UI engineering students build man's prototype 'personal vehicle'

UI engineering students build man's prototype 'personal vehicle'

CHAMPAIGN – Randy Reisinger thinks America's reliance on heavy, gas-guzzling automobiles for day-to-day transportation is grossly inefficient.

So he's pitching a plan for small, three-wheeled "personal vehicles" that he hopes will attract drivers and investors alike.

His company, Sugar Rides, has developed a prototype vehicle that can carry a driver and passenger and run on about $5 worth of electricity a month.

The prototype was built in a Mahomet garage by a team of engineering students from the University of Illinois. The plug-in electric vehicle, dubbed the EC3 (Electric Commuter 3-Wheels), was on display during Engineering Open House 2010 on campus.

Reisinger thinks the vehicle will appeal to practical consumers. It can travel 30 to 40 miles on a standard battery pack, and multiple packs can extend that range to 100 to 120 miles.

The vehicle is light – less than 1,500 pounds – and the passenger sits behind the driver, as on a motorcycle. As currently designed, the vehicle also has room for two or three bags of groceries.

The EC3 isn't registered for road use yet, but Reisinger is working on how to license, register and insure the vehicle. He expects it to be licensed as a motorcycle, but operators would need a "three-wheel" endorsement.

The concept for the personal vehicle stems from Reisinger's outrage five years ago with gas prices. He was particularly irritated that so much energy is wasted moving heavy vehicles from place to place, when the goal of transportation is often moving only the driver.

The United States uses 21 billion barrels of oil a day, 70 percent of it imported, he said.

"We don't need to be importing oil when we waste so much of it," Reisinger said, noting the waste has implications for both the economy and national security.

Why burn $100 a month on gasoline when you can operate a lighter electric vehicle for $5 a month, he asked. That figure, he said, is based on driving 1,000 miles a month.

Reisinger said he gets "lots of questions" about safety, but contends you don't need a big vehicle to be safe. Composite materials can be used that absorb the impact of a crash, and a steel safety cage can "cocoon" the occupants, he said.

The result, he said, is a vehicle that is "safer than a bike or motorcycle."

A native of Evansville, Ind., Reisinger spent much of his professional life in California before coming to Champaign-Urbana last year.

He worked for Apple Computer during the early to mid-1980s, managing the Apple IIe product line and later became a technical consultant at Xerox PARC (now known as the Palo Alto Research Center). In the late 1990s, he helped found an Internet company, Bargain America, that sold U.S. products to Japanese consumers.

But after Reisinger got fired up over fuel and America's use of it, he came to Champaign-Urbana hoping to find people with the technical expertise to build the vehicle he had in mind.

Arriving in town, Reisinger spotted a Twike, a three-wheeled electric vehicle operated by Matt Childress, and soon got a ride in it.

Reisinger then got involved with the Illinois EV Club on campus, whose members are interested in electric vehicles.

That's how he came to meet Bryan Wilcox, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering who would become a co-founder of Sugar Rides.

Reisinger explained his plans and asked whether a prototype could be built within two months.

Wilcox set to work on the project, along with his wife, Mercedes Mane, a graduate student in aerospace engineering, and Keeley Kabala, a recent graduate in mechanical engineering.

They did the work in Wilcox's garage in Mahomet, building many of the tools and equipment they would use. They built an oven and mold for thermo-formed plastic as well as a steel table on which to lay the frame out.

"Every step of the way was an exercise in creativity and keeping the budget to a minimum," Reisinger said.

The team started the project Jan. 9 and completed it in time for March's Engineering Open House, where the vehicle was demonstrated.

The next step, Reisinger said, is raising venture capital from individuals and organizations to build production vehicles.

He figures it will take about $1 million to set up a small-scale production line that will yield up to 30 vehicles a month.

Reisinger said he expects the team will start building a second version, with additional features, fairly soon. Wilcox said he hopes to devote full time to the venture once he completes his doctoral degree.

Reisinger said he believes the market for the personal vehicle could be roughly the size of the motorcycle market. More than 1 million motorcycles a year were sold in the U.S. in the middle part of the last decade.

The most likely buyers of the personal vehicle are "pragmatic, utilitarian" people who don't want to spend a fortune on gasoline going back and forth to work, he added.

No price has been set for the final product, but Reisinger said he expects it to sell for less than $15,000.

As for the name Sugar Rides, Reisinger said he chose it because he wanted to "build a sweet vehicle." The company was incorporated March 15, with Reisinger as president.

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