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Tango remains in high-stakes dance

X Prize would boost company; Clooney, Google chiefs buyers

It was not a great year to be selling an electric car that costs $121,000. Ask Rick Woodbury, the founder of Commuter Cars, the Spokane company that makes and sells the Tango, which costs that much – or more if you want longer-lasting electric batteries.

Even so, 2009 was the year Woodbury, 60, opened the doors to possibly winning a $2.5 million prize in a prestigious competition.

That’s the cash award available to winners of one segment of the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize.

That international competition is offering $10 million to winners in three categories for developers of a new generation of highly fuel-efficient consumer vehicles.

When first announced, however, the X Prize contest had two competition categories: a $5 million mainstream group for companies designing a traditional, five-passenger electric car, and an alternative division, with a $5 million prize, for cars with fewer than four passengers.

It wasn’t until early this year that competition organizers added a second “alternative car” category for narrow cars with two seats, one in front of the other.

The change lifted Woodbury’s spirits, making his Tango one of four “tandem” designs competing for that $2.5 million prize.

“I don’t think anyone can beat us in the tandem category. Not on speed. There’s nothing quicker,” he said.

Commuter Cars made the initial cut. Earlier this year there were more than 100 teams competing for the Automotive X Prize. The list has been pared to fewer than 45. The only other competitor in Washington is a team from Western Washington University.

But Woodbury is hardly resting. Well before the Tango enters a race or performance test, he has to complete several more deadline submissions, establishing performance or reliability design features as required by the X Prize committee.

The first and largest challenge was to provide a solid business plan that shows how Woodbury’s company could produce 10,000 Tangos in a single year. After six months of document preparation and with help from staff at Spokane- based Sirti, Woodbury last year turned in a plan detailing how his company could produce 30,000 of the cars in a two-year period. At that volume, the sales price of the Tango would fall to $29,000, he said.

Currently, Commuter Cars produces a Tango only when an order is received, and it has made 11 so far.

Among the buyers: actor George Clooney and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Ramping up production of Tangos by such a great degree would require about $150 million in capital, Woodbury stated in his submission for the X Prize competition.

“We don’t know yet where we might get that. I’m hoping the first $2.5 million would come from winning the X Prize,” he said.

The Automotive X Prize competition isn’t restricted to electric vehicles, but because of the judging criteria, the winners likely will rely entirely or mostly on electric power, Woodbury said.

Carrie Fox, an auto X Prize spokeswoman in New York City, said the winner will be determined based on safety, cost, performance and business plan.

Every vehicle in the race has to be able to travel 100 miles on the equivalent of one gallon of gas.

Every vehicle also must include a kill switch on the back so that someone can instantly cut its power.

The driving tests start in May, with winners to be announced in September.

Woodbury still is unclear how the actual road tests will be conducted.

“I don’t think they’ve nailed down the exact conditions yet,” he said.

He’s hoping a key part of the test is flat-out speed. In a recent, nonscientific road test in Beverly Hills, Woodbury drove his Tango along a street course, competing against a regular car taking the same route.

“I got there nine minutes ahead of the other car,” he said.

If weight of the car and efficiency become highly valued in the final results, the Tango may face a disadvantage, he added.

“We’re a little heavier (than other electric cars). So if the emphasis is on extreme efficiency, we may not do as well.”