Sunday, October 11, 2009

CHARLOTTESVILLE | An Albemarle County robotics company is playing a key role in a project to convert musician Neil Young’s gas-guzzling 1959 Lincoln Continental into a groundbreaking electric vehicle.

Perrone Robotics, headquartered in the former Comdial telephone factory on U.S. 29, has been quietly working on the project over the past year. The company is developing the system that essentially serves as the vehicle’s “brain.”

The “Lincvolt” project was launched two years ago after Mr. Young joined forces with Johnathan Goodwin, a Wichita, Kan.-based car conversion innovator who specializes in transforming Hummers and other heavy cars into eco-friendly, low-emitting and highly fuel-efficient vehicles.

Mr. Young and Mr. Goodwin set out to inspire the next generation of clean vehicles by converting Mr. Young’s Continental convertible in such a fashion that it would be capable of achieving the equivalent of 100 mpg of gas.

Americans have long favored heavy, big vehicles. The idea fueling the Lincvolt is that the cars of the future can be extremely fuel-efficient without sacrificing the vehicles’ performance and size. The project’s motto: “Repowering the American Dream.”

“Our goal is to inspire a generation by creating a clean automobile propulsion technology that serves the needs of the 21st century and delivers performance that is a reflection of the driver’s spirit,” the project’s mission statement says. “By creating this new power technology we hope to reduce the demand for petro-fuels enough to eliminate the need for war over energy supplies, thereby enhancing the security of the USA and other nations throughout the world.”

The Lincvolt is different from the prevailing concept of plug-in electric vehicles in that the Lincvolt does not draw power off the electricity grid. The team has installed a generator under the Lincvolt’s hood, which kicks in whenever the 100 or so batteries in the vehicle’s trunk start running low.

The current version of the generator runs on a hydro-ethanol blend. An earlier version ran on compressed natural gas.

A test run slated for Nov. 1 will take the Lincvolt on a nonstop trip from San Francisco to Las Vegas.

“The idea is, it’s a Continental,” said Paul Perrone, founder of Perrone Robotics and a Crozet resident. “You should be able to travel across the continent.”

Two approaches, one goal

In some ways, the Lincvolt is a bit like the other side of the coin when compared with the 100-mpg car being designed by Charlottesville developer Oliver Kuttner. The Lincvolt aims to be fuel efficient, despite its bulk. Mr. Kuttner’s car, meanwhile, seeks to achieve its efficiency from its ultra lightweight, yet crash-resistant, engineering.

Mr. Perrone’s firm was added to the Lincvolt project after Mr. Perrone met Mr. Young and the project’s other leaders at Sun Microsystems’ JavaOne conference in summer 2008.

Perrone Robotics has long used Java-based technology in its projects, including in its autonomous dune buggy Tommy and autonomous Scion Xb, Tommy Jr. The Tommy vehicles were contenders in unmanned vehicle competitions sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Mr. Perrone’s software performs several tasks for the Lincvolt. It monitors the vehicle’s data, such as its location, fuel level, efficiency and battery charge. It tells the generator when to switch on or off.

“Neil likes to call it the ‘Thinkin’ Lincoln,’ ” Mr. Perrone said.

Mr. Perrone’s technology will also eventually use the data to optimize the car’s efficiency. It will analyze a trip’s route and then calculate how to best maximize efficiency based on speed, topography, the timing of traffic lights and more.

“It’s kind of like a super advanced GPS,” Mr. Goodwin said.

Mr. Goodwin added that there is no target date for the Lincvolt’s completion.

“We’re writing our own book here,” he said. “We’re not giving up until it’s finished.”

Mr. Young visited Charlottesville in March to meet with Mr. Perrone and talk about the project.

“There are many engineering problems of our time, but this one is huge,” Mr. Perrone said. “Neil’s passionate about solving it. He’s putting his time and energy and resources toward finding a sustainable transportation solution. A lot can be done with pure willpower and intelligence.”

Mr. Perrone said he can’t wait for the Lincvolt’s innovations to find their way to car dealerships and the general public.

“I drive an SUV,” Mr. Perrone said. “It’s killing me. I’m like, Johnathan, hurry up.”

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