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Eugene Weekly : News : 9.10.09




Arcimoto

New electric car could give Eugene a boost

by Rick Levin

Detroit could not be further removed from Eugene, sociologically speaking. But if the stars align just right, the market makes an uptick or two, and more and more consumers continue to “go green,” the Emerald City might just become what Motor City once was: a thriving hive of automotive ingenuity and demand-driven production.

At least, that’s the dream of Mark Frohnmayer, founder and financier of Arcimoto, a Whiteaker-based limited liability corporation that launches its first electric vehicle later this month in Portland. The vehicle — a sleek, sporty tripod that sits on single rear wheel, like an inverted triangle — is yet unnamed, with a survey that asked fans to choose a preference from among such monikers as the “Way,” the “Pulse,” the “Thrive” and the “Firefly” (voting ended Tuesday, Sept. 8).

Founded in 2007, Arcimoto is the second major business project for Frohnmayer, who made his initial fortune with Garage Games, a local venture which, over the course of 12 years, he grew from a basement start-up into a successful video gaming company. When Frohnmayer became, in his words, “burned out on that concept,” he suddenly found himself with “resources that I’d never really had access to before, trying to find ways to direct them.”

Initially he embarked on several different projects — “adventures,” he calls them — including a redevelopment scheme that would make the corner of 5th and Blair “more energy efficient,” Frohnmayer said. He was looking at that part of town as a kind of “social incubator” that would foster creativity and collaboration — all with “a definite focus on green,” he said. The Arcimoto factory sits across the street from Sam Bond’s, near Papa’s Soul Food Kitchen, emphasizing Frohnmayer’s commitment to the idea of creating “a space that would host creativity” as well as a “place where the community could come together.”

In part, “a lack of community cohesion” has informed Frohnmayer’s business decisions. For instance, the genesis of Arcimoto rests largely in Frohnmayer’s sense that, as a society, we are facing a complex web of challenges including issues of energy consumption, transportation problems and the proliferation of toxins in the environment. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s just so out there, we’ve got to do something about this stuff,” he said. As a self-proclaimed glass-half-full sort of guy, he said he believes those problems are “simpler to solve than they seem.”

One of those problems, he says, is the amount of space, time and energy consumed by gas-fueled cars, especially those driven by single occupants. “When you think about the amount of our civic space that’s taken up by asphalt, it’s truly overwhelming,” he said. “There really is no market solution that addresses that use well — and by well, I mean efficiently.”

Frohnmayer, a bike commuter who has been “car-free” for five years, said that he wanted to design a mode of personal transportation that was both functional and eco-friendly, while also attaining a viable level of mass-market appeal. He looked for inspiration into several existing prototypes, including the BugE go-car created by Creswell resident Mark Murphy. 

For a while, he said, he considered making a kit car. However, in order to achieve the kind of commercial success he was seeking, Frohnmayer and his team of 15 engineers and builders had to push the idea even further. Along with compactness and energy efficiency, they wanted drivers to experience the comfort of large interiors with full enclosure. “We ended up starting from scratch and building a whole new vehicle,” he said.

The result, after moving through several prototypes, is what Frohnmayer calls a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car. “Arcimoto is, technically speaking, what is called an electric motorcycle,” he said, a design that fulfills his dual desires for compactness and comfort. “It’s just an ultra-efficient platform,” he said. “The idea is to be as efficient as possible.”

Frohnmayer credits the success of the vehicle’s innovative design to the ambition and smarts of Arcimoto’s small, youthful staff, which includes CEO Erik Stoffle and production lead Joe Morgan. “The leadership philosophy … brings out the best in the people who are participating,” he said, adding that Arcimoto’s approach has been holistic and engaged rather than vertically integrated and paternalistic — each member feels equally empowered and invested in the project and therefore equally responsible for the final product, Frohnmayer said.

After pushing back its “go live” date several times, Arcimoto scrapped its original plans of debuting an electric vehicle during the Eugene Celebration, settling instead on Sept. 23 at Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square. Earlier this month Gov. Ted Kulongoski took a test ride in an Arcimoto and, according to the company’s Twitter feed (twitter.com/arcimoto), the politician was duly impressed. Whether Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy will receive her sample scoot around the town of the vehicle’s birth remains to be seen.