Mate Rimac and his electric dream

By Ivo Spigel on June 13th, 2012

Mate Rimac couldn’t believe his eyes. He had pulled over in the middle of the race on the Grobnik racetrack, near the Croatian port of Rijeka. Moments before, his engine had blown up, and where a powerful BMW M3 engine was supposed to be, Rimac could only see a smouldering heap of black, burnt-out metal. He swore then and there that he would race the BMW again – but not with internal combustion. He would go electric.

“Putting an electric motor into a car actually isn’t that hard” – he told me when we chatted at the headquarters of Rimac Automotive, near my hometown of Zagreb – “it’s what happens later that’s the challenge.”

The electric motor he and his team installed was definitely powerful. So powerful, in fact, that one mechanical part after another started breaking under stress. As the piece would brake, the crew would design and manufacture a replacement – and then the next part down the line would crack. Step by step, they ended up replacing everything inside the car except for the bodywork. Today, the “little green cube” – as they affectionately call it – is formally registered as having been “Made in Croatia”, as a product of Rimac Automotive.

It has standard, street-legal Zagreb license plates and Rimac drives it to and from work every day. Aside from the fact that it has an electric motor – by now the fifth version – that delivers 600 horsepower and goes, almost silently, from 0 to 100 km/hr in 3.3 seconds, you might not guess by looking at it that it’s anything else but an old, bright green BMW with fairly wide wheels. Rimac races it almost every weekend against souped-up “gasoline machines”.

“I usually win,” he comments with a slight smile. All I can say for my part, after taking a spin with Mate at the wheel, is that it goes really, really fast.

“We recovered 26 per cent of the energy we used!” Mate exclaimed proudly as we stepped out of the car. He was referring to regenerative braking. He is reading this data from a tablet computer hooked up next to the driver instruments. I noted that it had a Windows logo. “Sure” he smiled “no Apple here”.

Rimac Automotive is now developing a 1,088 HP monster of an electric supercar that will set you back roughly $1 million, if you have the cash to spare. But we’ll get to that in a moment. Let’s step back a few years to really understand Rimac and his electric dream.

He has always had, it seems, an inquisitive and innovative mind. For his high school graduation project, Rimac designed – and built – an electronic glove that could be programmed for various tasks, including replacing a computer keyboard. After winning local and national innovators’ competitions in Croatia, the teenage Rimac went on to storm similar such competitions in Japan and South Korea.

Aside from innovation, he has always had a taste for racing cars. Thus the BMW, exploded engine and his decision to work on electric cars that would not only leave Priuses and Nissan Leafs behind, but also Ferraris and Bugattis.

Rimac first started designing the components – battery modules, electric motors and so on – by himself, and then gradually built a team. “My dream was not to build the best electric car in the world. My dream was – and still is – simply to build the best supercar in the world, regardless of engine type. The electric motor, however, is so superior to internal combustion when used to power a car that there really is no comparison.”

With the work on the little cube – in automobile lingo, the “mule car” – showing visible progress as new versions of the various pieces were performing well, the team set their sights on an electric supercar. After a lot of development work, the prototype, Concept_One, was revealed at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September of last year.

Each wheel is powered by a separate 12,000 rpm, 250kW liquid-cooled permanent magnet motor for an overall 1088 HP and 1600 Nm of torque. The vehicle goes from 0 to 100 km/hr in 2.8 seconds with a limited maximum speed of 305 km/hr. Not too much to worry about in terms of charging: a full charge will let you drive around for 600 km; and with a properly set up 200 kw charging station – which you can probably afford after dishing up a cool $1 million for the car – you’ll be up and running in a mere 30 minutes.

I have to admit I’m not an automotive expert. I do know enough, however, to be perplexed by a range of 600 km on a single charge.

“It’s actually pretty simple” Rimac explains “most car manufacturers have to cut corners in design to fit into a certain price range. With our target market and very high price, we actually didn’t need to compromise on the technology, components, or materials.”

One thing that really fascinated me with this start-up project was the innovation. Sure, the numbers are awesome and the car is really beautiful. But to me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the project is that all of the critical pieces are designed in-house. The battery modules and, crucially, the battery management system, the electric motors, the chassis, body, wheels…

The company takes great care in selecting partners for the manufacturing process and, as it happens, they were able to source almost everything in Croatia, with the exception of a few highly specialised components, such as the airbags. The windshield and windows, for example, are made by the Croatian company Lipik Glass, which counts Bentley, Ferrari and Aston Martin amongst its clients.

Rimac is especially proud of the infotainment system – no analogue instruments here, only touch panels in front of the driver and in the mid column which can display a number of 3D images ranging from vital component data to the contents of the music library. “Most of our competitors use fairly basic infotainment,” said Rimac. “We wanted the system to be as advanced as the car technology.”

