Innovation Nation

Call it the Eureka Moment: The sudden, blinding flash of inspiration that leads to a new product or company. We asked four inventors to share the story of theirs.

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Small steps to a slim car
Small steps to a slim car
Rick Woodbury
Founder of Commuter Cars in Spokane

The Problem: One morning in 1982, Woodbury was stuck in rush-hour traffic on L.A.'s Interstate 405. Ironically, the day job he was crawling his way to was selling Porsches.

"There was one car per driver, one car per lane," says Woodbury. "But effectively, four times that space was wasted in unused seats and trunks."

The Moment: Woodbury did a bit of research and found that of 140 million U.S. workers, 106 million were single-occupant automotive commuters; 88% of all cars carried just one person. So he set out to design the Tango, a single-occupant, high-performance electric car.

Woodbury discovered that if he broke the vehicle's big electric motor into smaller units -- one for each wheel -- he could get blistering performance: zero to 60 in less than three seconds, and up to 100 mpg with careful driving. This from a freeway-ready car that was seven feet long and just three feet wide -- about the width of a Harley-Davidson.

The Payoff: Progress was slow for two decades as Woodbury built a successful textbook business and tinkered with the Tango in his spare time. In 1998, his wife persuaded him to sell his yacht and sink $50,000 into a new company, Commuter Cars.

A decade later, he has built 10 vehicles selling for roughly $121,000 each -- twice what the parts cost. This limited-run strategy has found a niche market: He counts George Clooney as a customer and Google co-founder Sergey Brin as an investor. Woodbury says he is on the verge of mass production.

Innovation Tip: Be patient. "Disruptive technologies are a slow-growth process," he says. Woodbury, 59, builds oodles of profit into his vehicles, so he needs little outside capital to grow. And that gives him a healthy margin of error to resolve manufacturing problems as they come up. -Jonathan Blum

NEXT: In search of a good drink

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LAST UPDATE: Oct 02 2009 | 10:21 AM ET
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