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Innovative design comes in new Boxx

Entrepreneur hopes hipness drives demand for electric moped
The Boxx, an electric moped created in Portland, makes its public debut today at the Portland auto show.

If Steve Jobs designed an electric moped, it might have had the look and sensibilities of a Boxx.

Largely shrouded in secrecy until its public unveiling at this week's 2012 Portland International Auto Show, the Boxx resembles a giant upright iMac with wheels, handlebars and seat attached.

In a style reminiscent of innovator Jobs, the recently departed Apple visionary, Portlander Eric Vaughn has orchestrated the custom design of every component of his new moped, including the Boxx body, motor, tires, lights, all-wheel drive and electronic controls.

'I design, from the ground up, every detail,' says the 36-year-old Boxx design engineer, founder and chief executive officer.

Vaughn even wrote 80-page drafts of several patent applications, with editing help from a lawyer.

Early Web comments about the Boxx, based on Vaughn's carefully controlled release of photos and specs, have been a mix of excited anticipation and sarcasm. Motorcycle aficionados have likened it to a suitcase, a briefcase, a Zippo lighter, an ink cartridge and a Yugo.

Four Boxxes - each in a different color - are set to go on display at the auto show.

There's clearly a growing demand for ecofriendly electric vehicles in Portland and around the world. A Pike Research report estimates that 17 million electric scooters and motorcycle were sold worldwide in 2011, primarily in Asia, and Pike calls the market 'still in its infancy.'

Now we'll see if the Boxx's unique look and features, and $3,995 price tag, can make a dent in that market.

Coolness factor pivotal

There's no longer any doubt about whether we have the technology to build electric vehicles, says Jeff Allen, newly named executive director of Drive Oregon, a trade group for the state's electric vehicle industry.

'The question is, do people want to buy them?' Allen asks.

Some say the hipness factor of a new electric vehicle is just as important as the quality of the ride, the ecofriendly benefits and the price tag.

Vaughn wouldn't allow a Portland Tribune photographer to take his picture, trying to focus news coverage on his product, not himself. But the credibility of his invention, to a certain extent, is intertwined with his own.

Vaughn grew up in Bend, watching his father build a small manufacturing business. He attended numerous colleges, eventually amassing 634 credit hours.

Vaughn landed in the TV business in Vancouver, B.C., serving as a visual designer for 'Stargate' and other shows.

'I had three or four Emmy nominations in my early 20s,' Vaughn says.

Later, he returned to Oregon to work for Ziba Design, Portland's respected design consultancy that works with worldwide clients. After three years there, Vaughn shifted to doing product design and consulting for multiple electric vehicle startups in Portland.

He grew impatient, determined to do things differently in his own business after coming up with the Boxx idea in April 2009. He insists Boxx is no longer a startup, though it has only presold four of the mopeds and was still assembling the four models for the auto show when he was interviewed last week.

'I do pretty much the exact opposite of what everyone else tells me I ought to do,' Vaughn says. 'I specifically hired people who don't have any startup experience. I try to get people without any preconceived notions.'

So far, he's the lone employee of Boxx, though he contracts with six engineers - all motorcycle guys - and another eight people, plus a network of international suppliers and manufacturers. He's got financial backing from the Dubai-based unit of Australia's largest investment firm, plus three other shareholders, Vaughn says.

Vaughn started by drawing the Boxx, then figuring out how to make it all work as he envisioned.

He diligently sought patents as he and his collaborators came up with new designs from his modest Southeast Portland workshop. He filed for 12 patents in the key world markets: Europe, India, China, Brazil, the United States and Japan.

'The U.S. is the weakest scooter market,' Vaughn says, 'but it's growing.'

After earning several patents, he says, the company now 'owns' the boxy design and other key features of the moped.

Simple but sophisticated

Vaughn says he designed the Boxx to be simple to ride and non-intimidating, giving it more appeal for women and older riders, among others. But motorcycle enthusiasts also will be intrigued with its unique features, including all-wheel drive, he says. Vaughn claims it's the first all-wheel-drive, two-wheeled vehicle, making it suitable for on-road or off-road use.

The Boxx is only about 40 inches long and weighs 120 pounds, small enough to be shipped like a television via a United Parcel Service delivery truck. There's no gasoline or oil, so it's light enough and clean enough to be stored inside an apartment, Vaughn says. The outer box is one solid aluminum unit with no exterior bolts.

Boxx comes with two storage spaces large enough to hold grocery bags. The standard battery will last for 40 miles, though there's space to put a second battery, enabling the rider to stay on the road without recharging for 80 miles.

One of his patented creations is called the Cube, a box that has all the key electronic controls and can be easily removed. If repairs are needed, the owner can ship the Cube and have it replaced, Vaughn says.

'It's sophisticated, but it's exceedingly simple,' he says.

He'll limit the moped's speed to less than 30 miles an hour, so it's street-legal on regular roads without requiring a motorcyclists' license.

Mopeds don't have to meet road-testing and safety requirements of motorcycles or cars. But Vaughn says he made sure the tires and lights meet the higher safety standards set by the federal government.

One of the more intriguing safety features, likely to evoke some 'oohs' and 'aahs,' is a laser beam that creates the appearance of two lines of light parallel to the moped on either side. The beams are 1.5 inches wide, two feet out on either side.

'It's a virtual lane,' he says, letting other motorists know the space the moped occupies on the road.

Under the radar

Vaughn has deliberately kept a lid on publicity about the Boxx. However, that's about to change after its coming-out party at the auto show.

Boxx has been under the radar to date, says James Mast, a former Portland Development Commission staffer promoting the electric vehicle industry who is consulting in the field.

'It'd definitely a cool-looking product,' Mast says. 'I'd like to see it in action.'

Vaughn says he'll start building a sales operation the second quarter of the year. Eventually, he hopes to open assembly operations in each of the world markets where he operates, while maintaining an engineering and management base in Portland.

He may be a dreamer, but he's given a lot of thought to this dream.