How UO graduates are taking part in ‘The Electric Car Revolution’

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Product design graduate Collin Lafayette stands beside an Arcimoto Gen 8 SRK in the electric car start-up’s development garage, where he works as an industrial designer. Lafayette designs concepts on paper, refines them in computer-aided design, and plays a major role in the production of the Gen 8 SRK’s fiberglass body parts. (photo by Emerson Malone).

In 2013, actor Nathan Fillion, known for his roles on TV shows like Castle and Firefly, went on the late night talk show Conan to share his dismay with how the future has turned out.

Despite technological achievements in cell phones, space travel and virtual reality, Fillion sighed, “My car still looks like a car.”

Then he presented the remedy for his transportation woes: the Arcimoto three-wheeled motorcycle with a reverse-tricycle set-up and an arching roll cage frame on top. He explained that the vehicle solves a lot of problems; its minimal design uses fewer resources than a standard car. Plus it’s all-electric, “which ought to be a no-brainer by now,” said Fillion.

The headquarters housing Nathan Fillion’s dream vehicle are located on Blair Boulevard in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood, right next to the hipster Mexican restaurant Tacovore and Glass House Coffee Bar.

Arcimoto, the electric vehicle startup company, was founded by Mark Frohnmayer, son of former University of Oregon President David B. Frohnmayer.

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Arcimoto’s Collin Lafayette (left) and Mark Frohnmayer (right). (photo by Emerson Malone).

“You can get your coffee, tacos, margaritas and then you’re ready to rock out in the electric car revolution,” said Frohnmayer, standing in the parking lot and gesturing from business to business.

During the Paris climate talks last month, Oregon, seven other states and five other countries signed a zero-emission vehicle mandate to sell only carbon emission-free vehicles by 2050. To get there, Oregon needs electric vehicles that are affordable for the middle class. Arcimoto is getting ready to provide them.

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1996, Frohnmayer was living with his parents, getting around Eugene on his bicycle. He sold his Subaru because he didn’t want to contribute to “the havoc that we’re reaping on the planet.”

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The exposed interior of an Arcimoto Gen 8 SRK prototype, with its motor and battery pack revealed here, sits in the Arcimoto development garage. (Photo by Emerson Malone).

The anxiety that Frohnmayer experienced upon selling his car is a common condition that afflicts many modern, ecologically minded drivers. Some call it “carbon guilt” – the shame that operating a gas-guzzling vehicle is contributing to the plight of the Earth’s warming climate.

But Frohnmayer also couldn’t find anything on the market that fulfilled his need to commute around Eugene that was within his price range. He resented the excessiveness of the standard model; a four-door vehicle is engineered for five passengers but is usually only transporting one or two riders. So he decided to design his own.

Arcimoto has designed eight generations of vehicles in the past nine years. The last three generations have been deemed SRK, named after an  early test driver described his ride as similar to “driving a shark.” The SRK acronym is open to interpretation; some say it stands for “Super, Reasonable, Kickass.”

The eighth generation SRK was unveiled last November. It represents a significant generational change for the SRK, as a handlebar replaced the steering wheel, which saved room and allowed for significant weight loss. Thus, the SRK went from 1,750 to 1,023 pounds in one generation.

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Lafayette in an SRK Gen 8 prototype. (Photo by Emerson Malone).

Arcimoto’s production manager Joe Morgan said the newest SRK is “like a Model T meets a laptop.”

The SRK can only drive 70 miles on a charge, but according to a AAA survey from last year, the average American drives only 29.2 miles per day. At less than $12,000, it’s one of the least expensive electric vehicles on the market.

Tesla Motors, another electric vehicle manufacturer, has the same objective as Arcimoto of bringing affordable electric vehicles to the middle-class. However, it’s approaching the problem by providing the luxurious Model S (with a starting price at $69,900) and a battery range of 208 miles, before subsidizing cheaper models in the years to come.

Ryan Lynch, UO product design graduate and head of the Tesla Motors craftsmanship studio, said drivers don’t need to feel ashamed of their gas-powered driving habits.

“You gotta be aware that the current situation of driving a petrol-based car is not going to last forever,” said Lynch, “but I don’t think we’re in the stage of eminence where we need to be concerned about our resources.”

Arcimoto is taking the reverse method with the lower-priced SRK. Frohnmayer would prefer not to wait.

“Do you get there faster if you start serving the super-rich and require massive amounts of capital investments, or do you get there by starting there and taking a long time to get to the starting line?” asked Frohnmayer. “I wasn’t certain that we would ever get to a real product, that we’d find that needle-in-a-haystack design that made everything actually work.”

There’s something particularly sci-fi about the Arcimoto office and its development bay, and it’s not just the Doctor Who tardis installed in the foyer, or the fact that the SRK looks like something that Harrison Ford’s character from Blade Runner would drive. The futurology of Arcimoto’s character becomes visible when you watch Frohnmayer in his 2012 TEDx talk; he speaks very frankly about how we may not own vehicles in the future, but instead rely upon an Uber-style app that delivers a fleet of self-driving, all-electric cars to chauffeur us around.

“You could be too young, too old, too drunk to drive – no problem,” he said.

In designing the various prototypes, Arcimoto has recruited student talent from the UO’s product design program, who studied how drivers and passengers enter and exit the vehicle.

Last summer, UO product design graduate Collin Lafayette was hired as an industrial designer in the Arcimoto development bay. Lafayette develops concepts on paper, refines them through computer-aided design and works with vendors to detail model specifics. He helped assemble some of the body parts for the newest SRK.

“Starting with rough sketches and seeing parts I designed come to life in a finished form is really cool,” said Lafayette.

Morgan said Lafayette “learns 17 new things a day.”

Although the number of SRK preorders has not been disclosed, a Jan. 5 comment from Arcimoto’s Facebook page stated, “We have doubled our preorders over the last 12 weeks from [the] last eight years.”

Those who’ve placed pre-orders on SRKs won’t receive them until after production begins near the end of this year. Fillion was an early customer who pre-ordered his SRK in 2011 when it was in its fifth generation.

“He’d been wanting to tell that story for a while,” Frohnmayer said of Fillion’s Conan appearance. “He’s been an enthusiastic and very, very patient early adopter.”

Fillion penned a letter of thanks to Arcimoto soon after he put money down: “Thank you for giving me a way to stick it to big oil and big auto companies. Because I am a vengeful man. And they’ve been sticking it to me for a long time.”

This story was originally published for The Daily Emerald on Jan. 18, 2016 at http://www.dailyemerald.com/2016/01/18/how-uo-graduates-are-taking-part-in-the-electric-car-revolution/.

More stories I’ve written for the Emerald can be found here.

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