12:56 PM

SF Startup Bets On Two-Wheel Electric "Cars"

Lit Motors founder Danny Kim leans into the C1 electric vehicle prototype, which runs 200 miles on just $1 of electric power.

By Intel Free Press

Lit Motors plans to bring balance to urban commuters with a gyroscopically controlled electric smart car.

A recent study by J.D. Power and Associates determined that unless prices come down and the economic benefits aren't better explained, electric cars will continue to account for only a small portion of overall vehicle sales.

Further indication that the fledging market may be stalling comes from the automakers. Audi, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen are putting the brakes on designing new electric vehicles over concerns that today's battery technology can't meet consumers' need for distance, performance and affordability.

These concerns haven't stopped Danny Kim, founder and CTO of Lit Motors, from pressing forward with plans to bring the company's C1 electric vehicle to market. Kim, a 33-year-old tech-savvy designer and mechanic, publicly unveiled the C1 in September and has said that the company will manufacture 1,000 of the vehicles for sale in 2014.

"More than 400 have been sold already," Kim told an audience of sustainability professionals at the recent Verge @ Greenbuild conference held just blocks from the Lit warehouse in San Francisco's SOMA district.

The sticker price will initially be about $24,000, but Kim expects that to drop to around $12,500 by 2018.

Reducing manufacturing complexity is a key to making the price decline possible, according to Kim, who points out that the Lit vehicle has one-tenth the number of parts used in an average car.

"Cars typically have around 24,000 parts," said Kim. "If you drive an Audi, it has 40,000 parts. We only have 2,239, making the C1 easier to manufacture. That's why we can make it affordable for the mass market."

Kim claims the C1 experience brings the benefits of a motorcycle with the safety and comfort of a car.

The two-wheel drive, wheel-hub motored vehicle can reach 60 mph in under 6 seconds, reaching top speeds of over 100 mph, and gets 200 miles per battery charge that, according to Kim, costs just $1.

The Technology Inside

Lit is using technology at every turn to make the C1 affordable, appealing, safe and energy efficient. There's computer-aided design, stabilization mechanisms and embedded computer systems tied to sensors functioning somewhat like the sensors inside Android and Apple smartphones.

At the core of C1 are two 40-kilowatt electric motors, and nestled beneath the driver's seat is a set of heavy, fast-spinning gyroscopes similar to the positioning and orientation technology used in the International Space Station and many satellites.

The pair of 40-pound gyros put out 1,300-foot pounds of torque, providing enough stability "that it would take a baby elephant to knock it over," claimed Kim.

Inside the working prototype is an intricate nervous system that extends throughout the vehicle to collect data and administer robotic controls processed by two Intel Core i7 desktop computer chips.

"There are servos, gyro and traction motors, inertia and infrared sensors, temperature and heat sensors, really a myriad of sensors that all feed data to be processed," said Kim.

"Through that process, a command goes to the gryos to tilt and lean the vehicle to keep it balanced or to lean into a turn. It's all heavily based on the computer processing system."

The driver's display will show speed, battery life, range and other data, and "all of the information on your smartphone will be on a side panel," said Kim.

Getting the computer system to be fast, reliable and efficient is an ongoing challenge for Kim and his team during the prototyping phase.

"Now we're using two desktop CPUs, but for our end product we should be using something that would power a smartphone today," said Kim.

Another challenge is making the vehicle perceptually aware of its surroundings.

"It's like putting in AI [Artificial Intelligence], but also like having good sensory perception of the road, external influences or disturbances, and having that all get computed to allow for stability in all scenarios," said Kim.

When the vehicle comes to market, buyers will be able to personalize the look and feel, manage it via a smartphone app and select the performance characteristics they prefer.

"The gyro and battery pack come in their own modular unit, so owners can upgrade to make a faster, more robust, more stabilized C1," said Kim.