Woburn, Massachusetts has the dubious distinction of being the setting for the real life story of Erin Brockovich, the woman who became famous for pursuing a campaign aimed at cleaning up that city’s contaminated water supply. Today, it is home to Indigo Technologies, a startup formed by several smart people from MIT who are committed to making electric cars that are lighter and more efficient than anything else available on the market today.
Actually, Aptera may be the current holder of the lightweight, high efficiency production car title, but as good as that car is, it is somewhat limited when it comes to the number of people it can transport and the amount of stuff it can carry. Indigo says its vehicles will have room for up to 106 cubic feet of cargo or four passengers plus a driver. It is not interested in building private passenger cars. Instead, it is concentrating on vehicles for the gig economy — DoorDash, Walmart grocery deliveries, and the like, along with ride-hailing and ride-sharing drivers.
What sets Indigo apart is that the electric motors that power its cars are installed in the wheels themselves. (Elaphe is another company that focuses on in-wheel motors.) Putting the motors in the wheels reduces the amount of space needed for the propulsion system, which leaves more room inside for people and things. But it also increases unsprung weight, which can lead to unpleasant ride and handling characteristics.
To counter the added weight of the wheels, Indigo utilizes digitally controlled active suspension components like those pioneered by Williams for its 1992 Formula One race cars. The technology was so advanced and so successful that it was immediately banned. Now 4 decades later, it is back in vogue to make sure your avocados don’t get bruised on the way to your door.
“By putting the suspension and the motor cost-effectively in the same package, we can significantly lower the mass of the vehicle and make it much more affordable,” CEO Will Graylin tells Treehugger. “Our vehicles are ultra-comfortable, hyper-efficient, and very affordable, making them accessible to delivery drivers.”
How affordable? Graylin says the 3-wheeled Alpha model with 58.3 cubic feet of cargo space will retail for under $20,000. It will weigh a mere 1,600 pounds and have a range of 200 miles with just a 30 kWh battery. (A 20 kWh battery may also be offered.) “Vehicles have to get lighter and become like home appliances with Energy Star ratings,” he says. Recycled carbon fiber is being considered as a possible body material. The 4-wheel Bravo car will have room for a driver and 4 passengers and sell for $23,500. The Alpha is expected to be available in 2023 with the Bravo arriving one year later.
Indigo videos show the company’s prototypes bouncing over speed bumps, while the main body of the car stays level. Indigo calls this “the magic carpet effect.” It claims it can deliver limo-like rides in such small cars thanks to active suspension technology. “The problem with hub motors is that they add unsprung weight,” Graylin says. “We solved that problem by having the motors and wheels handle propulsion individually.”
Chief strategy officer Greg Tarr says several large OEMs will be suppliers to Indigo, which is aiming to use as many off-the-shelf components as possible. The vehicles, styled by a former Volvo advanced concepts designer, aren’t exactly lookers. In fact, my old Irish grandmother would say they look like the south end of a northbound horse. Efficiency is one thing, but a little styling would be nice, too!
Graylin says the Indigo cars will compete with the used cars that ride-share drivers would ordinarily buy. He’s crunched the numbers and says a late model Toyota Camry might cost 8.4 cents per mile to operate and a Tesla Model S 3.9 cents. The Indigo, by comparison, will cost about 2 cents a mile to operate. The latest AAA ownership study has more information on what it costs to keep a vehicle in the road in America these days. The company will initially target the 8 cities that do 55% of the ride-sharing business nationally.
The emphasis on efficiency is a time honored tradition in motor racing. Lotus founder Colin Chapman established an international reputation based on his passion for making light cars with agile handling characteristics. Considering the new Hummer from General Motors is projected to weigh almost 10,000 pounds, a push for lighter, more efficient cars is welcome, particularly since they will require smaller, lighter, and less expensive batteries at a time when battery manufacturers are straining to meet demand. For more about Indigo, check out the video below.
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