The creators of the Vectrix scooter came up with an electric-powered vehicle that they say can perform as well as any of its gasoline-powered competitors.
And to help it sell, designers have given it a thermoplastic body that means riders won't have to sacrifice style as they embrace an environmentally friendly alternative.
With its molded-in-color plastic skin, the Vectrix can stand up to the scrutiny of riders who are accustomed to buying the best.
``This is going to be sold in Milan, in Florence, in Rome,'' said Robert Brady, president and design director of RoBrady Designs of Sarasota, Fla. ``It's got to be progressive, but not alienate the existing market,'' he said in a Sept. 7 telephone interview.
The first 60 Vectrix models are going into production this year, with GE Plastics' Xenoy polycarbonate and polyester blend for its body panels; a rear fender made from high-impact polypropylene; ABS bezels; and an optical-grade polycarbonate windshield molded by Webster Plastics Inc. of Fairport, N.Y., a division of Vectrix investor Parker Hannifin Corp.
Full production launches in January, with parts assembled in Wroclaw, Poland, for the European market. A North American product launch will follow.
The Vectrix will compete in the ``maxi-scooter'' category, which includes high-end Italian brands like Aprilia and Piaggio - scooters typically purchased by European executives for an inner-city transportation alternative to their BMWs or Mercedes, said Andy MacGowan, president of Vectrix Corp., of Newport, R.I.
``We do have very serious competition,'' he said. The Vectrix is the brainchild of a completely different high-technology product. It was created by engineers who previously worked together as subcontractors helping to create the F-22 fighter jet.
Once they were no longer needed for that project, they turned their attention to finding ways to improve congestion and pollution in major cities.
Scooters are popular in Europe and help to combat traffic problems with 800,000 scooters of various sizes on the road in Rome alone. Their four-stroke engines, however, turn out more than four times as much noxious emissions as the cars they replace.
``We thought that a clean, quiet vehicle could make a difference,'' MacGowan said. ``We're out there saying: `Wait there's a solution out there.' ''
Parker Hannifin was an early supporter of the project, providing both money and technology toward the Vectrix. The scooter uses a regenerative braking system created by the Cleveland-based firm.
The final power package is built around rechargeable batteries encased within an aluminum space frame. The batteries can be charged from a standard outlet and fully charged in less than three hours.
And it can move. The Vectrix can accelerate to 50 mph in 6.8 seconds and has a top speed of 62 mph. It can go 68 miles on a single charge.
``Our vision was agreed upon very early,'' MacGowan said. ``The part that was very difficult was understanding how to achieve it.''
Once they had the technology in their grasp, Vectrix turned to RoBrady to wrap the product in a stylish package, pairing performance with an aesthetic flair that would turn heads.
Vectrix offers a unique opportunity for using design to help launch an environmentally friendly product that can make a real difference in the world, Brady said.
It was important to create a lightweight outer skin that did not drag down performance, but also had the smooth lines, tight fit and high gloss that buyers expect from high-end scooters. The Vectrix's competitors tended to be underpowered and looked like little more than a box of batteries on wheels, he said.
``It has to have an elegant synergy of technology and design,'' Brady said. ``In our initial briefing, it was key that it had to be beautiful to look at.''
RoBrady has experience with vehicles and plastics. It has done extensive work on personal watercraft and created large-scale thermoplastic body panels - but also small, high-production pieces such as housings for flash drives.
``We've got a very talented staff with a lot of guys who have a tremendous plastics perspective,'' Brady said. ``We love plastic because we can do so much with it, from [computer-aided design] to fit and finish - the technology has just been growing.''
Because the Vectrix lacks a traditional chassis, motor and other parts to hang the exterior skin from, the fascia needed to have its own supporting structure as well as a high-end fit and finish.
``Any time you've got a Class A surface, but also structural elements, those two elements work against each other,'' said Gary Deaton, manager of marketing and manufacturing for Minco Group, the Dayton, Ohio, company that built nearly all of the injection mold tooling for the Vectrix. ``That's one thing on a small part, but you've got large parts involved here.
``You've got to think about gating, about wall thickness, about surface quality. It really had to be a collaborative approach.''
The creators of Vectrix have not stopped growing yet.
Within the next 12 months, Vectrix will introduce a fuel-cell hybrid version of the scooter. The scooter will use a Parker Hannifin fuel cell that draws its power from methanol.
RoBrady also has designs ready for future Vectrix concepts including a sport motorcycle, a three-wheel vehicle and small scooter.
``This is the premier scooter in the world,'' Brady said. ``There are so many things about this that are right, that make sense. This has been a unique opportunity for us.''