The Inflatable Car
XP’s assembly factory is currently planned for Salt Lake City, UT, but the company outsourced contractors, designers and sub-assembly people who are building the pieces and shipping them in, so that the company can avoid a start line in the factory process that starts from scratch. XP requires less factory space: It’s more screw all the parts on, testing and validating.
XP’s Mini Utility Vehicle prototype cuts costs and time by using 70 percent less parts and novel materials that require simpler factory devices.
San Francisco-based XP Vehicles Inc. (XP) has more than 12 years of development work invested into the Mini Utility Vehicle (MUV) electric car prototype.
Changes in technology, the current political environment, competitor blockades, regulations, oil prices and consumer demand have created a perfect storm that has poised XP’s inexpensive electric vehicle to not only become a specialty market solution, but also penetrate the market with an entirely new car company, something that has rarely happened in the past 50 years.
“These are circumstances that I don’t think anybody on earth saw coming,” says Scott Redmond, chairman of XP Vehicles. “Nobody in our lifetime thought we would see one Detroit car company go out of business, much less most or all of them.”
As a result of the Obama administration’s policies and programs, which dramatically support alternative energy vehicles, potential public and private funding made a great opportunity for XP to roll out a full domestic launch plan.
Building a car takes many years and tens to hundreds of millions of dollars traditionally. XP is able to cut a lot of the costs and timeframe because its car has 70 percent less parts than a regular car, and the company is using novel materials that require simpler factory devices, and production and manufacturing processes that lower the cost to deploy.
XP’s MUV does not consist of a lot of internal componentry. In fact, most of it is air using XP’s XPanelB™ technology pressure membranes. The seat is inflatable, the dashboard is inflatable, and the internal structure and carrying racks are inflatable, or a mesh suspension. Instead of requiring six-axis robots, XP uses radio frequency welders that look like giant waffle irons. The factory equipment is much less expensive and the car simply has less parts that could fail.
The motors are built into the rear wheels in most XP prototypes. The first cars to reach the market will have two rear hub motors and a motor controller, that’s it.
In future military and industrial versions, the car will feature a heavier duty dual motor rear axle motor.
The battery pack is capable of delivering around 125 miles per charge with four passengers, but is capable of reaching 300 miles with the continuous charge of an optional Auxiliary Power Unit (APU). The battery drawer array features racks that can be easily removed from the car and consumer class batteries like those in an iPhone. XP will give consumers the option of taking the battery drawers out of the car and up to your house, apartment or hotel on something similar to little Razor scooters or over your shoulder.
“What we’ve discovered is that the insurance industry is not going to let electric cars run extension cords all over the place because you trip and fall,” says Redmond. “Also, the age bracket that we’re targeting appears to not be able to afford a house. The housing market financing is so bad that [our customers] are not going to have an easy manner to plug their cars in.”
XP is targeting younger first-buyer demographics in the 29- to 32-year-old bracket. Competing electric car companies are aiming for an older demographic with a higher sticker price, while XP is aiming for the broad mainstream which, according the census bureau, will be in that age range in two to three years as the cars ready to ship in volume.
To extend the car to unlimited range, customers will be able to add another pod in which is a small, cheap sub-1k fuel cell with solid state chemical energy drawers. According to Redmond, hydrogen and chemical energy weigh many times less than batteries and go multiples further in terms of distance.
“The problem with batteries and electric cars is that no electric car company has discovered a battery pack that works. Every battery pack has failed. They either blow up when they want to – which is a big problem, or you have to make them using Lithium components,” reports Redmond.
He adds that “all of the Lithium is located in countries that are hostile towards the U.S. – which is a bit of a problem … and there is not that much Lithium. If all of the electric car companies eventually get going, the Lithium is going to be gone pretty quick. But bigger than all of those considerations is the problem the Feds and industry spent billions trying to figure out and still hasn’t solved – the law of diminishing values. That is, the more batteries you add to get range, the heavier the car becomes and the range decreases. It’s a simple fact of physics that no one has been able to get around it.”
When it comes to power electronics, XP’s MUV doesn’t have a transmission — it doesn’t need one. The lean design only features energy storage motor controllers and hub motors.
Sizing Up Weight
XP wanted to make the best power-to-weight ratio car on earth. The company is succeeding by featuring weight reduction that is “off the charts, but super safe.” Think of the air bags that deploy out of your dashboard, now picture if that technology was designed into the entire car.
The dashboard is a preinflated airbag that has a rear projection screen. It’s like Panovision. (Think a Minority Report dashboard that is rear projected.)
“Normally, nobody could afford to do that, but all of a sudden the consumer electronics industry decided that laser micro-projectors were the thing everybody needed to have. At CES 2010, you’ll see so many little video projectors that will fit into your shirt pocket, you’re not going to believe it,” Redmond predicts.
