Why the Chinese are getting America's most efficient car and we're notS

Oliver Kuttner is tired. He's tired of your attitude. He's tired of your conclusions. Mostly, he's tired because he just got back from Germany and is so jet-lagged he's almost drunk. Germany was good. They get it in Germany. They definitely get it in China. Not here. Not in America. You don't get it and, even if you do get it, you're not doing anything about it.

His Edison2 team of ex-racing engineers and gearheads won the Automotive X-Prize with a gas-powered car, but he's not going to build it. And if he does he's almost certainly not going to build it here.

Oliver Kuttner is honest. Whether what he's saying represents the ravings of a mad inventor or God's own truth, there's no doubt he believes every word. As proof, the first thing the middle-aged Kuttner says when he slouches down in his chair in his seat in front of the audience is "I'm sorry, I slept through half the film."

A bold statement since the film is Revenge of the Electric Car, which he's been invited to speak about for a group of electric car enthusiasts. A group he'll spend roughly the next two hours convincing electric cars are kind of a bad idea, even if inevitable.

Why the Chinese are getting America's most efficient car and we're notS

A bold statement because he's built the best-performing electric car the EPA's ever measured. His car hit 347 eMPG, which is more than three times better than the Nissan Leaf.

The earnest college professor/collector of electric vehicles who is moderating the discussion tries to compliment him on the achievement. Calls him a visionary. Oliver Kuttner calls the record "accounting" and dismisses the praise with a wave of his weary hand.

Oliver Kuttner is not Elon Musk. He makes this point a number of times. He's stayed awake through enough of the film, and is familiar enough with Musk's experiences, to know he's not going down that road.

He's not going to get into manufacturing. Are you crazy? Sure, he admires Elon Musk. Who wouldn't? But he's convinced after all that work Musk's going to spend a billion dollars and eventually sell all his technology to Toyota and break even. If he's lucky.

Sure, he's got an order for 2,000 cars. More than Musk has. But there are plenty of people who can build a great factory. He can't do it. He won't do it. Name a car company started in the last fifty years that's still in business. He doesn't want to be Preston Tucker, either.

Oliver Kuttner doesn't know where his car is. And the communications manager for his company is catching on that I'm taking notes on my iPhone as we all huddle around this man. This man who won't stop talking. Who won't stop making sense.

Why the Chinese are getting America's most efficient car and we're notS

"He'll write down everything you say and he'll put it on the Internet. He writes for Jalopnik"

It's a warning. The communications manager would rather Kuttner go home. He has Kuttner's keys and knows where the car is parked. We've all been kicked out of the theater and are assembled in the foyer. We offer to help get Kuttner back to his car. Just keep talking.

Oliver Kuttner likes the Chinese. Go to a Chinese factory and you'll see equipment. So much new equipment. Gleaming European-built equipment. They want to build things.

Things like his Very Light Car, with its proprietary suspension and wheels on the outside. With its light weight. So light. You want a 400-pound car? He can build a 400-pound car. But that's too light. It'll blow into your neighbors yard. The lightest you can build a car is 1,000 pounds, but anyone who builds a bigger car is just wasting energy.

The Chinese are a perfect market. They don't know what a car is supposed to be. The idea of owning one is new. There's no prejudice. They want to save fuel. Same goes for India. He'd build a car in India. A huge population.

How are you going to improve the environment if the people in India all own cars now? Drive all the Nissan Leafs and Chevy Volts you want in America. You can't have an electric car in India. How will you power the thing? They can't even keep the lights on. You're dreaming.

Why the Chinese are getting America's most efficient car and we're notS

Cosco builds shipping containers. They wanted to build trucks. So they did. Tons of them. They can build cars, too.

Oliver Kuttner is worried. Worried about America. He'll always keep his design center in Virginia. He loves it here. But Americans don't make things anymore.

Your NAFTA cars aren't really built here. They're assembled here. Assembled from parts built in another country and shipped to Mexico. They're not American cars. There's no political will to build anything. To invest. Half of our economy is healthcare and financial services. What do we build?

People took the wrong lesson from Solyndra. We need more Solyndra. Not less. It's a $500 million failure, sure. But that money was invested. It's not a total loss. If you want to make something you have to try something.

So what if you fail 90% of the time? That 10% of the time you succeed you end up with something like Silicon Valley. We need ten Silicon Valleys.

Oliver Kuttner is pessimistic. Someone thought it would be a good idea to have a high-speed rail line from Washington to Boston. Someone spent 30 years on that idea. Now they're dead. It didn't happen while they were alive.

He'll be damned if he's going to have a good idea and beat his head against the wall for 30 years and then die.

Why the Chinese are getting America's most efficient car and we're notS

Oliver Kuttner is optimistic. Germany was good. The people in Germany at Siemens and Bayern are open to it. They have the funds. But it could be India. It could be anywhere. He knows he's got the right idea. Someone will buy into it. Someone will produce it. It's only a matter of time. Don't worry.

He's happy he didn't get a Department of Energy loan. They come up with a solution and give you funds to achieve it. What do they know? People are using that money, people like Fisker, to build the same car. It'll never work.

And because they don't have that money they're more thoughtful. His company sometimes doesn't build a car. They have to wait. Make the design better.

Everyone's trying to build cars out of carbon fiber. His original cars were carbon fiber. It was easy. But it's a joke. You're just transferring the energy saving costs into material costs. His new designs are all aluminum and steel.

Gordon Murray is a smart guy. He built the first mass-produced carbon fiber car. Now he's building a car out of composites and steel. What does that tell you?

Oliver Kuttner is my ride home. I don't know where his car is but the PR rep from the University of Virginia does. I follow them but I don't know where I am or how to get home. No worries. Kuttner's Jetta TDI can take me home.

And he's not worried about talking to me. He doesn't know what hour it is. Or maybe even what day. I feel like I might be taking advantage of him. But he knows what he's saying.

It's better to be open. It'll all work out.

Photo Credit: Matt Hardigree/Edison2