Urbee 2, the 3D-Printed Car that will drive across the country


In early 1903, physician and car enthusiast Horatio Nelson Jackson accepted a $50 bet that he could not cross the United States by car. Just a few weeks later, on May 23, he and mechanic Sewall K. Crocker climbed into a 20-hp Winton in San Francisco and headed east. Accompanied by Bud, a pit bull they picked up along the way, the two men arrived in New York 63 days, 12 hours, and 800 gallons of fuel later, completing the nation's first cross-country drive.

About two years from now, Cody and Tyler Kor, now 20 and 22 years old, respectively, will drive coast-to-coast in the lozenge-shaped Urbee 2, a car made mostly by 3D printing. Like Jackson and Crocker, the young men will take a dog along for the ride—Cupid, their collie and blue heeler mix. Unlike Jackson and Crocker, they will spend just 10 gallons of fuel to complete the trip from New York to San Francisco. Then they will refuel, turn around, and follow the same west-to-east route taken by Jackson, Crocker, and Bud.

Cody and Tyler's father, Jim Kor, beams when he talks about the trip. "The Google time estimate is 44 hours, but it will take a bit longer, I'm sure," says Kor, president of Kor Ecologic and team leader of the Urbee 2 project. "You know, the dog has to pee and whatnot. And we could have a breakdown. But it will be a swift and efficient trip."

Jim Kor described this ambitious endeavor at the Manufacturing the Future Summit on Wednesday. Stratasys, a global additive-manufacturing company, hosted the event at its Eden Prairie, Minn., headquarters. PopMech joined a small group of journalists at the meeting, which featured presentations by many early adopters of 3D printing.

The terms additive manufacturing and 3D printing are synonymous. A computer-aided design (CAD) file is uploaded to a 3D printer, which reads the file and creates the object, using, for example, PolyJet or Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) systems. A PolyJet machine uses liquid resins to build an object one microscopic layer at a time, following the CAD file’s code, and then cures the material with UV lights. FDM is a similar process, but it uses molten polymers. Printers can be as small as a microwave oven (such as MakerBot's desktop models) or as large as a minivan. The biggest Stratasys model, the Fortus 900mc, is more than 9 feet long and 6 feet tall and weighs about 6600 pounds. It can print objects up to 36 by 24 inches.

Stratasys, which went into business in 1994, is growing fast. In August, it acquired MakerBot, the Brooklyn-based leader in desktop 3D printing, for a reported $604 million. It has 1600 employees worldwide, with offices in Israel, Asia, South America, and Europe. Its production arm, RedEye, has factories in Belgium, Turkey, and Australia, and at two other U.S. locations besides Eden Prairie. At Wednesday's press event, RedEye vice president Jim Bartel announced that the company would build production facilities in Shanghai in 2014.

Sratasys has clients who testified at the summit about using its technology to make prototyping and producing their wares faster and cheaper. But Jim Kor was the star of the show. He was fidgety when he started his presentation, "Sustainable Cars and the Future of Manufacturing," in front of about 25 people in a ground-floor conference room. "I'm an introvert," he said, nervously stroking his salt-and-pepper beard. "Actually, it's worse than that—I'm a hermit."

Kor got over his dislike of public speaking, and during his talk and in subsequent interviews with PopMech, he described the years-long development of the first Urbee car and the grand plan for Urbee 2's cross-country odyssey.

The aha moment came over lunch one day in 1996, at the Sunstone Cafe in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Kor lives and works. He and a team of seven other designers and engineers had just finished making and testing the Solos personal rapid transit vehicle (also known as a podcar), which ran on rails. It was an efficient design, propelled by a small electric motor and human power, but a rail system would have to be created to support its use. "We should take a version of that vehicle and put it on the road, because the roads are already there," one of Kor's colleagues said.

Kor was intrigued by the idea, and began sketching on a paper napkin. "It was a side view of a car that looked like a more aerodynamic Smart car, a two-seater," he says. Within days, conceptualization and design work began on a vehicle intended for urban use, powered by electric motors and a small, ethanol-fueled combustion engine. Those key words—urban, electric, ethanol—gave the Urbee its name, and Kor Ecologic spent more than a decade refining the design.

The primary challenge was aerodynamics. In his presentation at Stratasys, Kor mentioned how a sprinting cheetah flattens its ears onto the top of its head and a falcon speeds through the air with its feet held flush with its body. "Nature is my inspiration," he said.

By the fall of 2008, Kor and his team had a full computer model and a partial physical model of a hybrid that would get about 300 mpg. The process was smooth—Kor has worked with the same group of designers and engineers for decades—but not without some disagreement. "There were two of us that knew the aerodynamics really well, and two industrial designers," Kor recalls. "The industrial designers kept saying, 'It can't look like a jellybean.' But I was adamant that the design must be efficient first, and then we would design for the look. Most cars are done the other way around—they start with how they want the car to look, and then they try to find ways to make it efficient."

