Ian Wright: In the Fast Lane

Dream Jobs 2007

Photography: Dani Winston

Need for Speed:

Ian Wright's high-performance electric cars leave Ferraris in the dust.

Ian Wrightclimbs behind the wheel of his little red sports car. He turns the key in the "ignition," but no motor rumbles. He taps the accelerator, and in the 45 meters or so between his parking space and the gated entrance to the parking lot, he accelerates to 75 kilometers per hour, pulling almost 1 G and pinning his passenger into the hard plastic seat beside him. He then stops inches from the iron gate.

This is what happens when an EE, happy with a career in optical communications, stumbles into the electric car industry—if that EE used to be a race car driver. Wright has designed one of the fastest electric cars ever built, a car that on a racetrack leaves Porsches and Ferraris in the dust, but one that is designed for the streets of Silicon Valley, where it makes even a short drive an adventure.

The son of New Zealand sheep farmers, Wright became fascinated with electronics as a child, when he received an electronics kit as a gift. He built radios and intercoms, and at age 10 he converted an old lawn mower into a go-kart. At some point, his tinkering prompted his father to tell him, "You'll never make a living playing with bits of wire!"

"I took that as a challenge," Wright recalls. But he wasn't sure if he could make a living with electronics. Not a single engineer or scientist lived in his hometown. Eventually, Wright tracked down a school in Auckland that trains telecommunications technicians, and there he learned the basics of electronic circuit design. After graduating in 1976, he went to work for a company that built radio stations. He soon realized that what he really wanted to be was an electrical engineer. He entered the New South Wales Institute of Technology (now the University of Technology), in Sydney, studying part-time while working first as a test engineer for a manufacturer of gasoline pumps and later for Scitec, a start-up that went on to become Australia's largest networking company. In 1986, just a few credits shy of his EE degree but with Scitec demanding some 60 hours a week, Wright abandoned his studies.

518 km/h peak timed mile of the Buckeye Bullet, world's fastest electric vehicle

Wright dove into the challenges of building switches and routers. For a time, he also immersed himself in the sport of auto racing, earning his racing license in 1989. Networking remained his career, however, and racing was just a hobby, one he abandoned in 1993 when he moved to California and got married.

That is not to say that Wright didn't miss it. In fact, he taught both his son and his daughter to drive when each turned 3; now, at age 6, his son regularly races on the go-kart circuit. But the senior Wright had thought his racing days were behind him. In the meantime, his Silicon Valley career carried him up through the ranks of such companies as Network Equipment Technologies, Cisco Systems, and Ditech Communications Corp.

Then, in 2003, Wright's two interests intersected. At Ditech, he had been overseeing 127 engineers on three continents who were building a scalable optical switching system when the telecom bubble burst and the market collapsed. Wright planned to start his own company to develop optical subsystems, but by October 2003 he had yet to convince any venture capitalists to invest.

Then he got to talking with his neighbor, Martin Eberhard, who told Wright that he had just incorporated a company to build an all-electric car. Wright thought he was crazy but offered to critique Eberhard's rough business plan. By the end of the year, Wright had scrapped the optical switching start‚Äëup and joined Eberhard's Tesla Motors as employee No. 1 and vice president of vehicle development.

Wright worked full-out on the Tesla Motors design and was thrilled. "I never dreamed I would get a chance to put my interests in electronics and software and cars all together,"he says.

Tesla Motors was focused on building an electric car for the mass market. But Wright, while initially seduced by the promise of energy efficiency, had grown fascinated with the electric car's unique driving experience—the immediate response to changes in pedal pressure, the smooth acceleration without shifting, and what he calls stealth mode—the fact that you can blast through a neighborhood at 130 km/h without anybody hearing you. He wanted to build the highest-performance car possible, price be damned.

He left Tesla at the end of 2004 and started his own company, Wrightspeed, in January 2005. Working in a 278-square-meter workshop next to his Woodside, Calif., house, and living off savings and the engineering help of volunteers, Wright got a prototype running in October of that year. The Wrightspeed X1 is based on an Atom chassis from Ariel Motor Co., of Crewkerne, England, and is powered by an electrical drive system from AC Propulsion, of San Dimas, Calif. Wright himself did the system engineering, most of the prototype construction, and the fine-tuning of the control system.

Today, Wright spends his days pitching to venture capitalists and angel investors—he says he needs US $8 million to launch a successful business—which means innumerable test-drives, whipping around the streets of Burlingame, where his workshop is now located, and making heads turn. "I thought the thing would only appeal to performance-car nuts," he says. "But little kids love it, grandmothers love it, the cops like it—even the homeless people come up to chat with me about it."Not that most could afford an X1: the production model's price tag will probably be about $120 000.

Meanwhile, Wright has raced the car against some of the best: a Porsche Carrera GT and a Ferrari 360 Spider. He and his X1 won. He occasionally drives his children to school in it and has demonstrated the car for science classes at local schools. And, he says, driving to work has never been more fun.

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