Preserving the Environment

This Engineer Co-Founded Tesla. Here’s His Next Electric Idea

April 28, 2015
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This Engineer Co-Founded Tesla. Here’s His Next Electric Idea
Ian Wright at the San Jose, Calif., offices of Wrightspeed. Elizabeth D. Herman for NationSwell
The future of electric vehicles is Wright now.

The automobile industry is a tough business to break into: huge capital outlay and byzantine government regulations have kept three American companies — Ford, General Motors and Chrysler — on top for almost a century. It isn’t easy for a startup to disrupt this scene, but if there’s one man who can pull it off, it’s probably Ian Wright.

One of the co-founders of Tesla Motors, the all-electric car manufacturer whose stock price has jumped 1,040 percent since 2011, Wright has a new vehicular venture in mind targeting the opposite end of the spectrum: electric trucks. His Bay Area company, Wrightspeed, is installing range-extended electric powertrains (the generators that electric vehicles run on) in medium- and heavy-duty trucks for companies like the Ratto Group, Sonoma and Marin counties’ waste hauler, and shipping giant FedEx. Wright admits, it’s far from glamorous — literally, about as far as you can get from luxury sedans — but he believes electrifying commercial fleets will have greater benefits for the environment than capturing a share of the personal car market will.

Up to now, Wright, a soft-spoken, unassuming engineer, has always sat in the passenger seat: a vice president, not chief; Tesla’s “car guy,” (the person who knows the ins and outs of high-performance vehicles) not a visionary. But years of tinkering and observing have all led to this moment. Despite the fact that Wright dresses in crisp, white button-downs and slacks at his San Jose, Calif., office today, you can tell he’s spent countless hours hunched over an engine, his hands greased and black. He’s able to rattle off the horsepower, torque and miles per gallon for various models — knowledge only an experienced collector would memorize — with a familiarity that demonstrates his keen sense of where his company can carve out a niche.

“I’ve always wanted to run my own business,” Wright tells NationSwell. “This is really the first time that I’ve come up with a business plan that I thought was really good. I was a co-founder at Tesla, but it wasn’t my idea. I helped them get the company funding, but it wasn’t my idea. I’ve been at startups and big companies alike. It’s all experience that led me to this.”

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Raised in rural New Zealand, Wright always scored top marks in math and science classes, leading to jobs in the electronics industry post-college. He got his start as an audio engineer for radio stations and recording studios in Sydney, Australia. In 1993, he moved to California, where took a job at Network Equipment Technologies, a communications equipment company, building networking switches for ATM machines. He transferred to Cisco Systems in 1998 to design switches and routers, just as Wi-Fi hit the market. But it was a stint at Altamar Networks, a company that went out of business, that made Wright into an entrepreneur, eager to start something from the ground-up.

Almost by chance, the opportunity to shift his career to electric vehicles arrived at his doorstep in Woodside, Calif. — or next door, really, via his neighbor Martin Eberhard, another Tesla co-founder. Over beers at a party, Wright recalls Eberhard mentioning that he and a buddy were thinking of building a high-performance electric sports car. Wright, a hobbyist who collected and raced sports cars, responded, “I think you’re crazy.”

Wright stuck with his plans for an electronics startup, but the two neighbors met regularly to rehearse and refine their sales pitches for Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists, speeches that gradually began to win Wright’s attention. When Eberhard pulled up in a hand-built electric sports car, Wright hopped in for a test ride. Four seconds later, when the car sped from zero to 60, “I could certainly see how you could make something new and interesting with electric drive,” he says.

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In 2003, Eberhard hired Wright as Tesla’s third employee, serving as the first vice president of vehicle development — essentially the guy who set the roadster’s design in motion. It was a natural fit, not only because of Wright’s love of fast cars, but his electronics background. As electric vehicles began popping up on city streets, the latest technology was no longer being developed by automakers in Detroit, but by engineers in Silicon Valley advancing batteries and electronics.

In March 2004, it was Wright (along with Eberhard) who made a two-hour pitch that convinced Elon Musk to finance Tesla’s nascent business plans. But after spending a little over a year setting up key partnerships, Wright left the company on good terms. “Tesla was all about doing everything they could to make sure everybody’s driving an electric car. And I’m not really a true believer unfortunately,” he recalls. “They cost so much, and the idea that people were just going to pay for them because they should … to be green or something, I never really caught that.”

