Two More Thought Provoking Green Vehicles

In my last blog entry I discussed a most unusual motorcycle from the German firm, Neander Motors, which I believe represents a fresh approach to green vehicles and one which well may prevail in the marketplace eventually. In this entry, I’ll be discussing a much more radical green motorcycle from a Swiss outfit calling itself Mikova Systems.

The Mikova bike, dubbed the Acabion, is at present a concept vehicle and one which in my view is unlikely to go beyond the concept stage due to its absolutely insane price point. Nevertheless, the concept or rather concepts embodied in this charismatic vehicle are well worth pondering.

The Acabion is a completely enclosed motorocycle whose full carbon fiber and plexiglass fairing resembles the fuselage of a high performance sailplane. A pair of tandem aircraft seats repose within the cockpit.

Two small hydraulically actuated stabilizer wheels jut out of each side of vehicle toward the rear and are engaged at low speeds to keep the vehicle upright since the driver obviously cannot use his or her feet for support as with a conventional bike. As speed increases the stabilizer wheels are retracted inside the body of the Acabion and it becomes a pure motorcycle.

The company lists a top speed in excess of 300mph., a fairly plausible claim in the light of the Acabion’s approximate 800lb. dry weight, 550hp. internal combustion engine, and extremely aerodynamic shape. Where one could possibly utilize this speed potential is left unanswered in the company’s literature. Even on the Autobahn 300mph vehicles do not seem very viable.

Technically, the Acabion is a hybrid vehicle, using a very small, low output electric motor exclusively at low speeds. The company states that the Acabion can travel 95 miles to a gallon at normal highway speeds, though not, of course at 300mph.

More interesting yet, Mikova Systems has designed the Acabion as a dual mode vehicle, that is, one that can be used on dedicated thoroughfares under full external computer control. A graphic is provided at the Website showing a sequence of Acabion’s proceeding along a narrow elevated track through an urban canyon flanked by skyscrapers, shades of Raymond Loewy’s famous models shown at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

Tantalizingly little is provided as to the details of the design. The power plant is identified as a 1300cc. Japanese motorcycle engine hotrodded to produce 550 horsepower. Such a horsepower figure is certainly possible from an engine of that displacement by means of such ploys as supercharging, specially designed fuel injectors, plasma ignition, and a vast augmentation of the port system, but reliability and longevity are apt to be highly questionable. Most racing engines boasting that kind of power density are apt to survive but a single race—Wankels being the exception, but this is not a Wankel.

So what’s the tariff on this little exotic? Over a million and one half euros, which is considerably more than the Volkswagen Bugatti, currently the most expensive production automobile in existence, and many, many multiples of the price of the MV Augusta, currently the most expensive production motorcycle.

Bugatti sold out its entire 2006 production in January of that year, and seems to be going strong again this year, but would anyone pay 50% more than the Bugatti’s sticker price for a glorified bike? We don’t know, but we suspect not. The Bugatti is merely a more rarified example of an established product category for which there is a real if restricted market. The Acabion is something else entirely—a weird hybrid comprised of equal parts of car, aircraft, and motorcycle that raises a lot more questions than it answers.

How, for example, does one bank the Acabion in turns? One can’t shift one’s body over the side as with a conventional bike because neither the seats nor the fairing allow that. What kind of crash protection can an 800lb. body afford one? One kind of stability will the obviously short travel suspension provide at 120mph, let alone at anywhere near the top speed?

And what could possibly justify the Acabion’s price in terms of a bill of materials? A sailplane of similar construction might run thirty to fifty thousand dollars. An engine modification that would triple the horsepower of a small block four might run about the same. In short, a hundred and fifty to two hundred thousand dollars might be a reasonable sum for something like the Acabion. But close to two million?

So why even devote space to this pipe dream?

Because I think that the farther future belongs to personal vehicles that will differ significantly from the designs of the present, differ as much does the Acabion today. I also believe that those vehicles are unlikely to come from the established auto makers. The automotive incumbents have both a financial and an emotional investment in old technology. They represent inertia, though this is less true of the Japanese than of American and European manufacturers.

Personal vehicles of the future will have to make do on much less fuel than the behemoths of today but in order to establish themselves in the marketplace they will have to represent something other than mere austerity. They need to be both frugal and exciting, kind of like a combination credit union and casino or something like that.

Maybe a better example of where personal vehicles may be ultimately tending is represented by another prototype from a Canadian company called Fuel Vapor Technologies. This one, called the Ale with an accent on the e, is a trike, with two wheels in front and one behind. It is also said to do 95 miles to a gallon, but there is some independent validation of the claim, and the prototype has actually gone through its paces at the race track.

The Ale has a very low mass fiberglass body, two seats, and a highly modified Honda four cylinder engine. The Website indicates that the engine operates on an extremely lean fuel air mixture which conduces to efficient combustion but which also generally results in unacceptably high operating temperatures. The inventor is an expert on high temperature ceramics and we may surmise that the modification consists of a special fuel injection system and ceramic coatings or sleeves on the cylinders and pistons.

The Ale styling is stunning in my view and at 180hp. it’s much closer to being a practical vehicle. No word on price, but I would assume that it would have to come in at under 100k to find a market. The company is currently attempting to raise money for a small production run. I wish them luck.

I will say, however, that in many states the tricycle arrangement could severely limit their market because the rule is that powered trikes require a motorcycle license on the part of the operator.

Incidentally, both Volkswagen and Peugeot have shown somewhat similar looking tricycle sports cars at recent auto shows but you can bet your life that neither company will ever produce anything like that. It’s just not in their makeup.