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Leading the Detroit Horse to Water

by Douglas PageŠ1998

Amory Lovins loves this story, apocryphal though it may be:

Some years ago malaria was the scourge of the Dayak people of Borneo. In response, the World Health Organization (WHO) sprayed DDT to kill the malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The mosquitoes died, but so did a parasitic wasp that had controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. The peoples' roofs collapsed. Other DDT-poisoned insects were eaten by geckos, which were eaten by cats. When the cats died the rats flourished and the Dayak people were suddenly faced with outbreaks of typhus and plague. In response, WHO parachuted live cats into Borneo.

"This story illustrates that if you don't know how things are interconnected then frequently the cause of problems are their solutions," Lovins says. "On the other hand, if you understand the hidden connections ... then you can often devise a solution to one problem, such as energy, that will create solutions to many other problems at no extra cost." Crafting solutions is Lovins' job. Right now he's trying to change what we drive.

Amory Lovins has been described as one of the most encyclopedic yet agile-minded thinkers of our time. He is a visionary with credentials. A 1993 MacArthur Fellow, the Harvard and Oxford educated physicist and occasional composer-pianist has published 24 books and hundreds of papers, held a variety of academic chairs, briefed nine heads of state and served on the Department of Energy's senior advisory board. The Wall Street Journal named him among the 28 people in the world most likely to change the course of business in the 1990s.

"Amory Lovins' forecasts about technological possibilities have been more accurate than anyone else's for 20 years," said Donella Meadows, professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.

Born in Washington, DC and raised in Amherst, Mass., Lovins has for 27 years considered pioneering conservationist David Brower his mentor. Brower, the first director of the Sierra Club and founder of Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute, inspired Lovins to search for alternative solutions to existing energy problems.

Lovins gained renown for his 1976 Foreign Affairs article, "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?", a heretical document questioning the supply-at-any-cost energy dogma, in which the 29 year old Lovins called for the United States to follow a "soft energy path" of reliance on the sun and wind instead of the "hard energy path" of using oil, coal and nuclear power. The U.S. economy at that time was being bear-hugged by OPEC into 'stagflation'. "More price hikes loomed," says Lovins. "The energy industry advised more supply, of any kind, from any source, at any cost."

In the article, instead of basing energy policy on increasing supply, Lovins looked at demand. "People don't want kilowatt-hours or electricity or barrels of oil, but rather the 'end-use services' they provide," he says. "People want illumination, comfort and mobility. The trick is to supply those demands in the most efficient way, which, barring market distortions, will also tend to be the cheapest way."

The article caused a choleric controversy. The prelates of supply-side economics returned fire, branding Lovins a radical idealist. Congressional hearings were held. Lovins was summoned to consult with many energy agencies, at home and abroad. In the end he was invited to the White House to brief the newly-elected President Carter. The "end-use/least-cost" doctrine would become the foundation on which Lovins would base his life's work.

Not all of his prognostications carried so clear a vision. For instance, "The First Nuclear World War", an apocalyptic 1983 book he co-authored with Georgia Tech's Patrick O'Heffernan, predicted nuclear weapons would detonate in Pakistan, Iran and Southern California by 1988. They even predicted U.S. troops would be dispatched to Iraq to defend Saddam Hussein against nuclear-armed Iranians.

In 1982, Lovins, and his wife, Hunter - a member of the California bar - founded the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a non-profit research group devoted to promoting energy conservation, in Snowmass, Colo., from where he now surveys the future. He knows a place in the mountains you can see all the way to Detroit and the future of the automobile.

Lovins is perhaps best known these days for his vision of the car of tomorrow - a cleaner, safer, stronger, more durable vehicle, one that slides almost silently through the air with agility, grace and buoyancy - and goes coast to coast on a single tank of gas.

It's more than a mirage. He has the stone tablets.

RMI, which employs a staff of 48 on a $2.5 million annual "half earned, half begged" budget, has paved the way - they have the blueprints for an ultra-light, hybrid-electric vehicle Lovins calls the "hypercar", a vehicle that he claims sacrifices neither performance, style, safety, comfort or cost.

"These hypercars would be several-fold lighter and more slippery than today's cars," says the 50 year old Lovins, whose enthusiasm is not muffled by a bumper-sized mustache. "They'd be an order of magnitude more efficient, several orders of magnitude cleaner, have lower product cycle time, tooling cost, assembly effort and parts count, yet be safer, sportier, generally nicer and probably cheaper. They would use about a tenth as much steel, twice as much polymer and a fourth to a tenth as much fuel. Most of their components and subsystems would become much smaller, some would disappear altogether, and many would adapt new technologies and materials."

