HOUGHTON - For nearly 50 years, Ed Lahti, 73, has been building experimental vehicles he thinks could revolutionize the market. It's been an uphill battle, and he's now facing a roadblock he may not be able to overcome.
In just a few weeks, he said Monday, his foreclosed Lahti Road property will go up for auction in a sheriff's sale, unless he can come up with the cash to buy his home, garages and workshops back from the bank.
The mortgage has been a challenge for years, he said, but became a crisis more recently due to an unsuccessful business partnership and overconfidence in his inventions.
Dan Roblee/Daily Mining Gazette
Ed Lahti shows off one of the lifts that allow his experimental buses and vans to lower their floors to ground level to allow for easy entry at one of the workshops on his Portage Township farm.
"I was putting my equity into the designs for a few months," Lahti admitted.
But even losing his farm won't put a halt to his dream.
"If I lose the property, it's just a setback," he said. "The world needs these. Anyone that hauls people or products, they need these."
Lahti's most impressive innovation, by many accounts, is a system that allows buses and delivery vehicles to lower their bodies to near ground level, allowing passengers, wheelchairs and cargo loaders to get in without having to step or even climb up into the vehicle.
Some buses already use similar technology to meet passengers halfway, but Lahti's prototypes lower the floor to just an inch above ground level, allowing wheelchairs or cargo dollies to roll right on.
"What's out there doesn't go as low as mine does," he said. "There's still a pretty high step up."
Lahti's vehicles are also all-wheel-drive - with all-wheel steering as an option - and built with roll cages he says increase safety while allowing for changes elsewhere that drastically reduce weight. Coupled with lower profiles, this improves gas mileage considerably, he said.
His wheelchair van, he said, weighs only 2,700 pounds, compared to 10,000 to 12,000 pounds for comparable vehicles on the market. With a decent engine, he said, it should be able to get about 35 miles per gallon.
His full-size bus should approach 30 mpg.
"I'm already getting 25 mpg with my car hauler," Lahti said.
Professionals in public transportation and ambulance services, among others, have been impressed with his designs and encouraged him to bring them to market, Lahti said, and he'd like to produce them here in the Keweenaw to create jobs.
In the past year, he said, local transit officials connected him with the state transportation department, which buys almost all the buses for the state before redistributing them to municipalities.
He could have had a chance to be included in a $350 million contract, he said, but was unable to come up with the funding to complete a finished, certified prototype.
Local agencies such as the MTEC Smart Zone, and businesses such as Dollar Bay's Palosaari Corp., have expressed interest in working with Lahti moving forward, but Lahti hasn't yet qualified for the grants or loans he'd need for finishing prototypes, nor has he found a private investor with the capital to make it happen.
John Diebel, Michigan Technological University's assistant director of technology commercialization, has worked with Lahti on trying to take that next step.
"One of the first steps in bringing an invention to market is to have a good prototype," Diebel said.
"He's demonstrated the technology to some extent but needs a more refined prototype."
"He's a good guy with lots of friends in the community," Diebel added. "A lot of people are working with Ed and would like to see the technologies brought to market."
As far as Lahti's concerned, financial and other challenges have never stopped him before. Whether it's at his current home or a new location, he'll continue his innovation.
"I'm confident I'll make it to market," he said, "Unless they put me in the ground first."