I saw today's ( Monday, Oct. 13, 2008) interview with Jay Leno on pickensplan.com/news , and he said something that I've been thinking for as long as I've been involved with CNG. Most of the public has absolutely no idea that natural gas can be used as a vehicle fuel. They see buses, or fleet vehicles, or 4 door Hondas and some of the others that are or have been available in the past, and they don't even notice. These vehicles are, lets face it, boring. No one looks twice at them. They have no "WOW" factor, and they disappear into the background. So the availability of fuel to run their cars, literally at their doorsteps, is largely unknown.
As a member of the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition in the mid 90s, I saw exactly the same thing, or lack of the same thing. That's when I started thinking that the vehicle in the picture could be a vehicle to help build public awareness of CNG as a fuel, at-home refueling appliances like FuelMaker / Phill , and the ability to convert existing vehicles to run on clean natural gas. I had intended to introduce it during the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, but personal, financial and health problems prevented that from happening. The idea has just as much merit, if not more, now.
The vehicle is called Solo / UCV (urban commuter vehicle) and I designed it ( with Paul Gaines, of Composite Solutions, also a member) as a high performance, single seater to offer a new idea in personal transportation. I can go on and on about how silly it is to use 2500 pound (minimum) 4 or 5 passenger vehicles to take one person back and forth to work, or to run simple errands. The disadvantages are obvious to all of us here. And while car pooling and mass transit work well for many people, they lack the flexibility and freedom provided by the private car that Americans have come to take for granted.
An ultra-light, highly fuel efficient single seat vehicle offering the performance, comfort and safety of a conventional vehicle could provide a rational and responsible alternative to established means of surface transportation, while addressing a number of drawbacks of the car as we know it.
To achieve very high fuel efficiency ( target: 100mpg@60MPH cruise), the Solo is aerodynamically clean, and of low mass. The shape borrows heavily from fiberglass sailplanes (gliders), arguably the most aerodynamically efficent vehicles yet devised by humans.
There are obvious safety concerns surrounding a vehicle so small and light (target weight: 600lbs), and a sailplane's structure is not appropriate for anything sharing its operational environment with SUVs. Innovative, proprietary uses of composite materials and unorthodox construction techniques can however, produce a structure providing occupant protection comparable to that of a small car. Designed as an all-composite, stressed skin unit utilizing glass, carbon and aramid fibers, it provides a rigid, protective energy-absorbing cocoon.
Having infinite fatigue life and not being subject to corrosion, a tired but un-crashed Solo could be effectively recycled by stripping the mechanical parts, refinishing the shell, and reassembling with new or reconditioned components. The total-life-cycle energy cost savings of this "Coke bottle" recycling approach are apparent as compared to conventional automotive practice, which is essentially to melt the whole thing down and start over.
Predictable handling, braking and a comfortable ride are achieved utilizing a combination of off-the-shelf components and hardware with proprietary suspension geometry. Additionally, as the vehicle is designed to be entirely modular to facilitate servicing, repair and recycling, production need not be entirely centralized. Containerized kits could be distributed to remote locations for final assembly using common tools, providing employment for medium-skilled workers far from the factory.
Originally conceived in 1984 to be powered by a small displacement gasoline engine, the Solo can be easily reconfigured to use any gaseous fuel, or other power plants including battery-electric or IC/electric hybrid ( where CNG may not be available). While classified as a motorcycle (anything with less than 4 wheels) and allowed to use existing HOV lanes, the vehicle provides full weather protection , and can be fitted with high-efficiency vapor-cycle air conditioning.
I have the partially completed full-scale mock-up at my home, and all the parts, facilities and people are available to make it happen. Any comments, interest, anything? William Engwer