"OK, you hit this button," says Alan Cocconi, pointing to a control on a little G-force meter attached to his dashboard. "Then hold down the brake really hard. Push on it with all your might. When it says `Go,' let off the brake and hold on."
With that he steps out of the car. A flat, stretch of asphalt is dead ahead; alongside lies the runway of Brackett Field Airport east of Los Angeles.
With the throttle and brake pedals fully pressed, the bright yellow sports car shudders with power -- but rather than the roar of a caged Lamborghini, the only sound is a muffled whine. Though the whine becomes only marginally louder when the brakes are released, everything else changes as the car lunges forward in a jaw-dropping, stomach-clenching and near-terrifying blur. In less than 4 seconds, it's all over. The Tzero by AC Propulsion, has reached 100kph. And its only power is from a simple array of lithium-ion laptop computer batteries.
Few street-legal automobiles are capable of running to 100kph in under four seconds, and it's a safe bet that the Tzero is the only electric-powered car that can. The founders of AC Propulsion, based in San Dimas in the suburbs east of Los Angeles, seem to think that the lithium-ion batteries have led them to the holy grail of electric motoring: range and performance in one package. This is, however, after the major automakers have cast aside ideas of all-electric vehicles and turned their attention to hybrids and fuel cells.
Thunderously fast but whisper quiet, the rear-wheel-drive Tzero began life in the late 1990s as a showcase for AC Propulsion's high-revving AC 150 drive system. A 220-horsepower street-legal racer, the car was powered by a series of deep-cycle automotive lead acid batteries. With 570kg of batteries on board, the original car was good to reach 100kph in just over 4 seconds with a top speed of 144kph and a range of 130km to 145km.
Last month, however, AC Propulsion unveiled the latest version of the car, now powered by 6,800 lightweight lithium-ion laptop computer batteries. With these batteries -- and an increased top speed -- the Tzero weighs 316kg less and the company says it will run up to 480km on a single charge -- which requires a few hours plugged into a 220-volt outlet like the ones many households have for clothes dryers. It can also be recharged at a 110-volt outlet, but it takes about three times as long.
The car, priced at US$220,000, is available only directly from AC Propulsion and has not yet met federal safety regulations. The company says, though, that it is legal for street use when registered as a "special construction vehicle," which is the way homemade and kit-built cars are registered. The Tzero at the speedway had a California license plate and had been driven to the track. So far, the company said, deposits have been made for eight cars with the lithium-ion system. (Two earlier versions, with lead acid batteries, were sold for private use.)
What will a Tzero buyer get?
The Tzero beats the acceleration US$281,000 Lamborghini Murcielago, the US$224,000 Ferrari 575M Maranello or the US$440,000 Porsche Carrera GT. And do it cleanly and quietly. However, with the single-gear Tzero's engine limited to just over 160kph at 13,300 rpm's, it will never win an oval-track race against those supercars.