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The inflatable car: XP's Mini Utility Vehicle prototype benefits from a perfect economical storm.

San Francisco-based XP Vehicles Inc. (XP) has more than 12 years of development work invested into the Mini Utility Vehicle (MUV) electric car prototype. Changes in technology, the current political environment, competitor blockades, regulations, oil prices and consumer demand have created a perfect storm that has poised XP's inexpensive electric vehicle to not only become a specialty market solution, but also penetrate the market with an entirely new car company, something that has rarely happened in the past 50 years.

"These are circumstances that I don't think anybody on earth saw coming," says Scott Redmond, chairman of XP Vehicles. "Nobody in our lifetime thought we would see one Detroit car company go out of business, much less most or all of them."

The Guts

Building a car takes many years and tens to hundreds of millions of dollars traditionally. XP is able to cut a lot of the costs and timeframe because its car has 70 percent less parts than a regular car, and the company is using novel materials that require simpler factory devices, and production and manufacturing processes that lower the cost to deploy.


XP's MUV does not consist of a a lot of internal componentry. In fact, most of it is air using XP's XPanelB[TM] technology pressure membranes. The seat is inflatable, the dashboard is inflatable, and the internal structure and carrying racks, are inflatable or a mesh suspension. Instead of requiring six-axis robots, XP uses radio frequency welders that look like giant waffle irons. The factory equipment is much less expensive, and the car simply has less parts to fail.

The motors are built into the rear wheels in most XP prototypes. The first cars to reach the market will have two rear hub motors and a motor controller, that's it. In future military and industrial versions, the car will feature a heavier duty dual motor rear axle motor.

The battery pack is capable of delivering around 125 miles per charge with four passengers, but is capable of reaching 300 miles with the continuous charge of an optional Auxiliary Power Unit (APU). The battery drawer array features racks that can be easily removed from the car and consumer-class batteries like those in ah iPhone. XP will give consumers the option of taking the battery drawers out of the car and up to your house, apartment or hotel on something similar to little Razor scooters or over your shoulder.

"What we've discovered is that the insurance industry is not going to let electric cars run extension chords all over the place because you trip and fall," says Redmond. "Also, the age bracket that we're targeting appears to not be able to afford a house. The housing market financing is so bad that [our customers] are not going to have ah easy manner to plug their cars in."

XP is targeting younger first-buyer demographics in the 29- to 32-year-old bracket. Competing electric car companies are aiming for ah older demographic with a higher sticker price, while XP is aiming for the broad mainstream which, according to the census bureau, will be in that age range in two to three years as the cars ready to ship in volume.

To extend the car to unlimited range, customers will be able to add another pod in which a small, cheap sub-1k fuel cell with solid state chemical energy drawers. According to Redmond, hydrogen and chemical energy weigh many times less than batteries and go further in terms of distance.

When it comes to power electronics, XP's MUV doesn't have a transmission--it doesn't need one. The lean design only features energy storage motor controllers and hub motors.
PERFORMANCE                     Tesla        Volt          XP

Passengers                        2           5            4
Available Power (kWh)            137          16           20
Miles per Charge                 244          40          125
Type                          Electric      Hybrid      Electric
Hybrid HP                        N/A         160          N/A
Vehicle Curb Weight (lbs)       2,723       3,520        <1,400
0-60 mph (sec)                    4          N/A          8.5
Top Speed (mph)                  125         120          8.5
Body Material                 Aluminum/     Steel      Composite/
                              Composite                 Membrane
Watts/Lbs Ratio                 50.3         4.6          14.3

Sizing Up Weight

XP wanted to make the best power-to-weight ratio car on earth. The company is succeeding by featuring weight reduction that is "off the charts, but super safe." Think of the air bags that deploy out of your dashboard, now picture if that technology was designed into the entire car. The dashboard is a preinflated airbag that has a rear projection screen. It's like Panovision.

"Normally, nobody could afford to do that, but all of a sudden the consumer electronics industry decided that laser microprojectors were the thing everybody needed to have," Redmond predicts.


All XP needs for its dashboard is a simple video graphics array (VGA) quality projector.

Additional electronics include a fixed OLED touch screen, with an option for a video display to look out the back of your car on the front dashboard, on the center console. XP is also using LED and OLED lighting.

XP has nearly secured all of the approvals required for polycarbonate on the rear and side windows, and they're currently fighting for polycarbonate on the front window.

Partners In Success

XP started out with an investment from Microsoft, which offered a majority of its software products and a very large number of its licenses to build some process management. XP is basing its collaborative space around the Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server, and also partnering with Autodesk for building an end-to-end design collaborative application that incorporates Autodesk's AliasStudio, all of Autodesk's CAD packages, Autodesk Navisworks, and some end-to-end visualization, ideation and engineering tools, which can be used on the server side on a stage process basis along with Autodesk's Buzzsaw collaborative product.

To reduce time to market, Redmond and Co. are doing the lengthy and extensive car design and development, which is a multiyear process, while preparing virtual testing systems.

According to XP's current simulations, the first destmctive test car will, most likely, survive all destructive tests.

Falling Down

The biggest pitfall the company could suffer is funding. When competitors need at least $500 million to get to market and XP only needs $70 million, it's possible to think XP would be more likely to be able to secure private funding.

"Where we get the money depends on the federal government, and there are all kinds of lobbying and jockeying happening," adds Redmond.

Conceptually, XP's electric car exceeds every certification requirement in the world, but it's a very new concept so someone may hold up their hands and wish to look at something at greater length, slowing time to market.

Right now, XP is building different pieces. The door XP is currently building is going to go out to the police range, and lave enforcement officials are going to hit it with an AK-47 to get over the big conceptual question people ask, "Well what if someone pokes it?" The nano-tech fabric is not only bullet proof, but it can also withstand crashes by a large SUV without harm.

"Everything we're doing has been done before, NASA landed on Mars with inflatables. Navy SEALs land on foreign shores under gunfire with inflatables. Everyone goes down whitewater rapids, with life-threatening crashes every 600 feet, in inflatables. We're just merging these other industries into automotive," Redmond says.
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Title Annotation:Engineering Answers
Author:Mantey, David
Publication:Product Design & Development
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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