All XP needs for its dashboard is a simple video graphics array (VGA) quality projector. Consumers could actually have the ability to re-skin their dashboards just by downloading new skins to the projector.
Additional electronics include a fixed OLED touch screen, with an option for a video display to look out the back of your car on the front dashboard, on the center console. XP is also using LED and OLED lighting.
XP has nearly secured all of the approvals required for polycarbonate on the rear and side windows, and they’re currently fighting for polycarbonate on the front window.
“Right now, every motorcycle has polycarbonate windows, and they crash more than cars do,” Redmond states. “Polycarbonate is incredibly tough, and its super lightweight.” Redmond also noted that he has one ultra-expensive version of the car which could have Mylar windows.
Partners In Electric Car Success
XP started out with an investment from Microsoft, which offered a majority of its software products and a very large number of its licenses to build some process management. XP is basing its collaborative space around the Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server and also partnering with Autodesk for building an end-to-end design collaborative application that incorporates Autodesk’s AliasStudio, all of Autodesk’s CAD packages, Autodesk Navisworks, and some end-to-end visualization, ideation and engineering tools, which can be used on the server side, on an international stage process basis, along with Autodesk’s Buzzsaw collaborative product.
XP also hired a lot of individual engineers and designers who are working out of their home offices to keep overhead low. “Now that Detroit has blown up, there are numerous articles that cite why it didn’t work and one reason was the crushing overhead. We’re looking to what other industries have already turned to – virtualization, flexible spaces and flextime.
Part of that involves having great designers who have reached the point in which they are great in their careers and don’t want to go into a 9-to-5 office. They’ve built great homes and do their best work in the space they enjoy.
XP also brought in some design studios and former designers who are working on core project efforts and design. The company also has a number of independents, in many cases one person, who are communicating through the flex online system that was put together with the Microsoft/Autodesk collaboration.
To reduce time to market, Redmond and Co. are doing the lengthy and extensive car design and development, which is a multi-year process, while preparing virtual testing systems.
“Testing can take two years for certification,” says Redmond. “We’re a self-certified nation. You don’t build a car, and send it to the feds and say, 'Here, test this.' You test it, certify it, and hire testing services, wind tunnels, etc. to get all of your testing documented, because if there is a lawsuit and you missed a test, you will lose your company overnight.”
In XP’s case, the car is inflatable. One of the company’s competitors who is building electric cars had to build and destroy a $150,000 car per destructive test. That’s expensive and can cause delays in between cars. According to XP’s current simulations, the first destructive test car will, most likely, survive all destructive tests.
The car has the ability to go from one test to the next and not get smashed up, cutting XP’s time and costs. Working concurrently with design, development and prepping virtual testing systems is the final design engineering and finite element analysis (FEA).
“FEA and some of the technical stuff are coming in through The Mathworks suite of products, which we think are superlative. We’ve got some big software packages with Mathworks, Autodesk and Microsoft suites, and some custom roll-your-own stuff, and we may sell this whole system to other industries, such as aviation or other industries with a big manufactured build.”
The biggest pitfall the company could suffer is funding. When competitors need at least $500 million to get to market and XP only needs $70 million, it’s possible to think XP would be more likely to be able to secure private funding.
“Where we get the money depends on the federal government, and there are all kinds of lobbying and jockeying happening,” adds Redmond.
Conceptually, XP’s electric car exceeds every certification requirement in the world, but it’s a very new concept so someone may hold up their hands and wish to look at something at greater length, slowing time to market.
“We built all the hard parts,” Redmond says. “What it is going to look like is the number one objection, because we’ve never shown one to anybody. The cool thing about industrial design with air membranes is that it consists of tape, scissors and material. It’s real-time right in front of you. We’re waiting to show the body until we have done a lot of testing, trials and consumer research so it gets as sexy as a membrane can possibly look without making it look ridiculous.
“Everyone’s eyes roll, because they can’t conceive of it. They’ve never seen a membrane structure as a car. There are tricks that we use to come up with sharp curves, recesses, scoops and curls.”
Right now, XP is building different pieces. The door XP is currently building is going to go out to the police range, and law enforcement officials are going to hit it with an AK-47 to get over the big conceptual question people ask, “Well, what if someone pokes it?” The nano-tech fabric is not only bullet proof, but it can also withstand crashes by a large SUV without harm.
“Everything we’re doing has been done before in other industries. NASA landed on Mars with inflatables. Navy SEALs land on foreign shores under gunfire with inflatables. Everyone goes down whitewater rapids, with life-threatening crashes every 600 feet, in inflatables. We’re just merging these other industries into automotive,” Redmond says.