Spokane businessman Rick Woodbury believes hes come up with a product that will revolutionize the automotive industry. Theres just one obstacle: He needs $20 million to begin mass-producing it.
The product is an all-electric commuter car, called the Tango, thats touted to be narrower than a Honda Gold Wing motorcycle, short enough to park perpendicularly in a standard parking space, and faster-accelerating than a Dodge Viper.
Its ready to go. People are dying for it. Its really time to get this on the market, Woodbury asserts. Its quite a stretch from the status quo, and it takes some open thinking. But in my mind, its going to be a huge evolution in transportation, and the sooner we get to it, the sooner it will begin benefiting people.
Commuter Cars Corp., a tiny Spokane concern founded in 1998 by Woodbury, developed the vehicle, which looks a bit like a standard subcompact thats been squeezed to a comically narrow width in a giant hydraulic press.
The Tango garnered some potentially valuable political recognition last month when U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., hosted a demonstration of it on Capitol Hill and praised it as a 21st Century solution to many transportation problems: congestion, parking scarcity, and pollution.
Commuter Cars now hopes to parlay public awareness raised by that event and other major-market media exposure the car has received recently into heightened investor interest. So far, only a proof-of-concept model and a preproduction prototype of the Tango have been built. Woodbury says, though, that most of the design work on the car has been completed, and the car could be in full production within a year or two if the company secures the capital it needs. He says he would like to produce the car in Spokane if possible.
An estimated $12.5 million of the capital raised would be used to obtain crucial Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard certification, Woodbury says. We need to get into 10,000-a-year production to justify the expense of FMVSS certification, Woodbury says. At that production level, he estimates, the suggested retail price of the car probably would be about $18,700. If the production level were to reach 100,000 vehicles a year, though, that price might fall to between $10,000 and $12,000, due to economies of scale, he says.
Commuter Cars hired a vice president of business development several months ago and is working with the Small Business Development Center here to put together a business plan as it seeks to raise private investment capital, Woodbury says.
Commuter Cars could begin producing Tango car kits, which would require at least some minimal assembly by buyers, with a smaller cash infusion of about $1 million and without FMVSS certification, Woodbury says, but adds he doesnt consider that to be a viable long-term alternative to producing fully pre-assembled models.
He estimates he has invested $30,000 to $50,000 of his own money and has received about $300,000 from other investors to get the car to its current preproduction status.
The Tango, a tandem two-seater, is just 39 inches wide, which makes it narrow enough in many cases for the driver to split lanes, or pass between lanes of stopped or slow-moving cars on multiple-lane roads, as motorcycles are allowed to do in some states, Woodbury says.
He claims its the only electric car developed to date that can travel two abreast in a single lane, and thus also would be a good candidate for whats called lane-dividing, in which a normal-width lane is divided into two, one dedicated for motorcycles and commuter vehicles less than four feet wide. In addition, its narrow width and short 8-foot 5-inch length enables it to park perpendicularlyin other words to pull straight in or to back inin spaces that would be too tight for other vehicles, he says.
The Tangos narrow wheelbase would appear to make it inherently unstable, but its low-mounted 25 batterieswhich weigh a total of 1,100 poundsact as ballast and give it excellent handling ability, Woodbury asserts. He also contends that that the car would be safer than an SUV in a collision, despite its small size, due to a protective roll cage constructed of steel tubing and built to professional race-car standards.
As for performance, Woodbury claims the Tango can go from zero to 60 mph in four seconds and can do the standing quarter-mile in 12 seconds, exceeding 120 mph.
Meanwhile, the cars batteries give it an 80-mile range between charges, which is nearly three times the distance that the average commuter travels per day, he says.
To minimize day-time inconvenience, the car has an on-board charger that can charge the batteries to 80 percent of capacity in less than 10 minutes if a nearby charging station is available.
For now at least, Commuter Cars is pursuing investor funding for the Tango from a secluded office-and-shop space at the back of a large, multitenant building at 715 E. Sprague.
It shares space there with a company called Integrated Composition Systems, which does book composition and prepress work and is owned by Woodbury and his wife, Alice. Woodbury says Commuter Cars currently employs only himself; his son, Bryan, who is the companys vice president; and Grant Smith, vice president of business development. Bryan attended Eastern Washington University, majoring in physics, and is co-inventor of the Tango.
Integrated Composition Systems employs fewer than 10 people, Woodbury says.
Considering Woodburys colorful past, its not surprising that he would be the driving force behind an invention such as the Tango.
He grew up mostly in the San Francisco area, but moved to Mexico with his mother after she and his father, an engineer, divorced.
He says he did well in science classes, but struggled in school and dropped out, although he later attended engineering courses at the University of California at Berkeley.
He started a typesetting and printing business to help support a Zen monastery where he lived in the late 1960s and early 70s, then worked for The North Face, the big outdoor clothing and equipment maker, which coincidentally was founded by Spokane native Hap Klopp.
After that, he raced and sold Porsches, got involved in real estate, and labored as an ironworker, before starting Integrated Composition Systems, which he and his wife moved here from Tahoe City, Calif., in 1992. He says he first took note of Spokane when a customer moved here from California, and he later was drawn here himself by the Spokane areas plentiful supply of workers and its cheap real estate.
He says he got the idea for the Tango while sitting in a Los Angeles traffic jam in the late 1970s.
He didnt pursue it actively, though, until many years later when his son became interested in alternative transportation.
He sold a 35-foot sailboat he had been restoring and used the money to buy an electric Fiat, which he and his son then dismantled to see whether they could reassemble it in a smaller form.
From that beginning, the Tango emergedusing body molds and a gear assembly designed and manufactured in Quebec.
Commuter Cars secured a U.S. patent on the vehicle late last year and currently is seeking patents in numerous countries abroad, Woodbury says.
He says Nethercutt has told him that, to help bolster demand for such vehicles, he will seek support for the inclusion of language encouraging lane-splitting and lane-dividing in the next federal transportation reauthorization bill.
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