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This police cruiser scans license plates, sniffs out 'dirty' bombs

The Carbon E7 has 'buzz,' but will departments buy it?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 12, 2008

RoboCop: The Carbon E7 prototype, now touring the US, will be available to police departments in 2012.

Courtesy of carbon motors

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Atlanta

Hundreds of American police chiefs meeting in San Diego this week couldn't stop talking about what they'd seen on the convention floor: the world's first "purpose-built" police car.

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More "RoboCop" than "Beverly Hills Cop," the Carbon E7 is a 300-horsepower bio-diesel-fueled bad-guy chaser equipped with sensors for weapons of mass destruction and automatic license-plate scanners. "It's really a homeland security machine, not a cop car," says William Li, CEO of Carbon Motors in Atlanta.

Faster and "greener" than the standby Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, Carbon Motors' car is a bold entry for a start-up company challenging an increasingly fragmented auto market.

But for all its bluster – "a new brand of justice," the promo kit proffers – Carbon Motors will have to win over police officers, a notably conservative blue brotherhood that may not want to trade the vehicle they know for a custom-built one they don't.

"There certainly is opportunity for niche vehicle manufacturers nowadays unlike any time since the beginning of the auto industry," says Brett Smith, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) in Ann Arbor, Mich. "There are market segments that larger car companies, especially in difficult economic times, don't have the resources to go after. The challenge for a start-up company is, how willing are your constituents to pay for it?"

Carbon Motors – a collaboration among a small team of investors, engineers, and Georgia Tech – needs to sell about 20,000 cars to the 240,000-vehicle US law-enforcement fleet to warrant its proposed 2012 production run. Its light plastic panels, a German-engineered drivetrain that nearly doubles the mileage compared with the market-dominant Crown Vic, and a green cachet with a biodiesel engine make it a stark contrast to the "rolling offices" that police use today.

In a wily move to gather engineering ideas and create viral marketing buzz, the company created a "Carbon Council" of nearly 2,000 beat officers across the United States who contributed 88 original ideas to the car – including a "hoseable" rear seat, an extra-wide driver's seat set into a helicopter cockpit-style front compartment, and side emergency lights to increase visibility and safety. Computer-aided design technology and outsourcing of the drivetrain have kept development costs low.

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