Still enamored with sleek and sexy speedsters, Wright focused his efforts at the eponymous Wrightspeed on constructing the X1, an electric race car that would be unmatched, even by gasoline-powered combustion engines. (When it debuted in 2005, the X1 was undisputedly the fastest “street legal” electric car; worldwide, it clocked the second fastest acceleration time for any car, behind the $1.25 million, 16-cylinder Bugatti Veyron, which gets 10 miles per gallon.) But when VC firms failed to buy into the idea, Wright realized he needed to temporarily shelve speed and get back to the economics. As innovative as the technology was, he needed a place to apply it.

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Wright scoured the marketplace for buyers who’d also turn a profit from owning an electric vehicle. The technology isn’t cheap, he says, so customers need to save enough fuel to make the investment worthwhile. Take a Prius, for example. The hybrid gets 50 miles per gallon, meaning the average owner won’t use more than 300 gallons of gasoline a year, even less for a city-dweller. With gas priced at $3 a gallon, the most a driver could save is $900 a year, too small an amount to make the upgrade to full electric power worthwhile.

Same goes for the ubiquitous Toyota Camry. At 28 miles per gallon, electric technology could save a motorist $1,600 a year, but that’s still not enough for a car maker to cover costs, let alone turn a profit. In fact, you’ve got to pass SUVs, pickup trucks, vans and box trucks before arriving at the sweet spot of medium- and heavy-duty trucks: vehicles that consume just enough fuel to make the numbers work. Buyers pay more up front, sure, but they’ll reap benefits on the back end with significant gas savings. Each consumes an average of 14,000 gallons of fuel a year, Wright says, costing about $42,000 annually. As a whole, America’s medium-duty fleets burn $22 billion in fuel each year.

Wrightspeed’s range-extended electric powertrains (more on that technology in a bit) save medium-size trucks fuel in three ways. First, they plug into the grid to charge a lithium iron phosphate battery (at a cost of $0.11 per kilowatt-hour), giving the vehicle at least 30 miles of energy. Second, regenerative braking captures the energy of the truck’s motion each time it slows and converts it to stored energy in the battery, significantly extending its range. Third, when the battery is drained, a traditional internal combustion known as a range extender engine kicks in. (It may sound like the hybrid trucks from XL Hybrids  — a model Wright believes is “a dead end” — but there’s a key difference. Unlike in a hybrid where the gas engine takes over, these vehicles run solely through the electric motor: the range extender fuels the battery, not the truck directly.) With the extender installed, the truck’s range is unlimited.

All these features work particularly well for garbage trucks since they’re only traveling short distances to landfills and braking to a hard stop every couple of yards, which continually refuels the battery. Wrightspeed estimates that each refuse truck fitted with their electric powertrains would save $35,000 a year in gas and $20,000 in maintenance costs. That’s a payback within just three to five years. And the best news for residents? No more belching exhaust and no more clunky engines roaring into alleys at 5 a.m. The electric version is clean and practically silent.

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When looking back on early experiments with the X1, Wright sometimes wonders why he didn’t instantly see commercial fleets as a prime opportunity. “It’s hard to explain in hindsight,” he says. “I think like everybody else, you tend to scale up from what you know, and at Tesla, we were focused on high-performance cars with high-power motors. It takes an extra moment to realize that means you can do pickup trucks or FedEx trucks.”

Long gone are the days of thinking that electric batteries are just for roadsters. Wrightspeed booked two big orders from FedEx after corporate VPs took turns driving the electric vehicles. (“They all had these big grins on their faces,” Wright remembers.) And that seems to be just the beginning. This summer, the company will be relocating its headquarters to Alameda Point, Calif., across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco where Wright and 25 engineers will have a much larger facility to scale up production. “We’ve got a backlog of orders,” Wright says. If Wrightspeed can tap into just one-tenth of the market for the country’s 110,000 garbage trucks, the company could generate $2 billion revenue.

Does Wright ever wish he hadn’t left Tesla? “No, I don’t think so,” he says. “What we’re doing here is a hell of a lot of fun, and I think it has the potential to save a lot more fuel and emissions.” There is one regret, though: “I kind of wish I had held onto my stock a bit longer.”
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