When Ulli Sommer, a 41-year-old engineer and avid cyclist, started thinking about ideal car design a few years ago, the first image that came to mind was a nail. "It's the perfect combination of aerodynamics and strength," he says over coffee in the Munich conference room of Ruetz Technologies, his employer and partner in a venture to build the first mass-market ultralight car. Sommer's Loremo (pronounced lo-ray-mo) and short for Low Resistance Mobile looks nothing like a nail. On the contrary, it looks amphibious; Sommer and his partners first nicknamed it the bathtub.
Even so, Sommer says the nail metaphor helped his team diverge from standard car chassis design and find a way to create a light yet crash-resistant frame. Weighing a mere 450 kg, the Loremo prototype claims to get 100 km out of a meager 1.5 L of fuel about half the amount used by the most efficient cars available today. That, most people would agree, is an idea whose time has come. Experts may quibble over just how much oil is left buried in the earth. But no one disputes that record pump prices, geopolitics and global warming are taking the pleasure out of driving. The future of cars will definitely depend on alternatives to the traditional combustion engine, such as fuel cells that burn hydrogen and emit clean water exhaust.
But until we get there, a variety of transitional technologies will try to squeeze as much efficiency as possible out of traditional engines. All major manufacturers are now rolling out hybrid cars that combine electric or alternative-fuel-burning engines with standard gas and diesel engines. Loremo believes that its models will be the first ultralight cars to go mass transit. "Our goal is to begin mass production of the first 10,000 cars in 2009, and until then we don't see any competition. None of the big manufacturers has plans for this segment," boasts Gerhard Heilmaier, Loremo ceo.
How is the Loremo different? Unlike a traditional car frame, which is built to divert energy in a crash in a ring around the passengers, the Loremo's frame consists of three steel girders running from front to back that transport the energy of a crash underneath the passengers. That innovation means Loremo's frame weighs only about 100 kg, compared to 300 kg for the frame of a similar-size conventional car. A crossbeam in the center of the car between the front and rear seats, which are arranged back-to-back, stabilizes the frame.