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.
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.
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.
"It's all from the bottom up where designers figure out how to make the car fit the need, which is really the opposite of what's happening in Detroit," says Richard Wilson, a former CNN science reporter who's familiar with the Carbon project.
"What is infuriating to us is that, seven years after 9/11, we've got our first responders in retail passenger cars that were designed 30 years ago for Sunday drives," says Mr. Li, the CEO. "This is not OK anymore."
Currently on a tour of the US, the E7 has a tendency to turn gruff police officers into "giggling schoolgirls," Wired Magazine quipped. By focusing on a captive market of municipalities and government agencies instead of consumers, Carbon is trying to ensure that it won't go the disastrous route of the DeLorean in the 1980s. That doesn't mean the E7 won't face some major roadblocks, including questions over dent repairs of the chassis, warranties, and sticker price (not yet announced).
"These are buyers which are not individuals, so they're not buying on styling or latest fad" says Glenn Mercer, director of the International Motor Vehicle Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "The timing, however, may turn out to be unfortunate in that police budgets are funded from property taxes and income taxes, and next year could be a slow year for buying police cars."
Lt. Matt Garrison of the Butts County, Ga., sheriff's department says there's good reason why the "upfitted" Crown Vic currently has 80 percent of the cop-car market: Reliable and relatively comfortable, the Crown Vic is easy to modify and repair – a proven entity. "I would certainly say with the Ford, it's probably not the best car that could ever be invented, but we've learned to adapt to them," he says.
Still, he's intrigued by the E7. "It's kinda cool-looking, I'll give it that," he says. Of the reverse-installed rear doors, he points out, "You could easily get a big boy in there."