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Zooming past fuel problems: Camarillo firms improve auto efficiency

By   /   Saturday, November 22nd, 2008  /   Comments Off on Zooming past fuel problems: Camarillo firms improve auto efficiency

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Camarillo-based CalMotors designed a low-cost hybrid utility vehicle for the U.S. Army.Forget about Detroit, or even Los Angeles. The future of the automotive industry is springing up in Camarillo.

As America’s major automakers wrangle for a $25 billion federal bailout to survive, two Camarillo companies – Transonic Combustion and CalMotors – are making the combustion engine more efficient than ever and designing tomorrow’s powertrains.

In the mainstream U.S. automotive industry, sales plunged 32 percent in October, to the lowest one-month total since 1991, according to Autodata Corp. GM tumbled 45 percent, with Chrysler falling 35 percent and Ford 30 percent.

But Transonic Combustion and CalMotors are growing fast. Transonic Combustion is looking to double its staff from 50 to 100 as it rolls out its technology worldwide. In addition to the all-electric Porsche powertrain controls CalMotors just unveiled, the company continues to snag contracts to design cutting-edge electric and hybrid vehicles for the U.S. military.
Here’s a closer look at each company.

Improving combustion

Founded in 2006, Transonic Combustion has invented a way to improve the efficiency of standard car engines, wrenching as much as 100 miles out of a gallon of gasoline. The technology relies on a new type of fuel injector and timing improvements that let the engine run on a leaner fuel-air mixture and operate at higher compression ratios.

“The efficiency of internal combustion engines really hasn’t changed in 100 years,” said Michael Rocke, the company’s vice president of business development. “Double the mileage means half the CO2. It’s a direct mathematical relationship.”

Current engines, Rocke explained, only turn about 15 percent of energy in gasoline’s chemical bonds into mechanical energy that moves a vehicle. The rest of the energy is wasted as heat, expelled through the car’s radiator or exhaust pipe.

“The problem is, you have to keep the engines running with a very rich air-to-fuel ratio to not burn out the pistons and the valves,” Rocke said.

Transonic’s technology can achieve energy efficiencies of 30 percent – a doubling of current rates. Most of that improvement comes in city driving.

But what seems to have venture capitalists excited is that Transonic’s technology doesn’t require a complete overhaul of existing engine designs. With tweaks to the fuel injection and computer control systems, the system could be implemented widely in just a few years.

“It goes into a standard engine,” Rocke said. “It’s easy for the car companies to adopt the technology.”

Though Rocke couldn’t release how much capital Transonic has raised, the company has drawn some big names in the investing world: Venrock, the venture capital arm of the Rockefeller family, Rustic Canyon Partners and Khosla Ventures, one of the most prominent cleantech investors in the Bay Area.

“We will be able to run biofuels in the future at almost the same efficiency [as gasoline], maybe one or two percent less,” Rocke said. “Vinod Khosla is one of our biggest investors, and this is the reason he’s excited.”

Transonic plans to unveil a two-seat sports car next month. It’s slated to have the same weight and drag of a Toyota Prius but achieve 100 miles per gallon at 50 mph with an all-gasoline engine.

After that, the company intends to roll out its technology worldwide and go public. Though Rocke can’t disclose the company’s exact plans, he said Transonic is thinking big.

“We have three of the top [automakers] in the world ready to work with us,” Rocke said. “We have one of the top car makers in Asia, one of the top car makers in Europe and one of the top car makers in the U.S. This is a global technology, and we’re going to take it out in a big way.”

Going electric

Founded in 2002, CalMotors designs vehicles and powertrains that use hybrid-electric and all-electric systems. Though the firm, which employs 15, has designed vehicles from start to finish, Chief Executive Officer Mike Kasaba calls its core technology “the nervous system that controls a vehicle.”

“Things that aren’t really ready for mainstream vehicles, but might be ready five years from now – we’re experimenting with that in our prototypes,” Kasaba said. The company’s designs are usually taken up by other manufacturers for production, though it has spun out a firm, Ride Vehicles, for a line of Segway-like personal transporters.

CalMotors has designed a number of vehicles for the U.S. military, including a top-secret tactical vehicle for the Army’s Special Forces, an urban combat vehicle and a non-tactical utility vehicle for routine duties.

“They’re not trying to save the environment or anything,” Kasaba said of the military’s requests. “They’re just trying to get the most they can out of a gallon of diesel fuel. Also, they like the stealth capability of not having a combustion engine going in their vehicle.”

Recently, CalMotors was also tapped by German firm Ruf Autmotive to design the prototype powertrain control systems to convert a Porsche 997 to all-electric. The car gets 200 miles to a charge, but the battery alone costs $40,000, Kasaba said.

“They take a $100,000 Porsche and make it a $300,000 Porsche,” Kasaba said. “That end of the market is an early adopter portion for what we do, because they’re the ones who can afford the cost.”

Though Kasaba believes the Big Three will weather their current woes, he sees a bright future ahead for firms like his – small, nimble and ready to deliver tomorrow’s technology.

“Whenever there is some sort of crisis in an industry, the little guys can prosper because of how quickly they can move,” Kasaba said. “That is absolutely our mission right now – to move swiftly, to establish a presence and make a good product. Our core system – the nervous system that controls a vehicle – could be used throughout the industry.”

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