Drive Fast, Save the World

Monday, April 30th, 2007

Drive Fast, Save the World talks about the electric Tesla roadster and the chief engineer behind it:

JB Straubel, in 1999 an emerging superstar in Stanford University’s school of engineering, had been haunting the student machine shop, fabricating parts for his ’84 Porsche 944 from midnight until 4 in the morning. Working by trial and error, he developed his own power controller and charger. He mated together two electric motors with a homemade coupler and belt system. He gutted the car and crammed in 840 pounds’ worth of lead-acid batteries. Start to finish, the project took him a year.

By early 2000, Straubel had taken a piece of once-state-of-the-art German engineering and transmogrified it into a pretty advanced science-fair project: The World’s Fastest Electric Car. Or so he hoped. With 180 kilowatts at his disposal (about 240 horsepower), the car had enough power, he estimated, to set an electric-vehicle world record for the quarter mile. Just one problem: Total range was 20 miles. What good is it, he figured, to build an all-electric emission-free dragster, if you’re just going to tow it to the racetrack on the back of a big truck?

And so Straubel set about doing what any driven, somewhat obsessive-compulsive engineering graduate student would do. He bought a Volkswagen Beetle for $500, chopped it in two with a shop saw, and used a trailer hitch to attach the back half — the part with the engine and driven wheels — to the rear of the Porsche. He ran a remote throttle and ignition from the VW to the Porsche’s driver’s seat. From there, he sat and steered while his mongrelized single-axle trailer pushed the 944 down the road.

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