Eyes on the Street: Tango Electric Car in Glen Park

Commuter_car_1.jpgLarry Page’s Tango in Glen Park. Photos: Matthew Roth.

The Tango personal electric vehicle made a bunch of headlines when George Clooney bought one in 2005, but there haven’t been too many on the road given the cost of $150,000.

The manufacturers pitch the vehicle as a high-performance electric car that can zip through traffic given its slender frame. Assuming you can split lanes legally (California is the only state where it is explicitly legal), you can use it as you would a motorcycle on congested roads. The Tango is also short enough that it can be parked perpendicular to the curb, just as a motorcycle would. 

Rick Woodbury, the President and Founder of Commuter Cars Corporatation, which has made 12 Tangos to date, said it was "designed it to be the fastest, safest, most convenient car for 90 percent of urban trips." 

Woodbury said the problem with traffic and commuting is a case of inefficient use of space, though his solution is not transit or bicycles, but narrower cars. "There are 106 million single-occupancy vehicles clogging the
streets. That’s 106 million people using the wrong tool."

Woodbury said the ability to scale up production is hampered by money. He can build the current model at its sticker price at cost, but to sell it in the $10-15,000 price range, he would need around $1.5 billion in capital outlay to mass-produce the vehicle, an unlikely scenario without getting the buy-in of a major traditional car manufacturer.

"Car companies just don’t invest in disruptive technology," said Woodbury.

Commuter_car_3.jpg

He also noted that the public reaction was tempered by how different the
vehicle is, whereas a company like Tesla re-purposed the standard car
design with a different fuel source.

The Tango is built with a NASCAR-standard roll cage and the speed of a race car. The vehicle outperforms Tesla’s cars in a head-to-head race, going 0-60 in under four seconds, and is only a hair slower than the fastest street-legal production car on the road, the $1.5 million Bugatti Veyron.

When asked why an urban car should be pitched as a performance vehicle, especially when speed is the most significant contributing factor to severity of pedestrian injuries in car crashes, Woodbury said "Speed is point A to point B."

"You can avoid pedestrians better than other cars," he added.

Though Tango didn’t win the Progressive Insurance X Prize, the Tango was
a finalist and will be at the gala event at the Capitol in Washington
DC in mid September.

I saw this Tango in the pictures near the Glen Park BART Station in late July. Woodbury identified it as belonging to Larry Page, co-founder of Google.

My first thought when I saw it was all the space you could convert to bike lanes if more city cars were this thin. What do you think?

Commuter-car-2_1.jpgThe door zone is a lot smaller here.
  • What is the roll over factor on one of those? And is there decent storage behind the drivers seat?

  • “You can avoid pedestrians better than other cars,” he added.

    Really? It’s the size of a bicycle but with all the view-blocking trappings of a normal car. This is a car that wishes it was a bicycle. Why not just cut to the chase?

  • EL

    The Tango is 8′-5″ long, which means it will stick out around 1.5′ further from the curb than any motorcycle if it’s parked perpendicular.

  • Bob Davis

    If the battery is mounted low enough, it would act like ballast on a ship or a lead keel on a sailboat, lowering the center of gravity. I’d still be reluctant to try this car on a “Grand Prix” racing circuit. Even though it embodies 21st Century technology, it still uses “metrics” from the “Little Deuce Coupe” era, i.e. zero to sixty in X.X seconds.

  • Justin, you have to pedal a bike, Americans are lazy.

    Bob, I agree with that kind of speed, I doubt a low battery is going to really help all that much.

  • Gary

    It will create a past time for a couple of street thugs, pushing them over.

  • Sean H

    Im waiting for the convertible version.

  • EL

    This is a niche vehicle with no hope of going mainstream with a $150K price tag. FYI, Smart has only sold 3,909 vehicles in 2010.

    http://motorintelligence.com/fileopen.asp?File=SR_Sales3.xls

  • Nick

    I saw another one in the city over on Clipper Street the other day. Look for it a few blocks down from the Clipper bike lanes.

    This isn’t the car of the future at $150K. You can accomplish the same thing with a $2200 Trek electric bike today.

    Right now they are putting $1500 batteries on a $700 bike. Once the technology advances they’ll be as common as folding bikes.

  • Michael Weiser

    mikesonn – I’ve ridden in the back of the Tango. It was very comfortable for me, and I’m 6′, 175 lbs. That’s a ton of space for any normal shopping experience.

