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Rick Woodbury with pair of Tangos
Tango creator Rick Woodbury with two of his innovative, narrow-body electric cars, which are capable to driving two abreast in a single 12 feet-wide highway lane. It is also legal in California to lane-split -- similar to motorcycles -- in a Tango.

The Case for the Tango

Tango EV creator's presentation to the Google Foundation on the benefits of narrow body electric vehicles

By Rick Woodbury

I've heard that to innovate, you don't give people what they ask for, but rather watch what they do. I've been watching what they do for over 50 years and I find it interesting that people driving cars by themselves with 4 empty seats around them jam up all the freeways, streets, and parking spaces in cities throughout the world at an incredible waste of time and resources.

It's as if people in a crowded subway all wore back packs that were 4 times bigger than they are. Their excuse would be: I might need the space sometimes. The packs would obviously fill up with stuff since the space is there. Parkinson's law in production and inventory control states that work in progress fills all available space.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, at Texas A&M University, there are billion dollars wasted every year due to congestion in the US. There are 5.7-billion gallons of gasoline wasted. This would fill tank trucks lined up end-to-end, from NY City to Las Vegas and back. That's just the gasoline wasted due to congestion!

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics there are 118-million workers in the US. Of them, 92-million drive by themselves to work every day with 4 empty seats. That's roughly 90% of all of the cars and roughly 80% of all workers that are driving solo in a car 4 times larger than needed.


Google Tech Talk Featuring Rick Woodbury


Unfortunately, small cars don't solve the problem. A Mini-Cooper takes relatively the same space on the freeway as the largest SUVs because they both use a full lane and both must have similar braking distance from the car in front.

Motorcycles could solve the problem as they can fit two-to-a-lane but are unsafe, offer no protection from the weather, and give little room to carry things. Because of that only 0.6% of workers use motorcycles and bicycles combined. Public transit is only 4.9% because it only works well in extremely dense cities or corridors.

A freeway lane is 12-feet wide by federal standard. A truck is 9' 4" from mirror to mirror. That leaves 16" of clearance on either side. In order to double a freeway lane's capacity, a car would have to be a maximum of 40" wide in order to have the same clearance in a 6' lane. The Tango is only 39" wide, so it easily fits in a half-lane. A Tango, however, is much easier to drive in a 6' lane than a truck is in a 12' lane. Because the driver is cab centered, one feels comfortable in the center of the lane knowing how close they are to other cars on either side. In a truck, mirrors have to be used just to see if one is in within the lane. Also, a Tango is so short that they would usually not be side-by-side because the braking distance is many times the length of the car. Not so with a truck. All this is to demonstrate that the Tango can drive comfortably in a 6' lane or double up in a 12' lane. We've driven 2 Tangos side-by-side in a single lane for over 40 miles at freeway speeds and it felt quite comfortable. The University of California Transportation Dept. and Booze-Allen-Hamilton did a study on a narrow car of nearly the same dimensions as the Tango and found it would increase lane capacity from 2,000 cars per hour to 4,400 cars per hour.

For a car to be 40" wide, it would require one of two methods for stability. If it tilted like a motorcycle it would have to have either manual or electronically controlled tilting. Both could be problematic. If the system failed in a turn it could be fatal. To control the weight of a protective cage manually is not reasonable as you can imagine a bicycle with hundreds of lbs overhead and to the sides.

The simple solution, is to ballast a car to the extent that it has a safe rollover threshold--just like a sailboat. As you can see from the size of the Tango, by the time you put a couple thousand pounds of ballast in such a small car you have a weight that requires a lot of horsepower to move. To the extent that there is front and side protection, more ballast is needed. There is no room for a gasoline engine of sufficient size to run such a heavy car.

Battery-electric is the answer--and for many reasons. The lead-acid batteries provide just enough weight in the Tango to achieve the same rollover threshold as a Porsche 911. As you have seen in the video, they also provide plenty of power. This is because, using the same kind of motors that pull 100-car freight trains in one gear from 0 to 90 mph, fit nicely in the space between the rear wheels leaving the rest of the bottom of the car for batteries. The two Tango motors actually produce more than twice the torque of a Dodge Viper V-10 engine.

Parking is another problem in congested cities. The Tango, being only 8' 5" long, will fit perpendicular to the curb in 1/4 of a standard parallel parking space. According to a diagram in a Booze Allen Hamilton / UC Berkeley study, by striping a parking lot for cars of the Tango's dimensions, parking capacity is increased by 350%. Parking in San Francisco in the Avenues, one can park in any of the the 4' spaces that are between every pair of driveways. According to the parking departments of San Francisco and Los Angeles, you can park as many Tangos, cars or motorcycles in a metered space as can fit. If the meter is paid, they all park legally. If the meter expires, they all get tickets. Seems fair to me!--especially since there will be more people being sure the the meter is fed. Recently, in Spokane, I parked in another's space and when the meter was about to expire I ran into the owner of the other car. We argued over who would pay. I insisted it was my turn but the owner of the other car said that he was staying longer and that he should pay.

