Start-up races to make the electric car of 2020

Tim Collins (right) and Dante Zeviar (left) exeperiment with electric cars at Kleenspeed in the Nasa Research Park. (Photo: Jamie Hansen)

“This thing can do more than you might think,” says electric vehicle engineer and occasional racecar driver Dante Zeviar from the wheel of what is, on the outside, a Mazda Miata.  To prove his point, he stomps on the accelerator and the car zooms without a sound down the backstreets of the NASA research park.

Taken alone, the car’s speed isn’t impressive – it’s about the same as a regular Miata. Rather, it’s the battery system under the hood, four times more efficient than the standard Miata’s fuel-burning system, that gives Zeviar the biggest charge.

In 2011, the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt will join the Tesla Roadster in the burgeoning electric vehicle market. For industry analysts like Ikhlaq Sidhu, director of Berkeley’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, this signals the beginning of a turning point in America’s attitude toward electric motors.

Americans have had a noncommittal relationship with electric cars since 1835, when the blacksmith Thomas Davenport combined an electromagnet with components including, allegedly, his wife’s silk petticoat, to create what is thought to be the first electric vehicle. Since then, interest in the concept came in starts. The dysfunction culminated in 2002 when General Motors discontinued the first widely-produced model – the EV1.

That’s because electric vehicles have long been part of a “hobbyist” movement, says Sidhu. But not anymore. With rising gas prices driving consumer interest, electric vehicle sales could accelerate from zero to 60.  The CET predicts that electric vehicles will compose 64 percent of light-vehicle sales by 2030 – up from less than one percent in 2009.

Enter Zeviar and Collins, who are applying the high-tech knowledge gained from electric racing to creating the “affordable, high-performance” car that the CET envisions.

Collins and Zeviar met last summer at electric racing’s biggest day – the first SportElectric Time Trial at the Mazda Raceway, Laguna Seca. Both were driving in the race: Collins for Kleenspeed, which he owned, and Zeviar in a car he helped design. Collins, an investor, had recently bought out his partner and was looking for an engineer to develop cutting-edge electric technology.

Zeviar, a Croatian immigrant whose first English words were “car” and “marble,” taught himself German so he could attend Europe’s top engineering school.  He later returned to the States hoping to start his own electric vehicle company. Funding proved elusive, and by last summer he was designing chairs to support his voluntary work on electric race cars.  That day, Collins won the race — but that didn’t stop Zeviar from approaching Collins alongside the track afterwards to learn more about the company. The two hit it off in five minutes.  Zeviar started work at Kleenspeed the following Monday, spending 16 hours tinkering with the electric race car, fiddling with lithium ion batteries and beginning to play with new design concepts.

With Zeviar designing and Collins driving, Kleenspeed broke its own record this year at Laguna Seca. Seeking a way to make their high-tech innovations publicly useful and seeing a huge market opportunity, Collins and Zeviar turned their sights to building an affordable system for the road. The project is only a month old, and the low-voltage, inexpensive battery system they’ve put in the Mazda represents the first step.

So far, Collins has footed the bill for Kleenspeed’s developments, investing about $800,000.  Working for a share of future profits, Zeviar currently earns just enough to cover his living expenses. Their plan for the next 10 years includes a 10-person engineering team and the infrastructure to build thousands of vehicles, but Collins wants to ensure they’ve got a good product before bringing in outside funding.  Until then, the company relies on volunteer designers, artists and engineers who trickle in after their day jobs have ended, excited by the company’s mission. This summer, Zeviar brought on a team of four mechanical and electrical engineering interns from around the country to help convert the Miata into the electric version they’ve dubbed the “Eiata.”

Kleenspeed's office is contains electric gadgets ranging from award-winning race cars to go-karts and the electric scooter Dante's riding here.

After taking the Eiata for a spin, Zeviar returns to its home beside champion race cars and wheels around an electric scooter before returning to work refining battery management systems. Currently, electric vehicle components come from a variety of sources and don’t always communicate well with each other. Creating a streamlined system that can work with lightweight batteries is one of the major hurdles electric vehicle companies face in developing an efficient, affordable car.

Low voltage, lightweight batteries cost less, but require a slight frame that hasn’t been much explored by major electric vehicle companies yet. Having already developed and tested the Kleenspeed battery management system under the racetrack’s high demands, Zeviar and Collins are tailoring it to a smaller vehicle. The next step is to refine the Eiata system. Then, in order to sell their product, they’ll need to find a body for the car that will appeal to the electric car driver of 2020.

Renderings of potential car designs, etched by a volunteer artist, decorate Kleenspeed’s office walls.  They’re futuristic for the most part – compact, edgy and colorful. Zeviar describes it them as “smart car goes to the gym.”

“It’s very simple,” says Zeviar. “Have system, need car.”

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