electric passenger car industry? 

Frankly electric cars don’t save enough in fuel costs, in part because fuel is still unfeasibly plentiful and cheap, “to let you get your money back. I couldn’t see an economic future” in doing a mass-market car.

Though enjoying bonkers share market appeal, he says Tesla has yet to turn a cent in profit. “They’ve never made any money.”

Moreover, the brand is still a niche producer and commonly fails to meet build targets, has been beset by problematic quality issues and technology shortcomings – most notably last year’s infamous fatality in America involving the Auto Pilot self-driving capabilities.

Also, now that the car industry has caught on to what makes Tesla so popular, they’re catching up to proliferate the markets with their own product that might be equally as smart, cheaper to buy and quite potentially better supported and built.

Is Tesla, the car maker, doomed to be subsumed by car makers that can do it better, faster, cheaper? Is its future more secure with as a largescale producer, from the vaunted gigafactories, of lithium batteries for cars and energy products?

“I'm sure they will survive in some form.” But whether it remains a car-maker once the sector becomes crowded?

“I don’t know … when it started, that’s what everyone’s vision was. There was nothing else … I would say it is interesting that, for a little while now, they’ve had a division that sells the battery technology for storage for buildings.”

Ironically, when Wrightspeed launched in 2005, it started with a car, albeit one that was far from mainstream. The blazingly fast X1 sports car was a good head-turner and conversation starter, but wrong for the time. Wright struggled to raise funding … so he went to Plan B.

He’d developed a turbine-assisted electric drive system that works as a generator, feeding the rechargeable batteries that run the electric motors that drive the vehicle.

It occurred to him the best use was in commercial vehicles, which burn through truly massive amounts of fuel and are subject to increasingly stringent emissions regulations.

Wright has done the math: While an electric car saves 1500 litres of fuel a year compared with a 7.8 litres per 100km car that travels 20,000 kilometres annually, a garbage truck chugs through 53,000 litres in the same period. Wrightspeed’s range-extended electric powertrain can at least half that.

On average, an electric powertrain saves trash truck operators $US35,000 a year in reduced fuel and maintenance costs, Wright estimates. The technology doesn’t require expensive exhaust treatment systems and, unlike diesel powertrains, doesn’t break down as often because it has fewer moving parts.

Wrightspeed’s system, dubbed The Route, is technically a plug-in hybrid system.

The “plug-in” portion refers to the 60 kilowatt-hour lithium battery pack that charges through an outlet and powers the electric motor. On the go, the battery is recharged through regenerative braking, as well as from an on-board generator propelled by a micro-turbine – basically, it’s about same size as a big paint can and much smaller than any petrol generator - that in trials is burning natural gas but in theory could run on any kind of hydrocarbon fuel; diesel, petrol, propane.

The process creates some emissions, but is substantially cleaner than a diesel engine and doesn’t require emissions treatment systems to meet California’s ever-tightening air quality rules, he said.

Without the turbine assist, an electric truck would need $500,000 worth of batteries to achieve the same kind of range and would have to occasionally drop out of service to recharge, he has suggested to media in the US.

The Wrightspeed Route relies on a four-speed electronic transmission. Developed in-house, this unit divests with clutches and has far fewer parts than a standard heavy-truck transmission.

Wright prefers not to discuss the intricacies of the transmission, but suggests it’s development has been subject to intensive work, noting that it was a two-speed until the garbage truck programme came about. The bigger vehicle demanded a complete redevelopment of the box (plus other aspects of the drive system) that has resulted in a superior unit that is now being downsized for smaller vehicles. Even so, the motor count can change depending on the application: The garbage truck has four motors, the Fed Ex trucks used one initially and the NZ Bus prototype runs with two.

The regenerative braking system can slow the truck to almost a complete stop without tapping the mechanical brakes, which can save thousands of dollars a year in brake replacement costs, Wright said.

Converting a $500,000 California emissions-legal diesel trash truck into an electric vehicle — with the companion power electronics and computerised control system — costs about $150,000, he said, a sum he believes would be recovered in just three years.

Low fuel costs have not been beneficial to Wrightspeed; its first customer, FedEx, ordered 25 systems for its delivery vans in 2014 but put the order on hold as diesel prices tanked.

Regardless of whether FedEx job reaps a big order (the trial is presumably nearing an end), the project was worthwhile for being a spark that ignited huge interest. “We started to get lots of calls and emails once those trucks went on the road. And one was from a local garbage collection company who persuaded us to convert some of their trucks.

“It wasn’t something we were planning to do, though with the benefit of hindsight you might as why we weren’t, because it obviously a better idea than delivery trucks. We should have started with garbage trucks if we’d had a clue,” he laughs.

Fuel consumption consumes such a large portion of operating costs for heavy-duty trucks that electrification makes sense even at in periods when fuel seems relatively cheap.

He sees huge potential. There’s $2-billion worth of US business just in the trash-truck segment and the global market for bus and trash truck retrofitting is upward of $10 billion.

“Heavy duty diesels are going to disappear from urban environments and quite soon. This technology is an ideal fit (for that scenario). It’s economically compelling so it is going to take off.

“You’re not going to be talking about one percent of the garbage truck fleet, you’re going to be talking about 95 percent of it, and quite soon.”