    Regarding rollovers: “The Tango has achieved a NHTSA 5-star equivalent static rollover threshold rating.”

    Gary – the thugs won’t able to push it over – it’s 3,150 lbs.

    Bob – Rick’s a sailor, too. He told me that it took him about 10 seconds to think of the narrow car being ballasted by it’s power source.

    Check out the specs here.

    http://www.commutercars.com/faq.html

    Justin – I can’t imagine why any bike rider wouldn’t want every current commuter to drive a Tango. It would be far easier to share a lane with a Tango than a normal width car.

    EL – Regarding parking perpendicularly, check out this video at 7:34 to see it parking in action. I’m sure you’ll agree it does the trick.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GINWQ0QakV0&playnext=1&videos=YG30m3URnhk

    The Tango has thousands of fans, and we can’t wait to own one ourselves.

  • Bob Davis

    Back in the days of 25-cents-a-gallon gas, there were two German imports that were in the same size range: the BMW Isetta and the Messerschmitt (yes the same co. that made WW II fighter planes. There are still a few of these around, not surprising considering how many car collectors there are here in California.

  • EL

    Michael Weiser – My point is that if the Tango parks perpendicular, it’s the equivalent of a regular car that has opened the driver’s door into a bike lane’s “door zone”. Only when it’s parked parallel is there no “door zone” problem.

  • Alex

    The Smart car only offers one advantage over its competitors: size. It gets relatively lousy fuel economy and isn’t particularly cheap. For a similar amount of money you could buy a Honda Fit which is downright cavernous inside by comparison. The Fit’ll use less fuel too. Even in San Francisco, space is simply not at enough of a premium for people to be lured into buying a Smart car. If the Tango were to be sold at $15,000… it could easily outsell the Smart.

  • EL, I had no idea Saab still sold cars in america

  • Also, Mini has done quite well. Problem with smart is that it is overpriced.

  • ZA

    Meh. I have my bike for getting around town and my Smart for out-of-the-Area excursions, or a cargo run. What more do I need?

  • The weirdest thing about it is that it weighs 1.5 times as much as a normal 4-door sedan.

  • Michael Weiser

    EL – The big difference between a Tango parking perpendicularly and a wide car with its door open is that there wouldn’t be the surprise factor that every wide car presents to a bike rider. The bike rider would necessarily be out of the Tango’s door area even if it were riding 3 inches away from the back of the park Tango.

    ZA – Good for you that you don’t need the car. But just think of how much better your bike rides would be if everyone rode a Tango instead a wide car – including Smart cars. Your ride would surely be safer and faster because there would be double the lane capacity on the road.

  • Nick

    Michael, that argument does not follow. It’s the equivalent of the theory of “freeway expansion.”

    If only we widen the freeways it will reduce congestion for other cars. What happens is that it only encourages more of the same mode of travel resulting in even more congestion. So they expand the freeways ever wider….

    Do you have a solution for this problem with these weird mini cars?

    “Hey, we’ll build an even smaller car!”

  • Michael Weiser

    Nick, I believe in using systems as efficiently as possible. For instance, since 90% of all cars are driven by the driver alone, 94% of all commutes have only the driver, and 99% of all commutes have the driver and only one passenger, it’s obviously highly wasteful to have passenger sides of cars in commuter cars.

    How about this for weird – side by side barber and dentist chairs, and toilets. You don’t see them because they’re highly inefficient. Sadly, that’s the equivalent of what we have on our roads and bridges right now. Car manufacturers building side by side seating for commuter cars add no true value added for the customer and does extreme damage to traffic flow. It’s a serious and blatant waste of our commons, especially now that there is a viable alternative with narrow cars.

    For commuting, a car with one hundred seats behind the driver would be better for us for traffic than one smart car with a passenger side. It’s the (usually empty) passenger sides of cars that are killing traffic flow.

    Once there’s a true transition away from wide cars for commuting to narrow cars, and then if the highways get filled up, then it would truly because it’s being used to its capacity. At that point, alternative discussions are appropriate.

  • Nick

    No offense Michael, but you come off as either an apologist or a salesman for this company.

    You’re attempting to frame the discussion in order to control it.

    Streetsblog readers are not looking for a more efficient way to kill 40,000 people a year or a better way to pollute the earth.

  • Michael Weiser

    Nick,

    I am a narrow car enthusiast. I compare my interest as similar to the folks who were very interested in personal computers just as they were starting to be programmed, manufactured, discussed and reported on in the late seventies and early eighties.

