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Local electric/ethanol car definitely a labour of love

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AT this moment, there is only one Urbee car in existence, but the Winnipeg engineer who came up with the idea for the radically energy-efficient vehicle says he believes someday most vehicles might look like the Urbee.

"I may not be alive to see it," said Jim Kor, leader of the team of machinery engineers and designers who built the innovative, pill-shaped car. "But I do believe it will happen."

In the meantime, the independent group of Winnipeg professionals who have made the ultra-light, aerodynamic vehicle that uses eight times less energy than a standard vehicle, forges on.

The second Urbee is under construction and the project remains free of corporate imperatives — such as a return on investment, for instance.

In fact, the Urbee continues to exist without any investment at all, making it a true labour of love.

Team Urbee member David Bernhardt, an industrial designer, said there have been expressions of interest from investors, but the group is determined to keep tdehe project in Manitoba.

After an intense period of development in 2009-10 to enter the vehicle in the $10-million Progressive Automotive X-Prize competition — when Kor, Bernhardt and three other team members effectively quit their day jobs and worked full time — development of the second Urbee has reverted to the team’s weekly volunteer get-togethers in the shop.

They finished near the top 20, and Bernhardt said the X-Prize competition was an eye-opener.

"Now we’re back to making the most energy-efficient vehicle as opposed to something that meets a prize competition specs," he said.

They all admit soliciting investment and marketing the vehicle is not their strong suit.

There was some provincial funding and in-kind donations from suppliers to help offset the $750,000 costs for the first prototype. But the rest of the costs — including all of the labour — was self-financed.

"If I had to be self-analytic I would say we are a group of engineers and designers and we are not huge into self-promoting," Kor said. "You are not going to see us grandstanding.

But we have been out there."

He said there have been meetings with venture capitalists, for instance, "but I’m not sure if it would be a happy marriage."

A new documentary, Urbee, by producer Doug Howe of Greenwich Productions, released last week and available to MTS subscribers on video on demand, makes it clear despite the thrill of working on a project that may eventually have an impact on the world, the disappointment of not yet finding a suitable financial partner has, on occasion, left some of the nine- to 12-member Urbee team frustrated and low.

"They don’t want to compromise the car," said Howe, who spent 2½ years working on the film and understands the team members are not in it for the money.

"I have no doubt they have the engineering and industrial design skills to make the car," Howe said. "But if there was anything that might hold them back, it’s the business side."

As it stands, they have a car with operational specs that produce half the air resistance, half the frontal area, half the rolling resistance and half the weight of a Toyota Prius.

The unique three-wheel electric/ethanol-fuelled motor vehicle could operate for a week on a cup of ethanol as opposed to several litres of fuel for the average vehicle.

"When it gets depressing, then we come back and work on the car," Kor said. "Working on the car makes us feel good and gives us progress as well."

And even though they’ve yet to find a wealthy benefactor willing to invest in a vehicle that someday may be essential if mankind wants to continue to operate automobiles, the team is not totally ignoring the business side of their venture.

"We do have a business plan," Kor said.

Among other things, it includes an expensive program of patent applications around the world.

For instance, the unique body shape has industrial design patents in several countries.

When talking about the design, Kor likes to compare it to glider designs.

"All gliders look the same because they adhere to the laws of physics," he said.

"Existing cars can be any shape because there is still the sense that energy is cheap," said Kor. "At some point, if energy goes up and pollution gets high or even if a car company feels there is a market for this, they may take notice of us."

 

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

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