A hydrogen-powered electric car under development in Wales is bringing more than just a C02-free powertrain to the table. Riversimple founder and chief engineer Hugo Spowers and his team are striving to upend the business model of making and selling – not to mention owning – cars.
“Disruptive technology can only work if it comes with a new business model,” says Spowers, who, in addition to being an entrepreneur, is a lifelong motorsport enthusiast, having fielded a private team in the 1980s.
Spowers is no stranger to challenging the status quo, having worked on the hydrogen-powered LIFECar, a demonstration hydrogen-powered vehicle developed by a consortium that included Morgan Motor, the defence contractor QinetiQ, Cranfield University and Oxford University.
Like that project, Spowers’ little Welsh startup is perhaps best represented by its prototype, an as-yet-unnamed, two-seat wonder of Smart Fortwo stature whose toylike form conceals radical innards.
The prototype, which weighs about 520kg (1,147lbs) and measures 3.7 meters (roughly 12ft) long, scoots from zero to 50mph – its top crusing speed – in a respectable 8 seconds, Spowers claims, and has a driving range of about 300 miles before requiring refuelling.
While the final design is still being finalised, the demonstrator model reveals a sleek, light carbon-fibre body created by Chris Reitz, the company’s design chief. Reitz has put his stamp on many notable cars, including the Fiat 500, and has worked for Volkswagen, Audi, Nissan and Alfa Romeo.
But Riversimple also differentiates itself in another key respect, consumers will be charged a monthly fee that ostensibly serves as a lease payment, but also covers other car-related expenses such as insurance, fuel and routine maintenance.
“Refuelling bills will come right to us for payment,” Spowers says.
While an exact fee remains undetermined, Spowers estimates it will total about £450 (roughly $720) – comparable to the monthly operating costs of a new, moderately priced car. Fees will vary according to how far consumers drive each month.
That consumers will eventually return their cars to Riversimple for “resale” motivates the company to design products that last, as opposed to the conventional planned-obsolescence mindset of the car industry at large.
“We’re rethinking the provision of mobility from a clean sheet of paper, without the legacy barriers imposed by the existing industry,” Spowers says. ”We’ve designed a solution that’s not just a car, but a business model that suits the 21st Century.”
The principle may be difficult for consumers to grasp initially, Spowers concedes, but Riversimple ultimately expects motorists to gravitate towards a clean, viable alternative to ownership or conventional leasing schemes. Beta testing of 20 vehicles is slated for late 2015, with production expected to start in mid-2017.