Visions like Lovins' are necessary because the 20th century has slipped by largely unnoticed in most parts of the auto industry. The basic concept of the automobile hasn't changed in 100 years. Lovins thinks it's time.

Like Hollywood, the typical family car is a perversion, distinguished more for appearance than virtue. It gets its shape often as much for its looks as for aerodynamic considerations. It fights the air. Its underbody produces turbulence, not glide. Gaping grills, necessary for engine cooling, yawn against the wind like airbrakes. Cosmetic and operational details (mirrors, windows, head lights and hub caps) provide even more drag.

The body is metal, the chassis steel and it can end up weighing over 1,400 kg. Forcing it through the air requires a large, noisy motor, proficient mostly at gulping and belching toxins. Air drag consumes 30 percent of the engine's power in the city, 60-70 percent at highway speeds. Stiff, sturdy struts are required to keep it level, and stopping requires great brakes that grab it with the energy efficiency of anchors.

The car in most garages has as many as 14,000 parts. The car in Lovins' vision has a tenth as many.

HYPERCAR BODY MASS

In Lovins' hypercar, total body mass is cut in half by replacing steel body parts with composites of carbon-fiber, fiberglass and plastic. Carbon fiber, for instance, made from acrylic fiber in high-temperature furnaces in controlled atmospheres results in a continuous black fiber finer than human hair yet stronger, stiffer and one-quarter as dense as steel. These lightweight, space-age materials are rust free, dent and scratch resistant and capable of providing five times as much crash energy absorption as steel - a level of safety approaching that enjoyed by race car drivers who regularly walk away from 200 mph collisions with concrete walls.

Vehicle weight is reduced further by eliminating the need for cumbersome heating and air conditions systems through incorporation of "smart" windows and insulation. Standard windows allow solar rays to penetrate the vehicle, trapping heat inside. "Smart" windows, though visually clear, reflect solar rays. Special paints, vented double-skinned roofs and solar-powered vent fans would contribute to interior comfort. Special exterior finishes would reflect heat on hot days and retain interior heat on colder ones.

The drive train is also advanced. "The internal combustion engine converts only about 25 percent of its power into mechanical work," says Lovins. "In typical driving, its average efficiency is only about half of that, falling to zero when idling. The biggest cause of this inefficiency is that to provide enough acceleration the engine must be so oversized that it's nearly idling the rest of the time. It uses only about a sixth of its power on the highway and a twenty-fifth in the city." Lovins provides power in the hypercar with hybrid-electric motors designed to generate their own electricity on board - an enormous improvement over existing electric cars that must haul their ponderous batteries around with them. The hypercar would be driven by four electric wheel motors, with on board power supplied by either a small combustion or turbine engine connected to a generator. (Other designers suggest replacing the combustion engine with either a thermo-photovoltaic burner that converts solar light and heat into electricity or a fuel cell that converts hydrogen gas into electricity, or some combination thereof.) Regardless of the drive system employed, Lovins claims the hypercar requires only 10-25 kilowatts of power, up to 10 times less than the few electric cars now on the street.

The hypercar's smaller, lighter engine, and lightweight construction gives it a steering agility rendering bulky power steering systems unnecessary, reducing weight still further. The weight savings cascade. Light vehicles don't need power brakes. The hypercar, in fact, employs its braking system not merely to slow or stop, but to supply energy. By using a technology called "regenerative braking" the electric motors driving each wheel function as electrical generators during braking. Instead of bleeding off energy in the form of heat, as all mechanical braking systems, regenerative braking captures 70 percent of this energy through the use of flywheels, stores the energy in battery-like buffers which is available during acceleration or hill climbing. Special rolling-resistant tires reduce drag by as much as 80 percent.

300 MILES PER GALLON

All of which adds up to a vehicle the petroleum merchants will despise. It gets over 300 mph per gallon, with about 100 times less emissions than today's cars.

Lovins calculates the hypercars will even be cheaper to manufacture, since their integrated body-chassis system requires less than 20 pieces, compared to the 250 for the conventional car. Fewer parts translates to lower maintenance cost and increased reliability.

Not everyone agrees composite cars are the least expensive alternative. Two professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Frank Field and Joel Clark, have criticized Lovins' hypercar economics recently. "Whatever strategy the [auto] industry adopts," they write in the January, 1997 issue of MIT's Technology Review, "a vehicle made of lightweight materials is clearly going to cost more than today's conventional car...If we can make a better tennis racket out of Kevlar, the argument goes, why can't we make a better automobile out of the same kind of material? One answer: although consumers may be willing to pay three times as much for their advanced composite tennis racket, they are unlikely to be willing (or able) to pay quite the same price premium for an advanced composite car."

