NLO Fortify no. 8 2019
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no. 8 | volume 6 | summer 2019

Interview with Chris van den brink

The new Carver: rebellious yet practical

In 2002, an earlier version of the Carver had the presenters of the motoring programme Top Gear jumping for joy. Now, in 2019, a completely new version is about to be launched on the market. The electric three-wheeler with an enclosed cabin is much more practical and affordable than its predecessor, while still offering a sensational driving experience. The secret behind the Carver is its dynamic tilting chassis developed by inventor Chris van den Brink. "Even after 20 years, I still think driving a Carver is a fantastic experience; why it hasn't caught on more widely remains a mystery to me."

The same was true of snowboarding, another activity which Van den Brink discovered early on but which practically no-one else knew about at the time. A skilled lathe, milling and welding operator from a young age, he therefore decided to make his first snowboards himself. After all, who wouldn't prefer to fly around corners on a board specially designed for the purpose rather than make do with traditional skis, which just want to point straight ahead? In fact, Van den Brink thought snowboarding was so ‘cool’ that by 1988 he was working as a professional snowboarder in Austria, even before completing his aeronautical engineering degree in Haarlem, the Netherlands. "Because I arrived on the scene so early, it wasn’t long before I was good enough to be a pro." In the summer of 1994, Van den Brink reluctantly returned to the Netherlands to complete his studies at his father's insistence. "I came back the day before my final exam. I was good at learning so I got through, but haven’t used my qualifications since." His father, whose firm made injection moulding components, was keen to build a one-man-wide vehicle that was far more efficient, economic and eco-friendly than standard cars. The rationale was: why use 2,000 kg of steel to transport one person weighing 80 kg? So he asked a couple of students to work up various ideas. The most promising was a two-wheeled design with a tilting driver’s cabin and foldable side-wheels for added stability.

The penny drops

One of these co-designers was Harry Kroonen, who’s still Van den Brink’s right-hand man and “sparring partner for crazy ideas”. The two men decided to build a prototype together (given that there wasn't much snowboarding in the summer anyway). "That first model, with two wheels and a side-wheel, was a complete failure. It steered like a car but cornered like a motorbike. Almost no-one could get to grips with it." Plus there were some technical glitches. When the vehicle tilted, the cabin would sometimes get stuck and be unable to return to the vertical. The tilted cabin exerted an enormous pull on the steering wheel when you tried to drive off. "And that’s when the penny dropped! The torque exerted on the steering wheel is an exact indicator of how out of alignment you are. So when the torque is zero, you’re at the correct angle. The same applies when you’re taking a corner."


Using the ‘steering torque defines angle of tilt’ principle, they built a new prototype, this time with two rear wheels and a single wheel in front. This worked straightaway and everyone who tested it drove off very easily. There was an added bonus: tilting over without any feeling of sideways ‘pull’ when cornering also gave you a spectacular driving experience. Van den Brink senior wanted to call the model the EcoCar, but Chris was strongly against this. "In those days, eco wasn’t cool; telling people a car was eco-friendly wasn’t going to sell it. Perhaps today, but not then. Instead, I wanted to stress the amazing driving experience it gave you. The concept is rebellious yet practical, rather like snowboarding." And so the Van den Brink Carver, named after a cornering technique in snowboarding, was born.

Impregnable market

The Van den Brinks never intended to build Carvers for the mass market themselves. They did, however, make 24 models, all approved by the Dutch vehicle licensing agency RDW, which they used to try to persuade mainstream car manufacturers to license their technology. “We decided right from the start to protect the underlying innovative principle – ‘steering torque defines angle of tilt’ – by taking out a basic patent on it. In fact, it’s a principle that's based on pure physics rather than any true engineering intelligence. I therefore still think it’s amazing that we were able to lay claim to such a fundamental law of physics, albeit combined with applied technical know-how." This principle was behind all the vehicles Van den Brink was to build in subsequent years.

After patenting his idea, Van den Brink took the CEOs of practically all the major car manufacturers out for a drive in a Carver. Responses varied from wildly enthusiastic to complete lack of interest and shameless attempts at imitation. Fiat showed the greatest interest and was keen to start production, but the CEO who supported the project left the company after Fiat concluded its merger with GM, and this ended Fiat's plans for the Carver. A French car manufacturer with a separate operating division for two-wheeled vehicles and another for four-wheeled vehicles proved equally impregnable. “We came along with our three-wheeler, and a whole team of lawyers tried in vain to fit us into their business concept; it was a completely insoluble problem for them." So in the end, Van den Brink failed to get a foot in the door with any of the big car manufacturers. Eventually, he managed to do a deal with a German contract manufacturer which built 250 Carver Ones with the following specifications: 65 HP, top speed 185 km per hour, 0 to 100 kph in 8.5 seconds. Price: 45,000 euros.

'The best gadget of them all'

The launch prompted a lyrical review by Top Gear, which described the Carver One as ‘the best gadget of them all’ and 'a miniature road-going fighter plane’. Presenter Jeremy Clarkson said he’d never had so much fun in a car. "After the broadcast, we were inundated by requests for Carvers from all over the world. The only problem was, I wasn't in a position to make any." At that very moment, engine-maker Daihatsu was also ordered by its new owner Toyota to stop supplying customers like Van den Brink. “It would be several more months before we would be able to resolve that issue, and we simply couldn't keep the company going for that long." In 2009, Van den Brink went bust. However, in what proved a stroke of genius, they managed to exempt the patents from the liquidation and keep them in the family’s control.

