WikiSpeed is building cars obtaining 100 MPG and costing $25,000. They also are fast and have been designed for safety. What follows is an interview with Joe Justice, who is a founder of the organization.
What prompted you to begin building your cars in the first place?
I was passionate about efficiency and safety, and had a deep curiosity if safe, reliable, quick cars could be inexpensive. It seemed to me that some very high end sports cars had about the same amount of similar materials, or even less, than some very inexpensive commuter cars, and people might be paying more for just putting the material in a different place. I wanted to know if that was true.
Because of the modular design, and the self-directed nature of your work, it seems a person who bought one of your cars would be someone with a mechanical interest and enough mechanical knowledge to work on the vehicle themselves.
We aim to make the cars self-explanatory. If our web browsers, or even smart phones now, come with a manual that is considered a usability failure. Our car modules are designed to be switchable by anyone who is comfortable changing a tire; allowing them to choose a gasoline or electric drive train, or a pick-up-truck or a convertible, and switch their WIKISPEED car between all of those things in about the time it would take for them to put snow tires on their car.
Did you design the vehicle with a do-it-yourself audience in mind, or did the modular design result from something else?
The modular design resulted from needing to test many ideas quickly at a low cost; we needed to be able to test many different engine types without building the rest of the car each time and many different safety systems without building the rest of the car each time. I had an aspiration of enabling do-it-yourself folks through usability, but that was secondary to the driver of needing to compete with teams wielding multimillion dollar research budgets.
How are you able to achieve such high gas mileage, when the average car on the street does so poorly?
Light weight and minimal aerodynamic drag half of the fuel efficiency formula. We developed very light weight safety structures to reduce weight while aiming for top safety ratings and performance, hundreds of pounds lighter than typical street cars. Almost half of the fuel efficiency formula again is the efficiency of the combustion event itself and drive train. We developed many small enhancements to the drive train which, in aggregate, create a meaningful increase in fuel efficiency. The remainder are many small enhancements to the way the car delivers its energy to the road, which we develop much of with our modular suspension.
How many sales have you made so far, if you can reveal this?
We have had team members build cars that they use before, and our very first cash sale occurred in December 2011.
How safe is your vehicle, compared with a more typical car on the roads such as a Honda Civic?
The most recent Honda Civic to have safety ratings reported by the NHTSA is the 2010 model year, as of the date of this interview. That car achieves 5 stars in frontal impact for the driver and the passenger. It achieves 4 stars driver’s side impact, 5 stars in passenger side impact. It also achieves 4 stars in roll-over rating. The safety tests have become even tougher in 2011, and all WIKISPEED cars target 5 star scores from NHTSA in all of these tests in addition to roof crush and rear impact. We are continually testing independently and with certified labs as we develop our more mainstream vehicles and equipping our prototypes with the most advanced versions of our safety systems.
How many people volunteer their time to work on the cars?
We have more than 120 team members in 10 countries. They all volunteers, working nights and weekends. They don’t all work on cars though. WIKISPEED is involved in rapidly solving problems for social good. Ultra-efficient cars are a social good by our definition, and many team members rapidly prototype and manufacture those cars. We also are involved in vaccine delivery to wipe out polio and reduce cases of rotavirus, and work on low-cost medical centers and environmentally sustainable housing for developing communities.
How many of your cars do you imagine can be on the roads in the next three years?
Using agile methods, we opt not to predict and instead increase the pace at which we can take advantage of opportunity. So I’ll answer that by saying we won’t go out of business if we don’t have any on the road, and we are equipped to produce more than 100,000 cars within the next three years if the market place is interested.
Will you continue expanding, or would you prefer to keep your organization small?
We grow as fast as responsible. Using the Scrum framework to run our teams with Lean principles lets us keep the rapid problem solving of focused small teams as we scale out. We’ve recently grown in Vietnam and Spain, and will continue to do awesome anywhere we are able.
Has there been any interest from people in other countries to build and drive your type of car abroad?
There has been strong multi-national interest. The Swiss and United Kingdom markets have been especially vocal, and recently the Vietnamese and Indian markets have folks expressing strong interest as well. We are currently looking for a location to produce vehicles in Europe and Asia in addition to our capabilities in North America. A best case scenario would be distributed, collaborative multi-national manufacturing and R&D. Our automotive goal is to produce products desirable in each market, with top safety and efficiency performance, and total cost of ownership similar or even below current economy commuter vehicles for that market. Of course that’s a dream goal, but in team WIKISPEED we seem to keep making unreasonably quick progress towards that goal, and have prototypes for sale now in the U.S.
Image Credit: WikiSpeed