Micro Turbine Diesel-Electric Hybrid Creates a Buzz at Los Angeles Auto Show

It rivals Ferrari in its sporty good-looks, more than doubles the driving range of GM’s Volt and it debuted at last week’s Los Angeles Auto Show. It’s the world’s first micro turbine hybrid-electric sports car from upstart automaker Capstone Turbine Corporation of Chatsworth, California?

You say you’ve never heard of Capstone before? You’re not alone. Few people had before last week’s launch of the CMT-380 in Los Angeles.

Capstone Turbine Corporation partner and vice president of sales and marketing Jim Crouse said, "It’s a jet engine on wheels."

With its sleek lines and matte black finish, the CMT-308 looks and performs like something from a Batman movie. Its creators say the 240-hp vehicle can go from a dead start to 60 mph in a mere 3.9 seconds. That’s only slightly less explosive than the new 561-hp Mercedez-Benz AMG gull wing and the Lexus LFA sports coupe that carries a sticker price of around $375,000.

Capstone claims the car has a top battery-powered speed of 150 mph. Aided by its C30 micro turbine generator, the CMT-308 has an operational range of up to 500 miles with the first 80 being driven under battery power. That’s twice the range the Chevy Volt can achieve with its gas-powered generator. The company also claims that its micro turbine, which runs on diesel and bio diesel, rivals any hybrid on the market in terms of low emissions.

Although far from a household name, Capstone was at the forefront of hybrid engine research and development. Founded in 1988, the Capstone Turbine Corporation, then known as NoMac Energy Systems, began developing small gas turbines for the automotive sector, but their timing was off. Oil prices remained low and environmental concern was considered a well-intentioned fad rather than the global imperative it has become in the recent years.

Capstone Turbines continued and has produced over 5,000 micro turbines that provide power for hospitals, offices, industrial facilities and diesel-electric hybrid busses around the world.

The company has grown into a publicly traded enterprise with over 200 employees and gross receipts of $48 million in 2008.

Five years ago, Electronic Arts’ chief creative director Richard Hilleman partnered with Capstone to work on a viable automotive application for the C30 micro turbine. The 48-year-old driving force behind such electronic gaming successes as “John Madden Football” and “Tiger Woods Golf” is a former nuclear test site electrician and avid electric car enthusiast whose past accomplishments include converting his vintage Porsche Spyder into a 200-hp electric.

Hilleman quips, "I’ve been responsible for both scourges of the 20th century – nuclear devices and video games. Now this.”

The last five years have been dedicated to developing the C30 micro turbine and CMT-308 electric-diesel hybrid. Hilleman says the C30 micro turbine generates 3- kilowatts of electricity and enables the CMT-308 to achieve an equivalent fuel-efficiency rating of between 75 mpg and 210 mpg, depending on the measurement standards used.

The C30 micro turbine currently sells for $30,000 but company officials say the price could be reduced to perhaps one-tenth that amount once the device went into mass production.

Unlike some startup EV companies, Capstone and Hilleman say they have no aspirations of going into the automotive business. Instead, they hope to sell their designs to an established or aspiring automaker.

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