In the years that followed, a stream of income from licensing agreements enabled Van den Brink and Carver’s CEO Anton Rosier (Van den Brink had opted to be technical director) to at least maintain these patents. Throughout this time, Van den Brink never doubted the strength of his original concept, a belief he liked to confirm through occasional outings in his Carver. He continued developing his ideas, and in 2014 he and Rosier decided to make a new attempt to launch the Carver. In 2017, they persuaded bicycle company Accell to invest in the development-to-market of the initial Carver prototype. The only original element that was retained in the new model was the basic principle – steering torque defines angle of tilt; practically everything else was different.

Enclosed luxury scooter

While the Carver One had been an indulgence and an expensive toy, the new Carver was designed from the bottom up. Essentially, it's an enclosed scooter which gradually became more and more comfortable and luxurious as the design progressed. It now boasts side windows, screen-demisters, an audio system, a soft top, a central door locking system and an optional dashboard groove for a cup of coffee. If you’re wondering how that works, the automatic balancing technology ensures that the drink stays firmly in the cup even when the Carver tilts as it takes corners.

Almost all the components and sub-assemblies are made in the Far East. Only the final assembly, installation of all the electrical circuitry and the final quality control are carried out in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, with support from the NOM and FOM regional development companies. “We have to produce the majority of our component parts in Asia, even though we’d rather not. Nearly all of the parts are made in the Far East, since only there can producers scale up to making five to ten thousand a year without any difficulty." This mass production is also reflected in the Carver's new price, which has plummeted from 45,000 to just 8,000 euros. Van den Brink expects to sell 500 this year.

Commuters, home care professionals and lawyers

But the biggest change in the new Carver is that it’s fully electric. It has a top speed of 49 kilometres per hour and can be driven by anyone over the age of 16. It’s intended to fill the gap between electric scooters and electric cars in urban settings. Above all, the new Carver is practical: it’s ideal for commuters who want to arrive at work relaxed and dry, or for home care professionals and estate agents who currently waste a lot of time looking for parking spaces but can now simply park their new Carver on the pavement. The vehicle is narrow enough to go through your front door or into your shed, and you can pull up alongside conventional cars at the traffic lights (“You could do that with the old Carver too,” Van den Brink points out).

Chris van den Brink

The new Carver is also ‘hip’. "We’ve already sold one to a customer who didn’t want his 16-year-old daughter riding around on a scooter. And we've signed a deal with a legal firm in Amsterdam's Zuidas business district who want to make Carvers available to staff who live and work locally." The time now seems to be right for the Carver concept to take flight at last. "I’m delighted with what Tesla has done for the market. Their cars aren’t nearly as eco-friendly as they claim, but they’ve done a huge amount for the image of e-vehicles. Battery-operated cars were once seen as a bit nerdy, but now the first thing people often think when you say the word e-car is 'I bet it has good acceleration'."

Yet no matter how practical, hip and eco-friendly the new Carver may be, its spiritual father admits that what he loves best about it is the ‘fun’ aspect. Like its predecessor, the electric Carver makes you want to do roundabouts twice over, he says. “Even after 20 years, driving a Carver still gives me an enormous thrill; why it hasn't caught on more widely remains a mystery to me. I was one of the first to take up snowboarding, and it gave me the very same feeling: “This is absolutely fantastic! Why isn't everyone doing it?” Only much later did it really catch on. I trust the same will happen with the Carver."

Chris van den Brink

The know-how underlying Carver’s dynamic tilting mechanism

At the heart of every Carver car is its dynamic tilt mechanism – the Dynamic Vehicle Controlô module – which tilts the driver’s cabin to exactly the right angle at all times. The optimum tilt is determined by the torque exerted by the driver on the steering wheel. So regardless of whether you’re taking a sharp corner or slowly manoeuvring into a parking place, the cabin will experience little if any tilt. And if you pull the steering wheel sharply while travelling at top speed, the cabin will swing over in a flash, but to no more than 45 degrees.

Quality control

The basic principle governing the Carver – steering torque defines angle of tilt – arises naturally out of the laws of physics. Or at least it does for someone like Van den Brink, who has an engineering degree combined with the necessary technical insight. In fact, the Carver is such a logical reflection of physics in action that it’s left the firm's competitors very little room for manoeuvre. Perhaps too little. “Many engineers can’t stomach the idea of licensing someone else’s invention; it’s a sentiment I recognise in myself. I’ve seen so many rival concepts put forward in a bid to get round our patents, including by global players who’ve got more than enough money to pay for a license. It's often more than obvious to me from the start that these concepts aren’t going to work. I think to myself, they may as well have come to us in the first place. The fact that no-one has managed to pinch our idea is also because we’ve protected it so comprehensively. We had to, of course, but it’s sometimes made us feel like something of a lone voice."

Logical reflection of physics

The basic patent has since expired, so a new series of patents based on a full reworking of the original technology is now required to protect the latest Carver model. The Carver One relied on a tilting system that was almost entirely hydraulically and mechanically driven. But a hydraulic pump that runs continuously and guzzles energy is far too inefficient for an electric car. So the cabin in the new Carver is tilted by an electric motor controlled by a system of specially developed sensors and algorithms.

"The tilting system now embodies a huge amount of know-how, and we have to guard that knowledge very carefully. Which is why we keep the assembly of the electric circuits and the final quality control strictly in-house. This is largely because electronics are so crucial to the operation and reliability of an e-car, so we want to retain control of them. But also frankly because we know that if we had the electronics installed in the Far East, sooner or later the know-how we’ve built up would find its way to our competitors."