Kor's team modeled the Urbee's exterior in clay at 60 percent scale. The Urbee's aerodynamics were impressive, with a coefficient of drag (Cd) of about 0.149. (By comparison, a Prius has a Cd of about 0.25.) But while creating the CAD file of the exterior was a major step, it was still too early to celebrate. "We had everything in the computer but no way out," Kor says.

Regardless, he felt so confident that the car would be built that he decided to enter the Automotive X Prize (AXP), plunking down $10,000 and registering ahead of the February 2009 filing deadline. But building the working prototype proved more difficult than Kor and his team expected. Making the body from fiberglass molding, it turned out, would have required creating a full-scale model of the exterior, creating the molds, laying in the fiberglass, extracting the fiberglass, and then fitting the pieces together. The process would have taken up to 10 months, at least, and the parts would need a lot of tweaking to perfect the fit. Kor would end up dropping out of the X Prize competition.

But in mid-2010, Kor received an email from one of his industrial designers, Terry Halajko. The message contained a link to the Stratasys site. "Look at the size of the parts they can make!" Halajko wrote.

Kor contacted Stratasys, and talked with engineers at RedEye about the 3D printing process. It started with a 1/6th-scale model. Working via CAD, Kor's team sliced up the exterior—the body and glass panels—into 20 pieces, each of a size that the Stratasys printers could produce. The scale model was a success, so production on the full-size parts began.

"The body was printed from basic white ABS [acrylonitrile butadiene styrene]," Kor says. "We were cautious about the thickness—we didn't want the first body to be too weak—and made it thicker than we originally felt necessary. It was 1/4-inch thick all around. In certain places, we added a simple crisscross egg-crate structure to the inside to stiffen the panels further. So, the first body was just a skin with some basic internal bracing added."

While Kor was disappointed to have had to withdraw from the Automotive X Prize competition, he says that it gave the Urbee an unexpected boost. Before the AXP, the idea of a mass-produced electric car was "somewhat beyond the public imagination." Kor says that when he started designing and building the Urbee, a team member mentioned—while in the locker room, dressing for a soccer game—that he was working on an electric car. "The room fell silent," Kor says. "No one was really thinking about electric cars at the time. But I felt a change in attitude after the X Prize."

Urbee made its first big public appearance at the SEMA Show, in Las Vegas, in November 2010. The car drew high praise—and some snark. The headline on Autoblog Green read, "SEMA 2010: Urbee concept has just one word for us: 'Plastics.'" But Kor was ecstatic. "On our way back from SEMA in Vegas ... WOW!!" he wrote in a Nov. 8, 2010, Facebook post.

Plans to build Urbee 2 started immediately after the show. A three-wheeled car steered by the single rear wheel, Urbee 2 will weigh about 1200 pounds and be capable of about 70 mph, Kor says. A single-cylinder 7-hp engine, using either diesel or ethanol and networked batteries driving two electric motors that produce the equivalent of 16 hp at peak output, will power it. The chassis and framing will consist of chrome-moly steel tubing, making the car strong enough to meet—or even exceed—road-worthy safety standards. "We are basing the structure on racing cars, like you find in NASCAR or drag racing," Kor says.

And, of course, Urbee 2 will have the same calling card as its predecessor: "With Urbee 2, more than 50 percent of the car will be 3D printed," Kor says. "Everything you typically see and touch on the car, as you drive the car, will be 3D printed."

Kor, who must raise $3 million to make Urbee 2, says he hopes to see it in production soon after the cross-country trip. Depending on how many of the cars are produced yearly, Kor says, the sticker price could be anywhere between $16,000 and $50,000. It is meant to be a practical, accessible car. But what's equally or perhaps even more important to Kor is that Urbee 2 will have a minimal environmental impact—thanks, in large part, to 3D printing. Compared to a traditional auto plant, the Urbee production facilities would be inexpensive to build and run, largely because the 50 parts comprising the body could be made on-site by 3D printers.

“3D printing makes Urbee more sustainable,” Kor says. “That is the promise of this emerging and potentially disruptive technology. Additive manufacturing—specifically, using 3D printing to make end-use parts—will allow us to design better than ever, especially regarding biomimicry and sustainability. And designing for sustainability can arguably be stated to be humanity’s biggest and most important challenge of the coming century. It’s something we absolutely need to get right.”

It's easy to be skeptical of such a radical vehicle, though less of a stretch since the introduction of the Tesla and other electric models, as well as highly efficient hybrids. But Kor chose the cross-country rollout deliberately. After all, more than a century ago, the person who bet against Horatio Nelson Jackson lost his $50.

[Related: 18 Strangest Roadways In The World]