A funny thing about electric cars — in some ways they’re not too different from their gas-guzzling rivals. There’s a big electric motor, or sometimes two of them, hooked up to old-school gearboxes and driveshafts that turn the tires.
But Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ian Hunter and entrepreneur Will Graylin say they’ve found a better way. Their Woburn company Indigo Technologies is putting electric motors inside each wheel of the car, along with an active suspension system that’s designed to deliver a rock-stable ride over almost any kind of terrain.
Their goal is a robust, cheap urban transportation system for use by package delivery drivers and taxi services, and eventually by everybody else.
“We’ve got an opportunity to rethink everything about moving people and goods from A to B,” said Hunter, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and a former research fellow at General Motors.
Indigo won’t identify its funding sources, but the company says it has raised $115 million so far. It plans to start rolling out its first vehicle, a three-wheeled delivery van called the Alpha, by late 2022. A year later, it hopes to introduce Bravo, a four-wheeled, four-passenger van designed for ride-hailing services like Lyft or Uber. China’s Jing-Jin Electric will make the motors, while vehicle assembly will be handled by Michigan-based Roush Enterprises, best known for its NASCAR racing team, but also a maker of customized cars and trucks.
“Our goal is to be about a third cheaper than the average Tesla Model 3 or Chevy Bolt,” said Graylin, whose previous venture, LoopPay, was acquired by Korean electronics giant Samsung. The Alpha is expected to sell for about $20,000, compared with $25,000 for the Bravo.
But Indigo isn’t planning to sell cars the old-fashioned way. Graylin describes his business plan as “Zipcar on steroids.” Fleets of Alphas and Bravos will be deployed in parking lots, where gig workers can use a smartphone app to rent them by the day for delivering packages or people. They won’t have to pay the upfront costs of owning a car. Because an electric vehicle’s operating cost per mile is much lower than a gasoline vehicle, Graylin said that Indigo drivers will earn more money, even after paying for the rental. In addition, Indigo’s clean-running machines will replace older gas-guzzling cars, making a significant dent in urban air pollution.
But James Hodgson, principal analyst for smart transportation at ABI Research, warned that beginning a new car company from scratch is “phenomenally difficult.”
“There’s a good reason we’ve had more or less the same automotive brands for the past hundred years,” he said.
Still, electric cars are cheaper to design and build than internal-combustion models, said Hodgson, and so a horde of companies have entered the market — not just Tesla, but companies that include Lucid Motors, Fisker, Lordstown Motors, and Rivian. “It’s a brand-new area of competition in which the incumbents have no advantage,” said Hodgson.
He also said that Indigo’s plan to start with ride-hailing and delivery fleets is a clever way to sidestep a major challenge for most auto startups: creating a network of retailers willing to sell an unproven vehicle. “It seems to me it’s quite clever that they’re not going down the path of selling to consumers first,” Hodgson said.
Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the legendary auto firm, built such an electric car with motorized wheels in 1900. But it required two tons of lead-acid batteries and delivered lousy mileage. Besides, in such a car, the wheels are heavier than usual, making it harder for the car’s suspension system to cope with bumps and potholes. The result is a very uncomfortable ride.
But instead of absorbing bumps through springs attached to the car body, each wheel in an Indigo car contains its own active suspension system.
A fraction of a second after the car hits a bump, sensors in the wheel instantly measure the force of contact and raise the wheel to compensate. As the car passes over the bump and the road surface levels off, the suspension lowers the wheel to maintain contact with the road. Hardly any of this motion is transferred to the car body, resulting in an exceptionally smooth ride.
The Indigo design eliminates heavy gearboxes and driveshafts, and the car’s body will be constructed from lightweight carbon fiber instead of steel. In addition, the Alpha will carry a 30 kilowatt-hour battery, much lighter than the 82 kilowatt-hour unit in a Tesla Model 3 sedan. It should deliver a driving range of more than over 200 miles on a full charge.
The end result will be an exceptionally light machine — 1,200 pounds for the Alpha and 1,600 pounds for the four-passenger Bravo. By contrast, the Chevy Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3 each weigh about 3,600 pounds. “Why should somebody deliver your Chipotle in a 4,000-pound vehicle?” said Graylin.
During a demonstration at Indigo headquarters, a 2,000-pound Mercedes Smart electric car shook violently as it was driven over a series of rubber speed bumps. But in a prototype of the Alpha, called Draco, passengers could barely feel the bumps.
Indeed, the prototype’s ride was smoother than that of Graylin’s personal car, a $100,000 Tesla Model S. It even outperformed Hunter’s personal ride, a $210,000 Porsche Taycan electric.
The company says it’s in talks with unnamed companies about purchasing and deploying the vehicles in neighborhoods such as Roxbury, where low-income residents could rent them for gigs as delivery drivers. Graylin said that Uber and Allstate Insurance have expressed interest in the plan.
By 2025, Indigo hopes to put 30,000 Alpha and Bravo cars on US streets. Then the company will make a play for US garages. Later this decade, Indigo plans a three-wheeled sports car called Charlie and a four-wheeled sedan named Delta, both for sale to consumers.
Graylin figures that by then, millions of riders will have sampled the silky-smooth ride of an Indigo taxi, and they’ll want their own cars to feel just as good. “The value of our technology is what’s really going to set us apart,” he said.
But will consumers spend thousands on a radical new car from a little-known startup company? It wouldn’t be the first time. “When I first ordered my Tesla,” Graylin recalled, “people said, ‘What the heck is that?’ ”