Lovins' responded incredulously. "I can't understand why they wrote what they did, if they knew better." In his written reply, Lovins said "Field and Clark cite our papers, offer no supporting analysis of their own, yet dismiss or ignore our evidence that, [among others]:

"With ten- to fiftyfold fewer parts, not threefold as the authors claim, these auto bodies are simpler to manufacture and assemble;

"Manufacturers can use two- to tenfold cheaper tooling;

"Our 1995 paper for the International Body Engineering Conference [www.rmi.org/hypercars/] used the industry standard model to estimate the cost of the General Motors Ultralite's carbon-fiber body at $2,500-$3,000, excluding later savings in finishing and assembly. Field and Clark's single estimate of $6,400 for the same body assumed that carbon fiber cost 2.5 times its actual 1995 bulk price."

One thing is certain; the environment needs help. One hundred years of the automobile and other industrial marvels has corroded the atmosphere to the point that the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates 64,000 Americans die prematurely every year (175 each day) from cardiopulmonary causes linked to particulate air pollution. Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air (the Greenhouse Effect) are 25 percent higher than pre-industrial levels, and are expected to double within the next century.

Lovins' vehicle might also liberate the U.S. from dependence on foreign oil, a political lever popular among petroleum tyrants. The energy problem, Lovins has said, is "conceptually solved". In 1995 the U.S. imported 50 percent of the petroleum it consumed, at a cost of more than $48 billion. As the population grows and more cars are sold (registered vehicles are expected to increase from 194 million in 1993 to 270 million by 2010), U.S. reliance on imported oil could likewise grow to more than 60 percent by 2010. A radical improvement in vehicle efficiency would help relieve this reliance on foreign oil.

"The greatest immediate benefit for the environment," said Dartmouth's Meadows, "would be to set a minimum mileage standard for all vehicles, starting at 30 mpg and raising it by 10 mpg every two years. That would kill off the gas-guzzlers and bring in the supercars - like Lovins' - and free us from the eternal tit of the world's petroleum pipelines."

Durability is another concern of auto designers. Automobiles designed to become effete or obsolete within five or 10 years appeal only to those who benefit from such a market strategy. We've been disposing of cars so long the practice is rarely questioned. Some wonder, however, why a car should wear out any more quickly than a house It's made of steel, not wood; it should last longer. Houses aren't thrown away. Houses are painted, bathrooms and kitchens remodeled, new carpets installed. The same could be done, they say, with cars. "In the future we may be going the way of the aircraft," says John Appleby, director of the Center of Electrochemical Systems and Hydrogen Research at Texas A&M; University. "A 10 or 20 year old aircraft is still flyable. From time to time it gets refurbished, but has a lifetime of at least 20 years before you get irreversible metal fatigue. They do make-overs in the cabin. They drop in new avionics. We may be doing the same thing with the car. You would buy a car, make it over once in a while and keep it for 15 or 20 years. You wouldn't throw it away after some trifling period."

There would be little reason to dispose of Lovins' hypercar. The composite and/or aluminum body would not rust and the fuel cells would be capable of extremely long life times. "Fuel cells would last much longer than today's engines," Appleby said, "even though these engines are improving all the time. Even so, the fuel cell-powered engine and electronic parts might have a lifetime of one million miles."

Nevertheless, the hypercar is not a panacea. It is, after all, still a car. "It still takes up space, gets stuck in traffic jams and has to be parked," said Meadows. "It glorifies the individual at the expense of the community and its roads dominate the landscape. If everyone on earth wants one we're still in trouble. The worst danger of the super car is that it would make us think we're real smart and distract us from the real transportation tasks - which are to cut our population in half, to revise our settlement patterns so we don't have to travel every day."

The hypercar may be part of a similar paradigm shift. The technology already exists. Lovins says, "The challenge of the hypercars are not chiefly technological or economic, but rather cultural and institutional, such as shifting manufacturers from hardware to software, from complexity to simplicity."

Someone is listening. The first 10 sales of RMI's $10,000, 450-page cardinal report on the hypercar were to major automakers. Lovins has lead the Detroit horse to water. Who knows? It may finally drink.

 .......................................................

SUGGESTED READING

Hawken, P., "The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability", Harper Collins, New York (1993).

Lovins, A.B, Brylawski, M.M., Cramer, D.R., Moore, T.C., "Hypercars: Materials, Manufacturing, and Policy Implications", Rocky Mountain Institute, Snowmass, CO (1996).

Lovins, A.B., "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?", Foreign Affairs, October (1976).

This profile appeared in Science Spectra (No. 12, 1998).

 
Comments? Questions? Assignments? douglaspage@earthlink.net
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