So, in order to get the Tango to the mainstream as quickly as possible, it will require overcoming the obvious objections--primarily rollover and safety. As I mentioned, we've achieved the static rollover threshold of a Porsche 911. Seeing videos of the Tango racing around corners and parked perpendicularly on a 30% grade with people trying but failing to push it over should eventually sink in and convince people that its looks are deceiving. Even I, who know the rollover chrematistics well, was trembling when I parked it on upper Stanyan St. in San Francisco. It's a 30% grade with a stairway for a sidewalk. After rocking it with my terrified stepsister inside, I was finally relieved of my fears. It just looked like it would fall over. I wish I could display the photo on my cell phone here.

For safety, we know that we must go to the extreme because everyone instinctively thinks that small cars are dangerous. I can't tell you haw many times I've heard the comment: "I wouldn't want to be hit by a semi in that thing." Actually you probably wouldn't want to be hit by a semi in any car. But if you are, wouldn't it me nice to have a full race car roll cage protecting you? Well, with the Tango, you do. There are actually 4 times more side protection bars in a Tango door than in the largest SUV. The 4 bars are also thicker and stronger than that single bar. Furthermore, they are attached by specially designed hinges to to be as strong as the cage in front, and have 1/2" steel pins in the rear to attach the doors to the rest of the cage. The cage is exactly the same as race cars that crash at over 200 mph and has an FIA certification. Race cars don't have air bags but do use a 4 or 5-point harness. The Tango has 4-point harnesses as are used in pilot's seats of aircraft.

Range for an electric car is probably the next concern. The beauty of it is that since the Tango is not trying to be a family car, the range is not such an issue. Again, according to transportation statistics, the average commute in the US is only 20 miles round trip. Even in Los Angeles, it's only 37 miles. So the average commuter would be well-served with lead-acid batteries which are inexpensive and have a low cost per mile when used within average commuting distances. I look forward to the day when NiMH and Li-Ion battery technologies are economically feasible for 5-passenger cars, but until then, a lead-acid Tango should be the vehicle of choice for most commuters with currently-available and currently-economically-feasible technology. A former Lotus executive has given us projected retail prices based on various levels of production. With $50-million we could certify the the Tango for the US, Canada, and Europe, and have the tooling and infrastructure to produce 10,000 Tangos per year that would retail for under $20,000. It is typically a $1.5-billion investment to get the 100,000 per year volume that is required to build cars that retail in the $10k to $12k range. The Tango should be no different. In some ways it's cheaper to build. In other ways it's a bit more expensive. In the end it should be a wash.

The last main objection, charging, is another win for the Tango. First, the average commute is a fraction of the range of the lead-acid battery, meaning that one would just plug in the Tango every night like a cell phone. Most people I've found prefer plugging in every night to filling their cell phone with gasoline every few days at a service station that they have no other reason to visit. If more range is needed, lead-acid batteries can be charged in 10 minutes to 80% state of charge if 200-amp service is available. Service stations could much more easily install this service than add a gasoline pump. Another idea for the future--since the Tango's battery box is standardized and easily removable, some robotics could conceivably swap packs in less than a minute which would be more convenient than pouring gasoline. With leased Li-Ion packs a 300 mile range and quick swapping could be easier than filling with gasoline or hydrogen.

Since we're talking about the future. Another idea would give the best of both public and private transportation: 24 Tangos would fit on a double-decker train car crosswise. Like a ferry, trains could do the major part of a long commute while Tangoers sat in the lounge enjoying coffee and a book. They'd have convenient transportation at both ends of their commute just like using the ferries in Seattle, but with much greater ease of parking.

For the Tango to get a foothold so that the doubling of lane capacity can be achieved, it must have immediate advantages over a standard car. In California, Europe, and the Orient, lane-splitting is allowed for motorcycles, some of which are 5" wider than the Tango. The Tango is actually 5" narrower than a Honda Gold Wing from mirror to mirror. I've noted situations where traffic jams were so bad coming off of the San Francisco Bay bridge that the motorcycles were traveling in 20 seconds the distance that it took cars to travel 20 minutes--a 60 to 1 advantage. The Tango could have done the same.

So in philanthropy, one can give the golden egg, or give the goose that lays the golden egg. I believe that funding commuter cars is like the latter. It is Commuter Cars' goal to put 150-million Tangos on the roads of the world within 30 years or hopefully as little as 15. I believe that when the average commuter sees the benefit, enjoys the freedom and excitement of driving a Tango, that they will naturally gravitate toward a tipping point just as the Model-T and the PC did, and people will wonder how we ever got along without them.

150-million Tangos, possibly $3-trillion in sales, may sound like a lot, but it's only about half of the SINGLE-occupant commuters in the world. In the US alone, roughly 1/3 of the world automotive market, it would have the following effect. There would be a savings of $39-billion in retail cost of gasoline to consumers which would be replaced by $5.2-billion dollars of electricity at retail based on $.10 a kWh. It would also probably save most of the $17-billion in wasted gasoline due to traffic congestion. The electricity used may not all be clean, however, it could be, and naturally will be, as clean sources like solar and wind become more commonplace and economically feasible.

The goal of Commuter Cars is not to make individuals wealthy, but rather to create great wealth that can solve great world problems. I believe that the company can develop, while achieving this goal simultaneously by giving jobs and education to those who need them so that the poorest people in the world can increase their standard of living and enjoy the privileges that we take for granted.

Times Article Viewed: 18486
Published: 22-Nov-2006

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