X Prize finalist sees future in foam-car design

Written by Jeffrey Tomich

Most car designers would be insulted to have their vehicles referred to as a rolling Styrofoam cooler.

Not Lon Ballard.

Ballard, a Carrollton, Ill., native, has built a two-passenger, foam-covered vehicle designed for densely urban areas such as Thailand, where he’s lived since 2004.

The car, named the Spira, is one of 15 that survived months of testing to qualify as a finalist for the Progressive Automotive X Prize, a $10 million contest to build a super-efficient vehicle.

Unlike most of the other cars, which are electric-powered, Ballard’s runs on gasoline. What makes it unique is the body: Lightweight foam wrapped around a plastic and fiberglass skeleton.

The three-wheel, tandem-seat vehicle weighs just over 300 pounds — the reason it can last 100 miles on a gallon of fuel. The car can travel highway speeds. And it floats. In fact, there’s YouTube video of the car bobbing in the water, advancing the Igloo cooler comparisons.

But autos don’t sell on styling alone, Ballard said.

“It may not be the fanciest looking car, but, hey, Volkswagens and Citroëns were huge successes, and they weren’t pretty either,” he said.

Ballard, 57, said his passion for automobiles goes back to his childhood. He fixed up and sold old sports cars to help pay his way through the University of Illinois, where he earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Later, he built a frame for a three-wheel car, but a full-time job and a young family left little time to follow through.

While on vacation in San Diego in 2008, Ballard built a one-tenth-scale model of the Spira using a toy motorcycle, foam and cardboard. It wasn’t until the global economic downturn later in the year forced him to cut staff at a Thailand aluminum fabrication plant where he was a part-owner did he decide to build the car.

Ballard, working with his brother Doug, 51, had the engineering background to assemble a car. But the brothers had to study texts they ordered from Amazon.com to identify the right foam composite material for the body.

They completed the first full-size version in January 2009. About the same time, Ballard learned about the X Prize contest.

“Ever since then, we’ve been working 80 hours a week,” he said.

While the contest is billed as a contest to produce a 100-mile-per-gallon car, Ballard’s inspiration wasn’t fuel economy. It was safety.

Most than 80 percent of road fatalities in Thailand and Malaysia are pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists involved in collisions with automobiles.

Ballard touts the Spira, with a removable hardtop roof, as a fun, fuel-efficient and safer alternative to a motor scooter. It’s also safer for pedestrians and cyclists who share the road, he said.

For now, the safety claims are just that. An unscientific side-impact test that Ballard conducted probably wouldn’t pass muster with the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration.

Said Ballard: “We went to the butcher shop, bought a whole pig, put it in the front seat and hit it at 30 miles per hour with a four-ton truck.”

The pig carcass emerged intact, he said. In fact, it was roasted and served as dinner to Ballard’s Thai workers.

Ballard has dreams of franchising production and selling the Spira in urban markets around the world. For now, he’s focused on making 25 of the vehicles for use by guests of several hotels in Thailand in which he’s an investor.

He thinks he can make the car for less than $4,000 and sell it for $5,000 to $6,000. He has a mold for producing the foam body, but production plans are still fuzzy.

Ballard and his brother said being finalists in the X Prize contest, which began with more than 100 vehicles, validates their concept.

The Spira had to pass a series of technical inspections and on-track safety tests to advance this far, as well as meet criteria for emissions, fuel economy and range. Testing was conducted by a respected third party — Consumer Reports.

A team of garage inventors from the Springfield, Ill., area was knocked out of the contest after the transmission on their battery electric vehicle, dubbed Seven, broke during acceleration testing.

“It does give us credibility when we talk with suppliers,” said Doug Ballard. “It says, ‘Hey, we’re serious, and we can make a serious car.'”

The last week of on-road tests for X Prize finalists begins Monday at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich.

Winners will be announced in a ceremony in Washington in September.

The top car in the mainstream class will get $5 million, with two winners in the alternative division splitting $5 million.

Despite having made it this far, Lon Ballard isn’t optimistic.

“We don’t have a real good chance of winning, because there are some faster electric vehicles,” he said. “But I’ve got enough money saved up to go ahead and go into production myself. Of course, if I had another couple million dollars, it would speed up the process a little.”

Reposted from STLToday.com