Timothy Lord: James, we are standing next to this interesting looking vehicle here. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is?
Ryan James: Sure. So we are Lit Motors. We are a start-up electric vehicle company based here in San Francisco. This is our main vehicle, currently codenamed C-1. It is a self-balancing two-wheeled vehicle. It brings together the romance and the efficiency of a motorcycle with the safety and the comfort of a car.
Tim: Let’s talk about the hardware that’s in this vehicle here, what do you have starting from the front and kind of going back for the control electronics?
Ryan: Well, we’ve got a lot of both custom and off-the-shelf parts. This one is an earlier very low budget proof of concept prototype. So a lot of the components that are here doesn’t actually reflect what will be in the production vehicle. Some of it had to be compromised for lower price and some of it we just kind of figured out on the fly. But this is a functional proof of concept prototype—this one actually does balance at 0 miles an hour and drives up to about 20, 25 miles an hour.
Tim: What do we have as far as driving parts?
Ryan: We’ve got an off-the-shelf motorcycle wheel—it’s actually a rear wheel—and then a center-hub steering system. All of the linkages here are totally custom. The production model will have similar linkages, but made in a much more robust manner. The shell is actually steel, AKDQ steel, the same as pretty much every car on the road, and we hand-formed that. Just the start-up costs for stamps and dies, to try to stamp this out, would have been about $3 million. Rather than spend that, we spent about $10,000 and bought an English wheel, a shrinker, a stretcher, and a bead roller and just made it all ourselves—it was totally insane! It took about a month and a half of complete insanity. But we made it happen and we ended up with a hand-formed steel body.
Tim: Did you look at wind tunnel testing to arrive at the shape?
Ryan: Not yet. That is actually something that we are working on right now, quite a bit of virtual wind tunnel testing.
Tim: Let’s look at the inside of it.
Ryan: Sure. So the interior on this prototype is extremely rough. This was made to be much more of an engineering prototype, but you can see the custom carbon fiber seat that we made. We needed a seat and carbon is actually a pretty easy material to work with so you might as well make it out of that—everyone loves carbon. Off-the-shelf steering wheel, somewhat custom steering system, but the steering system is not indicative at all of what the production one will be—this one is purely mechanical. Production will be a drive-by-wire steering system which is enabled by our stabilization technology that I’ll come back to in a minute. The rest of the dash is just sort of for looks—it doesn’t really do all that much. We’ve got batteries along the floor, so lower center of gravity from that. And just behind the batteries you can see the first part of our core technology. We’ve got this right here and an identical one just behind it--these are a pair of control moment gyroscopes that form our gyroscopic stabilization system. We’re using two gyros, counter-rotating, counter-processing on actuated gimbals. That is how the vehicle is able to stay in control of its tilt or lean at all times. So what that means for the driver is: You’re in a fully enclosed vehicle, you can’t put your legs down or anything like that. You pull up to a red light and it just stands there. There are no legs that come down, nothing like that—it just stays upright. As if you’re on four wheels. That same system is actually powerful enough that in most collisions the vehicle will also stay upright. So if you’re driving along and somebody T-bones you, rather than fall over or roll or flip like a motorcycle would, it will actually stay upright and slide sideways. Just like a four-wheeled car does.
And then that also enables a drive-by-wire steering system. That means that the driver doesn’t need to know anything about how motorcycles handle, how they work, anything like that. Anyone can drive it, like if you can drive a car you can drive our vehicle. So although the vehicle has the turning dynamics of a motorcycle that is to say, it leans into turns, the vehicle takes care of all of that for you—it’s smart enough to know as you turn the steering wheel right what that means at 5 miles an hour, what that means at 50 miles an hour, what that means at 100 miles an hour. And it does all that for you.
Tim: What sort of computing power has it got in here?
Ryan: On this prototype, off-the-shelf stuff. We’re running in a LabVIEW environment. We have since moved beyond that and everything in the prototype that we’re building right now and for the production vehicle, it’s all custom boards that we designed and had fabricated, custom OS that we made ourselves and created ourselves. Yeah, everything is totally custom now.
Tim: Let’s talk about timelines, availability and price.
Ryan: Sure. So the price is going to be approximately $24,000. We are actually taking pre-orders right now on our website, litmotors.com/reserve. We’ve been taking pre-orders for the past two and a half years. We’re seeing a really, really strong response with that—we’ve sold many hundreds of pre-orders so far. And production, we are aiming to begin production by the end of this year, by the end of 2014.
Tim: One more thing, a lot of people with any kind of alternative vehicles these days, electric in particular, have, I think, a very legitimate fear of running out of fuel.
Tim: Talk about the batteries you’ve got in here—how long do they last?
Ryan: Yeah, sure. So some basics specs for this, these, of course, we’re still prototyping so these are best estimates: Top speed should be over 100 miles an hour, so you can take it anywhere, you can take it on the freeway. The range will be up to about 200 miles per charge. What’s really interesting about that is we’re doing that on a much smaller battery pack than you would expect. Because it’s such a small lightweight vehicle and so aerodynamic. For a comparison, a Tesla Model S the 60-kwh version of that gets a 200-mile range—we’re able to get that same range on a 10-kwh hour battery pack—so one sixth of the size.
Tim: Now you don’t have much room at the moment for groceries or a passenger back here. What’s the status of all this electronics that is going to be miniaturized quite a bit?
Ryan: Exactly, yes. So like I said this stuff is all off-the-shelf. This is oriented in here for ease of work rather than for any kind of compact package. The custom boards and electronics and everything that we’ve made thus far have already shrunk that down to about a quarter of this size. In the production vehicle, this back space will be completely open. So there actually will be room for a passenger, there will be an actual seat back here for a passenger. Or for about as much stuff as you can carry on a plane.