Some vehicles defy easy classification. Take the plug-in electric Peraves E-Tracer, headed for California roads next year. Balanced on two wheels and operated with a throttle, it's similar to a motorcycle. But it's also fully enclosed in a Kevlar fiberglass shell.
FOR THE RECORD:
E-Tracer electric vehicle: An article in the Nov. 13 Business section about the Peraves E-Tracer, a plug-in electric vehicle, gave the wrong unit of measure for the power rating of its AC induction motor. It is 150 kilowatts, not 150 kilowatt-hours. In addition, the article said the E-Tracer accelerates from 60 to 120 mph in less than three seconds, "similar to a Ferrari 458 Italia." The Ferrari's acceleration time in that range is about seven seconds. —
With two bucket seats, a floor-mounted brake, windows, even a windshield wiper, its interior feels more like a car — a toppled-over, traveling egg with windows all around, providing fantastic visibility.
It is, at once, an electric automobile and a motorcycle — and a prizewinner.
"It's not a hybrid. It's a hybris, a snake, a serpent with two heads," said Roger Riedener, the Swiss chief executive who dreamed up the idea and who walked away with $2.5 million in Septemberfor winning the 2010 Automotive X-Prize Alternative Class.
Beating 127 other X-Prize entries competing to build the world's most fuel-efficient vehicle, the E-Tracer can travel more than 200 miles on a single gallon of gas equivalent and reach a potential top speed of 200 mph.
It is the only X-Prize winner scheduled to go into production. About 100 of these "less than $100,000" vehicles will be built each year, their shells assembled in Thailand and their drivetrains installed in San Dimas at AC Propulsion, which developed its electric motor and battery system.
The target market for the E-Tracer: California, home to "real men and women" who like a challenge, said Riedener, 53. Recently, I was given the first media test drive of this intriguing, and daring, vehicle.
My having test-ridden almost 200 motorcycles and dozens of cars was a good baseline, but I wasn't sure it was adequate preparation for a vehicle whose stats were both impressive and terrifying. The E-Tracer weighs 1,260 pounds, about three times as much as an average motorcycle. Its wheelbase is 120 inches, more than twice as long as a Harley.
Because the vehicle was fully enclosed, there was no opportunity for me to put a foot down to catch my balance. Even if that were a possibility, extending a leg to catch such a heavy machine could easily snap a femur.
This vehicle has outriggers to balance the machine at low speeds. They allow the E-Tracer to stand up straight until it gets moving, but they have to be operated manually with a toggle switch inside the cockpit. When the outriggers are down, the E-Tracer is balanced on four wheels, so it handles more like a car with direct steering. Turn the handlebar right, move to the right.
But as soon as the outriggers are up, the vehicle becomes a motorcycle, which requires counter-steering.
Before taking the controls myself, I hitched a ride as a passenger with Riedener, a motorcyclist, sports car driver and pilot who has spent the last 20 years flying electric airplanes. He pushed the driver's seat forward, and I hopped into the seat behind him. The E-Tracer has a gull-wing door that opens up, rather than out, similar to the Mercedes SLS AMG.
Hermetically sealed inside our bubble, Riedener twisted the grip, toggled the outriggers into the up position and sped out onto the track at Irwindale's Toyota Speedway.
The only sound was the whine of the straight-cut gearbox on this direct-drive machine that requires no gear shifting. Careening toward a corner at 100 mph, we were still achieving phenomenal fuel economy: about 100 mpg equivalent.
The E-Tracer can lean as far as 52 degrees — about as deep into a turn as top-tier racer on a purpose-built superbike. Braking deep into the corner, with regenerative brakes that add power back into the batteries, Riedener canted us over maybe 30 degrees, allowing physics to yank us back upright with a flick of the wrist.
The E-Tracer has its origins in a vehicle that dates to the 1970s, when a Swiss Air pilot and Porsche enthusiast decided to create a sport-oriented machine that allowed him to split lanes on the Autobahn and also stay protected from the rain. The result was something called the Eco Mobile, a vehicle that, in 2009, birthed the prototype E-Tracer.
The E-Tracer employs a 150-kilowatt-hour AC induction motor and 20-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack similar to the one licensed to Tesla Motors Inc. by the same electric drivetrain developer. Its maximum horsepower is a whopping 204, and it accelerates from 60 to 120 mph in less than three seconds — similar to a Ferrari 458 Italia.
"We're no greenies," Riedener said. "We made the electric version because it was faster than the [internal combustion] version.
"Just as an added value, we got this amazing mileage, but we were never targeting mileage. We were always targeting raw speed," said Riedener, who says he will attempt to break the land-speed record for an electric, fully enclosed, production motorcycle with the E-Tracer next year.
Electric vehicles make maximum torque the instant the drivetrain is activated. The E-Tracer has double the torque of the BMW K1200, which is one of the most powerful motorcycle engines made by BMW.
Stepping into the cockpit to ride solo, I closed the door and strapped in. Making sure the drive switch was in the forward position, I rolled on the throttle gaining speed, toggled the outriggers up — and promptly fell over, damaging my training wheels in the process. The bolt wasn't adequate to hold the training wheels in place, and there wasn't another one available, so my test was cut pitifully short.
Learning to drive the E-Tracer is no easy feat. According to Riedener, it can take 10 minutes, two hours or two days. Even the former Maserati test driver who now works for AC Propulsion dumped it on the first attempt. In the short time I was given the E-Tracer, I wasn't able to master it. I managed to get it going, but only for a moment. It will take awhile before I can control and drive it properly. But I will.
Incredible fuel economy, speed, maneuverability, comfort. The E-Tracer has many perks. It just takes a hefty checkbook, nerves of steel and the balance of a Chinese acrobat to tap into it.