The Carbon Motors E7 prototype patrol vehicle looks something like a cross between an exotic sports car and a prop vehicle from a science fiction film. Its body styling is dynamic, muscular, almost startling, and it has the ability to visibly excite police audiences.
But its real beauty is much more than skin deep. It has a scalloped driver's seat that allows a full-size human being loaded down with cop gear to get in and out easily; it has a molded plastic passenger compartment that can be hosed out and even features two drain plugs in the floor board; it has side airbags to prevent the driver from dying in a T-bone accident; and it has a built-in computer and communications system that can be operated by voice command. In other words, the E7 was built to enhance the efficiency, comfort, convenience, and on-the-job safety of police officers.
The E7 patrol vehicle, scheduled to be produced in 2012, is a product of collaboration between law enforcement officers and forward-thinking auto executives.
It began in the imagination of Stacy Dean Stephens, a former patrol officer in the Dallas suburb of Coppell, Texas, who started to wonder why no one had ever made a purpose-built patrol car for law enforcement officers. After all, Stephens thought, firefighters and soldiers have vehicles built specifically for their missions. So why not cops?
After several of his fellow Texas officers were killed or badly injured in patrol car accidents, Stephens said to himself, "Enough is enough." And he decided to undertake what many would consider a fool's quest: He decided to convince car execs that cops need a new car that is built just for law enforcement duty.
Stephens, who is now co-founder and sales development manager of Atlanta-based Carbon Motors, started making a pest of himself. And he finally found a guy who was willing to listen: William Santana Li, a former Ford executive who was looking for a challenge.
Li, like Stephens, has a dream: He wants to change the way that cars are made in America. He believes that the auto industry had overlooked certain markets that could be quite lucrative. "I was looking at various niches and law enforcement was on my radar when Stacy contacted me," Li says.
So when Stephens brought the idea of a purpose-built patrol car to Li, the auto exec decided to listen to the pitch out of courtesy and respect for a first responder. And because the idea intrigued him, he told Stephens that he had 30 days to convince him that such an undertaking was viable.
Li is now CEO of Carbon Motors. "If he knew then what he knows now, he might not have given me the 30 days," says Stephens with a laugh. "I can be pretty tenacious."
The two men formed the company right after 9/11. Li gathered a team of engineers and auto manufacturing experts to build the car. And Stephens developed a method for bringing potential customers into the development, creating what he calls the "Carbon Council," a Web (www.carbonmotors.com) community for officers who want to sign up for information on the E7 and give input into what they want in the car.
What the Carbon Council and other potential customers demanded was a high-performance patrol car, with great fuel economy, full of safety features, and 21st century high technology such as voice recognition capability. Oh, and the other demand was that it couldn't cost more than the current patrol vehicles in use with American police agencies.
Less confident business people would have thrown in the towel looking at that list of demands. But Li and Stephens haven't looked back. The customers' wish list was exactly the car that they wanted to make, and they believe they can succeed where so many have failed.
Recently, Carbon Motors took a giant step toward its goal. It debuted a working prototype of its patrol vehicle at November's International Association of Chiefs of Police conference and trade show in San Diego.
The prototype is pretty much a proof of concept. It has the same equipment as the proposed production model, including integrated emergency lights, computer, radar, radio, and other police equipment. It has the same body. And it has police markings. However, it doesn't have the engine or the brakes that Carbon says it will incorporate into the production model.
According to Carbon, the engine will be a 3.0 liter forced induction "clean" diesel that generates 300 horsepower and 420 foot-pounds of torque. The result will be a two-ton police vehicle that can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds and reach a top speed of 155 mph. The E7's brakes will reportedly stop the car from 60 mph in 125 feet, and Stephens says he is confident that the 18-inch wheels will give the car brake rotors big enough to handle the demands of law enforcement pursuit driving as well or better than any existing police vehicle.
Even the most skeptical of Carbon's critics say they believe the car will be able to deliver everything that the company promises, except one thing: They don't think the company can reach its pricing goal.
Li and Stephens are confident that their car will be competitive. Neither would discuss specific pricing, but they would say that when you consider that the E7 will come fully equipped for police duty, that the company is pledging 250,000-mile durability (vs. 75,000-mile durability for some key competitors), and the fuel savings afforded by the diesel engine that the overall cost will be comparable to that of other manufacturers.
The other big question that rises in the minds of many people who doubt Carbon will be viable is: How will the cars be serviced? Stephens says Carbon will train personnel at larger agencies how to maintain and repair the cars themselves. Smaller agencies will likely have their cars serviced at nearby "Carbon Service Centers" run by larger agencies.
Stephens cites Chicago as an example of a city that has facilities capable of servicing the vehicles of surrounding agencies. "They have a tremendous maintenance facility and, if they set that up as a Carbon Service Center, then they are providing service to other agencies and providing themselves with an additional stream of revenue," he says.
A lot of details are still up in the air about Carbon's business model. The company has not chosen a location for its assembly plant. All it will commit to is that the facility will be in the United States. It also hasn't selected a manufacturer for its high-performance clean diesel engine. At a meeting of the Carbon Council at IACP, the audience was told that the engine would be made by a European company that has great experience making diesel engines for automobiles.
Stephens says that as soon as the E7 is ready, it will be taken to the Michigan State Police tests. "I've had many conversations with the head of the test team," he says. "They were some of the first guys to see the E7. We wanted to bring them into the picture before anybody else."
When, if, the E7 goes into production, it will be rolled out region by region. And even though the car is still very much in development—as is the company that plans to make it—enthusiasm at events like IACP is palpable.
That excitement has translated into serious demand. Without having an actual product to sell, the company is taking pledges from interested agencies. "Several hundred agencies have actually started putting in reservations," says Li. "We have begun taking these reservations so that we can figure where we are going to be selling these vehicles first."