|Anuvu’s Magic Carpet|
|Mockup of Anuvu’s Car|
Would you buy a car that goes 700 miles on a fill-up, and costs only $20 to fill the tank? There are many candidates for next-generation cars: high-tech diesels, hybrids, super-engineered gasoline powered cars, electric cars, and fuel cell cars that use reformers. But the most efficient we’ve seen yet is a prototype being developed by Anuvu Inc. (www.anuvu.com) in downtown Sacramento, California. In a lab in an old brick building that once housed a brewery, alongside the tracks just north of downtown, there is a car being developed that could have a prototype version running in six months, and be available to consumers in two years. This remarkable vehicle has been engineered with no compromises, and could very well represent the state-of-the-art in fuel efficient automotive engineering.
When I visited the CEO of Anuvu, Rex Hodges, and the VP of Sales, Lyn Cowgill, in early 2001, I had no idea just how far ahead of the pack they really were. After all, Anuvu is building a fuel cell powered car, and from what I’d seen in December 2000 when EcoWorld visited the California Fuel Cell Partnership where eight major automakers have assembled an automotive fleet of advanced fuel cell prototypes, it was clear that a lot of work still needed to be done before we’d see them on the road. But that was then.
As Hodges patiently explained the engineering highlights of Anuvu’s car, it slowly dawned on me that this unassuming man has built a car with the potential to become a virtually cost-free, pollution-free source of personal transportation. A magic carpet. A free ride. Hodges used to work at Aerojet, where, after getting a degree in Mechanical Engineering at U.C. Davis in 1988, he participated in the design of the National Aerospace Plane as well as programs related to the Strategic Defense Initiative. But SDI’s loss has been the green revolution’s gain. In 1994 Rex Hodges, Sarah Hodges, and Lyn Cowgill formed Anuvu to apply space-age technologies to commercialize alternative energy and transportation.
There are five principle reasons why the Anuvu car has the potential to set the standard for clean, cheap and trouble-free transportation in the next few years:
|Oxygen + Hydrogen = Electricity|
1) The fuel cell is fueled by hydrogen and oxygen from onboard tanks. Using hydrogen means that no reformer is required. Reformers that convert propane or natural gas or other fuels into hydrogen are heavy, and don’t do a very good job. Impurities in the converted hydrogen shorten the life of the fuel cell. Cells that use pure hydrogen last 10 years or more. Using oxygen means that compressed air is not required, and air compressors are heavy and consume about 25% of the fuel cell’s power before the car even gets moving.
2) The car has efficient aerodynamics. Drag on a vehicle can dramatically impair fuel efficiency. The drag coefficient on the Anuvu car, which is shaped sort of like a teardrop, is .18, compared to .25 on the highly aerodynamic Honda Insight, and compared to about .35 on a typical modern car. This means that the Anuvu car requires roughly 50% less power to operate at freeway speeds compared to a car of similar weight with typical aerodynamics.
3) The car is lightweight. While there are lots of unfamiliar components on the Anuvu car, in sum they don’t weigh a lot, and the body is comprised of a lightweight impact absorbing proprietary material that allows for energy absorption regardless of the direction of impact. Including a crash cage to protect the passengers that is made out of a carbon epoxy structure 10-15 times stronger than steel by weight, the whole vehicle weighs only 2,200 pounds.
4) The powertrain consists of four electric motors (which function as generators when the car brakes) inside the hubs of the four wheels. Here again, innovative, no-compromise engineering is evident. Rather than using off-the-shelf iron-core electric motors, which lose efficiency because the metal core emits magnetic fields that impair the primary fields from the coils, Anuvu has designed their own motors. These motors use large-diameter coils that are inside the hubs, consequently the coils have a much greater surface area which yields greater torque. Having four motors means there is no drive train, no differential, and, of course, no transmission.
5) Here’s the best of all: The Anuvu car’s fuel cell puts out 25KW of power, which is sufficient for normal driving. But the Anuvu car has a secondary power system, a flywheel generator that stores RPM (up to 33,000) through surplus energy from the main fuel cell as well as from regenerative braking. When the car’s electric motors need more power, the flywheel generator kicks in with up to 50KW of additional power, making the Anuvu car capable of going from 0 to 60 MPH in 6.6 seconds, with a 300 pound occupant load. What Anuvu has done is apply the flywheel generator / fuel cell combo to improve the fuel efficiency of a fuel cell powered car in almost exactly the same way as the gasoline / electric hybrids have improved the efficiency of gasoline powered cars. This is pretty cool stuff, folks.
With all this rocket science (literally), questions about cost and reliability are inevitable. But the Anuvu drive-train has only four moving parts: The electric motors, which last forever if you replace the bearings maybe once every 10 years, the flywheel, which should last “several decades” according to Hodges, and a coolant pump and fan for the fuel cell. Compared to the parts in a typical gas-powered car, this vehicle is extremely simple.
It’s difficult to say what it’s really going to cost to make and sell the Anuvu car at a decent profit, but Hodges and his team project that their car should be available to the consumer for about $30,000. Not bad for a car that promises to require almost no maintenance, should last for decades, and can run 700 miles on $20 worth of electricity (at $.10 per kilowatt hour). If these cars are ever built, they ought to sell like hotcakes.
But wait a minute! How do you plug the car into an electric outlet and refill tanks of hydrogen and oxygen? Anuvu is working with several makers of electrolysis units, which convert electricity and water into hydrogen and oxygen. Their plan is to sell these units along with the car, and they will operate while the car is parked in the garage. Anuvu engineers calculate that their car can be refueled using a standard 110 volt outlet in about eight hours. Usually the refueling time would be much shorter, however, since typical daily driving is well under 700 miles. If there is any weakness in Anuvu’s plan, it’s whether or not the authorities will allow homeowners to have hydrogen filling stations in their garages. But that’s part of a larger issue surrounding hydrogen power, and time is on the side of the hydrogen advocates. Even if regulations delay home deployment, there is a huge market for these cars in commercial vehicle fleets.
Hodges has taken several technologies that have only recently reached fruition, and designed them into his car in a way that is a tour-de-force of efficiency and simplicity. For example, he has designed the car to have an onboard PC, which might seem superfluous until he points out that the PC will regulate much of the functions of the engines and power systems, as well as play CDs and the radio. So sure, the car has an internet connection and a PC, but the PC happened to also be the most cost-effective, space-efficient way to perform other essential tasks.
|Rex Hodges & Lyn Cowgill in
front of their lab
Anuvu is funded by private equity investors. They intend to raise $5 million to build a prototype of this car. After a possible mezzanine round of another $5 million, they intend to do an IPO to raise $200 million to build a factory. Their goal is to produce and sell 50,000 cars by 2005, which along with sales of their fuel cells in other market areas would equate to revenue in that year of $2 billion. That should get the attention of some venture capitalists! With only the designs complete, it is premature to say if all the promise embodied in Anuvu’s car will definitely be realized, but the coherence and uncompromising totality of the vision is compelling.
With Anuvu, ultimately, the prevailing question isn’t whether or not the engineering concept they have developed and refined over the last several years will blow the doors off anything on wheels. It will. It’s brilliant. But will Anuvu get this car out of the lab and onto the highway? Will they make the dramatic changes required by every entrepreneur who develops a world-changing product? Auto manufacturing is heavy industry, and if the Anuvu car ever hits the road in any quantity, the company that builds it will bear faint resemblance to the company today. Rex Hodges took the plunge, and bet his career on a vision that is halfway to fruition. To go the rest of the distance, he will have to let new players into the game, and see his company take on a life of its own. That is Anuvu’s challenge.