I had, to be honest, walked into this conversation with a very sceptical mind. Here’s an automotive start-up in Croatia, which has exactly zero industrial heritage to speak of when it comes to cars. Czech? Sure – Skoda was a powerhouse way before World War II. Germany? Italy? England? So many great brands, and such a rich history of automotive engineering and design. But then, I remembered another country and another industry.

How much past glory could California claim when it comes to mobile technology? GSM was a great success of European industrial strategy and out of that success came Nokia, Ericsson, Siemens and others with their handsets and networking technology. Who gave the right to Apple and Google to come along and disrupt the European market? Well… no one – they claimed it for themselves.

Rimac Automotive is starting from a clean slate. They are not trying to beat Toyota, Nissan or anybody else in the race to build the most popular electric car of tomorrow. In their simple quest to be the best, Rimac are actually laying claim to another position – that of the Ferrari of the electric age. As they pursue that dream, rapid advances in manufacturing technology, pieces of the puzzle, are falling into place for them.

Rimac has a machine on their shop floor. It’s roughly 3 metres high and 1.5 metres wide on both sides. Into that machine, they put a solid block of aluminium. On a computer that’s hooked up to it, there is a 3D computer-aided design model of a wheel. An engineer clicks a button with her mouse and, a few hours later, a wheel comes out of that machine, having been sculpted from that single block of metal. Not so long ago, the manufacturing facility to manufacture your own custom-designed wheels would have required part of a huge factory.

I asked Rimac how he plans to support the customers. And how much setting up a support service and network would cost the company. “Our cars need no regular service.” He answered calmly, as if explaining to a child. “There is no oil to change and very few moving parts. Of course, something may always go wrong, it’s a sophisticated machine. In that case, the owner hooks the car up to the Internet. We do online diagnostics, and if we can’t solve the problem by debugging a specific component, we flash the car.”

With around 300 processors, the car is basically a high-powered distributed computer that also has four wheels and a 3D infotainment system

“You could put it that way… But in any case, there’s always the possibility that something mechanical might break down, which would require physical repair. In that case, we fly one of our people out to wherever it might be that the problem happened and send the necessary part with them. Since the heaviest component of the car is 90 kilograms, it’s not a big issue.”

The team does not expect sales to be a problem. They have been touring the high-class automotive shows in places such as Monaco, Villa d’Este and Moscow. Deep-pocketed buyers seem to have shown a lot of interest, and the first down-payments are coming into the account as I write. It’s all early stage, as the team understands, and today’s buyers might get cold feet before actual delivery, which should start in 2014 and proceed at a rate of 10 to 15 vehicles a year. The biggest problem Rimac faces is growth capital.

“We plan to launch a new vehicle range every three years, with a price tag at roughly half the previous one. We are looking at something in the range of $500,000 in 2017 and $250,000 in 2020. To do this, we need to go from this small manufacturing shop to a factory – small, of course, but still a proper factory.

“That would mean that we would need to train generations of engineers and specialists in electric vehicle propulsion and design. Croatia would then become a global centre of excellence, and the impact of our work would go way beyond the pleasure our customers get from driving our cars.”

Rimac Automotive is a bootstrapped start-up. Mate has the good fortune of coming from a wealthy family, his father being an entrepreneur himself. The family business funded operations in the early days, but that was a while ago. Since then, the company’s revenues come from providing engineering and consulting services to other – mostly smaller and midsize – car manufacturers that need their expertise to build their own electric cars.

In the future, plans are for 60 per cent of revenues to come from Concept_One sales, 20 per cent from selling components, such as battery modules and motors, and 20 per cent from engineering and consulting services.

I felt a bit strange speaking with Mate Rimac. He is a very young man, in his mid twenties, and comes across as such a… regular guy. Wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, the “conference room” where we spoke obviously doubled as a kitchen for the team. A coffee machine sat in one corner, a pack of mineral water in another.

He spoke with such admiration of his competitors, who are also his role models – Christian von Koenigsegg and Horacio Pagani. This regular guy had achieved quite a lot by now, but one gets the sense that he is only getting warmed up.

Sceptics abound, of course, and that is quite normal. There are so many obstacles ahead – as there are for every high tech start-up – that the whole project might break down at any critical moment down the road. Will the customers really line up? Will the manufacturing of the actual cars – even in such small series – be as flawless as it needs to be at this price range? Will the Rimac team pull through the inevitable hairy situations?

You and I may not be driving a Rimac electric supercar anytime soon. However, as the age of the electric car finally arrives, the technology being developed on the outskirts of Zagreb may very well be incorporated into our future two-seaters, family minivans or black cabs. Mate Rimac, in many ways walking in the steps of Nikola Tesla, is determined not to repeat the errors of that legendary inventor.

Editor’s Note: subsequent to filing this article, the author became an adviser to Rimac Automotive.