Larry Wexler is an idea guy. Just ask him.
"I could probably sit in an office all day and they would say, ‘Larry, come up with ideas,' and I could make money for any company."
In a college English class back in 1972, he had an idea for a composition about the looming oil crisis that hit the United States the next year like a 5 a.m. wake-up call. After college, he had an idea for a mobile plant-watering and maintenance business that morphed into Greenhouse 2000, which he owned for 20 years until he sold his client list last year.
"I only went into business because I knew I could grow my own business," says Wexler, 54. "I literally grew my own business with a watering bucket."
And he's devoted 11 years to his latest idea, that electric cars can be practical, and cheap, if you make them light enough. They can run all day long off the energy of the sun. For that matter, they can produce enough electricity to sell back to the power company. Think about it: Instead of costing you money, your car produces income. And it doesn't pollute.
The result of his labor is already on the road, licensed as a motorcycle even though it has three seats, three wheels, gull-wing doors, air conditioning and a windshield. At the moment it's called the Solarcycle, or XLR8SUN, though Wexler isn't crazy about either. If you've got a better name, he'd like to hear it. "Maybe we could make it a contest," he says, spinning out another idea, another way to get his electric car in front of people, particularly those with money who might be interested in backing him. This isn't wishful thinking; Wexler wants these sun-suckers on the road in real numbers, and soon.
The prototype, which looks like a mashup of a vintage Citroën DS and a ping-pong table, was built by hand in the garage of his north Orlando home. Wexler welded the frame himself, and hand-formed the body out of sheets of foam sandwiched between fiberglass. The motor is a 48-volt permanent magnet unit, like what you might find in an electric go-kart. It draws power from four car-size lead-acid deep-cycle batteries. Solar panels on the roof and hood charge the batteries, though there's also a plug-in for faster recharging. (Juicing the batteries from the solar panels alone can take up to two days, a long time to wait if you need to glide over to the store for a six-pack.) Wexler claims to be able to drive all day long at 40 mph or less on the power from the solar panels alone, provided the sun's out.
And what if the sun isn't shining — you know, like at night? Not an issue. He's got an idea for that too: The car can tow a "solar trailer," a device about the size of a large barbecue grill on wheels that gathers and stores up to 720 watts of additional power. It will power the car, or you could use it as a generator for electricity at a special event, like a concert — or a promotional event where you're pushing your new idea for a solar car ….
All this is pretty standard, off-the-shelf hardware. That's by design, to keep the price low. Wexler's big idea is weight reduction: A light car requires less energy to get it going. The prototype weighs in at about 1,000 pounds; a production version should come in at closer to 700, he says, thanks in part to using lighter (and more expensive) batteries. By comparison, a 2009 Toyota Prius tips the scales at a relatively Hummer-esque 2,932 pounds.
Still, 1,000 pounds is 1,000 pounds. That's a lot when you have to push it, as Wexler's helper did on a recent Thursday when he was demonstrating the Solarcycle for this story. His driveway has a dip in it, which the car made it over, but then he found himself in the middle of the road and unable to back up.
But it only took a quick shove and Wexler was motoring silently down Eden Park Road at a stately 25 mph. He pulled a U-turn and ran back up the road for good measure. No doubt about it: The Solarcycle drives, turns and stops. The headlights work and so do the brakes. This thing's virtually showroom-ready. (OK, not really; the interior is rough as a cob, a tangle of wires, switches and unfinished fiberglass that would make an early Apollo capsule look tidy. It's a work in progress.) Now how to get there?
Wexler, you will not be surprised to learn, has a plan. Step No. 1 is attending an alternative-fuel vehicle gathering in Palm Beach County called the Battery Beach Burnout Feb. 21 and 22. If his Solarcycle wows the judges and wins a few races he might have a leg up in the Progressive Automotive X Prize, a competition for true seekers of the alterna-fuel holy grail. The X Prize is a series of races and events, all of which take place in 2010, for cars designed to take us beyond the era of gasoline. Winners split a hefty $10 million purse. That kind of lucre has attracted a lot of people who believe they are on the cusp of bringing a new way to drive to the market; people with degrees in physics, engineering, marketing, etc.
It has also attracted a large number of backyard engineers, like Wexler. He's signed a letter of intent to compete in the X Prize. That doesn't mean he's in, just that he plans to be if his car and his concept are ready.
"I need a team," he says. "I can't just go race without a pit crew and no backing."
This isn't the best time to try and raise venture capital, perhaps, but Wexler's undaunted. "If I had a marketing team I'd already be making money."firstname.lastname@example.org