    Personally, I live in suburban Chicago, and driving to work during a heavy delay in traffic, I noticed an empty Chicago city bus with only the driver and no passengers following another empty bus with only the driver and no passengers. It occurred to me that the vast majority of vehicles on our roads and bridges are hauling empty seats, and that’s what’s causing all of our traffic delays. It took me another day to realize the empty seats behind the driver aren’t the problem to keep traffic moving – it’s simply the passenger sides of cars that are blocking efficient traffic flow.

    A few internet searches later, I found commutercars.com, and since then, I’ve been in contact with Rick Woodbury. On his way from Spokane to one of the Automotive X Prize sessions in Michigan, he stopped in Chicago, and I was honored to be the first Tango passenger in history in Illinois.

    Do I believe that cars need to be safe and pollution free? Yes I do, and the Tango is just the type of car that provides safety and efficient charging.

    For safety, like a bike, the Tango maneuvers far easier than any other car in history, so it’s far less likely to get in an accident. For the drivers and passengers, the weight of the car keeps it ballasted and stops it from tipping over. Steel bars in the doors protect it from side collisions, and a Nascar like roll cage protects it in the unlikely event of a rollover.

    Regarding pollution, like bicycles, the Tango requires energy to manufacture it. To power it, it’s electric, so it depends on the electricity generator as to how much pollution charging it creates. Here’s a Tango recharging with zero emission pollution at a solar repowering station at Google headquarters:

  • Nick

    Michael, you make some good points and I am admitedly biased. When I hear a 2,000+ pound car can go 0-60 in 4 seconds I get a little concerned.

    They may be advanced cars but they will be driven by less than advanced people if and when they are ever mass produced.

  • Michael Weiser

    Thanks, Nick.

    I think the future is bright as we convert from side by side seating in wide cars to tandem seating in narrow commuter cars, and as more people experience and see the benefits, we’ll have far safer and more efficient roads when we ride our bikes.

    For current news about the Tango, I recommend subscribing to Rick Woodbury’s Tango blog:

    http://tangocars.blogspot.com/

    Also, I created a facebook Cause called “Delete the Seats” to promote the manufacturing and use of narrow cars. Please join it if you’re so inclined.

    Narrow the cars and widen the roads.

  • ZA

    @Michael –

    Two comments:

    1. “ZA – Good for you that you don’t need the car. But just think of how much better your bike rides would be if everyone rode a Tango instead a wide car – including Smart cars. Your ride would surely be safer and faster because there would be double the lane capacity on the road.”

    I think that captures the difference in our sentiments exactly. As much of an advocate as I am for better bicycling, mass transit, and automotive options, I don’t pretend to think that any one of them can or should be 100% of the solution for everyone, everytime, on the road.

    2. “Safer” – As anyone who has experienced the sudden localized cross-winds in the San Francisco Bay Area can attest to, a narrower and lighter vehicle is even more of a sail.* Now, it’s one thing for a bicyclist to take that risk, quite another when the vehicle has that much mass and acceleration under its hood.

    *As a happy owner of a Smart ForTwo, I’ll be the first to admit the stiffer grip I need to use most times I cross the Golden Gate.

    ===

    It seems to me these sorts of vehicles should try to sell to CarShare companies first, where more people will get a chance to try them out without the total commitment of all that money.

  • Michael Weiser

    Making a hypothetical, theoretical statement is, of course, pretending. It’s imagining. That’s inferred in the statement. The safety I was speaking about was the fact that a narrow car will necessarily share space on a given road with a bicycle much better than a wide car will. Even if all commuter cars aren’t Tangos, again, I just don’t see how you could possibly see it as anything but a positive to have one, two, or a lot of these cars on the road, be it from a bicyclist, pedestrian, motor cyclist, or wide car drivers’ perspective.

    Regarding feeling the effects of a particularly cross winded area, I don’t have personal experience with it, but, as pointed out, the Tango isn’t a lighter vehicle, it’s 2,150 lbs. Go to 6:27 in this video to see the inventor’s son drive it through an autocross course. Needless to say, it doesn’t tip over:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GINWQ0QakV0&playnext=1&videos=ps_1hkMUc8Q

    I agree with you about CarShare companies using them. I also think that narrow cars will run the gambit from personal, government, military, delivery and emergency vehicles, airport car rentals, and taxis.

  • @Justin Why not split the difference and get an electric bike instead?

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