This interview with high-tech manufacturers discusses building a hybrid electric car and redesigning it from the ground up, and the future of the auto industry. (See the photo and hypercar diagram in the image gallery.)
One of the only noticeable differences between the car of
today and the car of my childhood is that these days I can
never get the darn window down; there are too many little
button controls all over. I don't consider this a real
improvement. While today's car is capable of locking
itself, turning off its own lights, and cooling its
interior, adding on more amenities has only succeeded in
making the car more complicated. Adding on amenities hasn't
done much for fuel efficiency and overall design either,
and there's a whole pack of Americans who'd rather drive an
old car than a new one, if for no other reason than they
like to keep some things—like rolling down a window
or changing the oil—within the realm of human
It's hard to imagine, with the runaway-train progression of
technological advances in computers, electronics, and
synthetic materials, how Detroit will be able to continue
rolling out new models based on old designs in the 21st
century. There is an increasingly popular theory incubating
in places like universities, think tanks, and even among
some (mostly foreign) auto manufacturers that the
technology of cars is no longer applicable to cars. Let's
just imagine Detroit's worst nightmare for a minute: What
if a consortium of high-tech computer and electronics
manufacturers and leaders from the aerospace and sporting
goods industries pooled their intellectual and physical
resources to redesign the car from the ground up? What
materials would they use, and what structure would they
use? What operating systems and fuel system would they use?
What kind of car would it be?
As it turns out, these questions are no longer
hypothetical. Scientists at the Rocky Mountain Institute in
Snowmass, Colorado are in the final stages of organizing a
consortium of high-tech manufacturers to make real a
concept they have developed called "the hypercar." It will
be a hybrid electric vehicle, combining the power of a
conventional internal combustion engine with an electric
motor powered by batteries having four to five times the
capacity of today's standard car battery. It will be made
of polymer composites rather than steel, created to be
incredibly light and fuel efficient, capable in its best
design of getting somewhere around 200 MPG in traffic. The
design of the car is a flexible one, based solely on what
industries decide is most efficient. Rocky Mountain
Institute research associate Michael Brylawski sums up the
hypercar concept: "The key to the hypercar is it combines
these ultrasafe, ultrastrong materials that are light for
fuel efficiency with a hybrid electric vehicle drive system in a
very slippery, aerodynamic package." Rocky Mountain
Institute's engineers see a day very soon when owning a car
will be a lot like owning a personal computer. You will not
buy a new car as often as you might "upgrade" your old car,
adding software, doubling your capacity, and so on. This
upgradable car made of light materials will be easy to
reuse and recycle. The overall environmental benefits will
be great but are almost a fringe benefit of a more
efficient design. According to the philosophy of the Rocky
Mountain Institute, the point is not to make an "eco-car."
The point is to make a better all-around car.
In addition to developments in technology, recent policy
initiatives have created a hospitable climate for the
hypercar concept to become a reality. Automakers are now
preparing to meet the requirements of President Clinton's
Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a joint
government-industry project that requires the Big Three
domestic automakers to design affordable vehicles that get
up to 80 MPG by the year 2003. California has also passed a
law requiring 10 percent of the vehicles in the state to be
zero-emissions vehicles by 2003. The hypercar would qualify
as zero emissions equivalent in a new category currently
being considered by the California Resources Board. (If
adopted, the category would only apply to California at
this point.) Rocky Mountain Institute hopes that the
hypercar demonstration project, built by the consortium,
can have an impact on the way the car industry responds to
these government edicts. Without mentioning the names of
high-tech companies who have begun devoting resources to the
demonstration hypercar, RMI scientists predict the
consortium is on the verge of beginning construction. And,
they say, with or without the cooperation of the American
automobile industry, cars based on the hypercar concept
will likely be on the market within 5-10 years.
The Rocky Mountain Institute is a not-for-profit think tank
near Aspen that develops market-oriented solutions to
environmental problems. Their offices, in the highly
resource-efficient home of founders Hunter and Amory
Lovins, are a working model of sustainable living. With
16-inch thick foam-filled stone masonry walls, double-paned
argon gas-filled windows, and a small solar panel system,
the Lovins's heating fuel for the entire winter in the
snowy, cold, high Rockies is a half a cord of firewood. The
place is warm enough to support tropical plants including
bananas, grapes, guava, and papaya, and is a working
demonstration of high-tech devices—from the washing
machine to the light bulbs—for sustainable living.
While visiting RMI, I sat down with three of the
institute's scientists who have been working on the
development of the hypercar concept. We held a round table
discussion about the barriers to and the possibilities for
developing a better car.
Michael Brylawski is the research
associate for advanced-composites manufacturing economics.
David Cramer is the senior research
associate for materials and manufacturing.
Dr. Jonathan Fox is the
senior research associate for emissions, air quality, and
What are the barriers
that have kept manufacturers from applying new technology
to develop more efficient automobiles?
CRAMER: Automakers are very conservative,
technologically. No automaker is willing to move as fast as
technology would allow, due to cultural inhibitions.
BRYLAWSKI: The reason that you don't see
the technological change—even though the technology
is available, and can be implemented if energy is put that
way—is that the automakers are very used to making a
certain type of car that uses steel as its main material,
is internal combust—has an internal combustion
engine—with gasoline as its fuel. And, they have over
seven decades of experience and refinement in this
technology so it's very comfortable... very familiar. And
the level of refinement is so high, the level of investment
in how to build these cars is so great, that it's very
difficult to switch over tomorrow and say: We're going to
start building hypercars. There's so much what they call
"cultural inertia" in the automakers to prevent that.
CRAMER. Also, you have to think, in the
past 20 years there have been many different consumer
desires and policy changes that have incrementally pushed
cars a certain way.
CRAMER: Environmental policies,
crash-safety standards, just people wanting more air
conditioning—air conditioning is a standard in
vehicles—these sorts of amenities. And the way that's
been handled is by, if they want an air conditioner, you
add air conditioning. But you don't change how the whole,
you know, climate control system is. You're still making
the same car, but you're just adding an air conditioner. So
it's tended to make cars heavier, more expensive, less fuel
FOX: One of these barriers has been the
economics of cars in this country, and that is that the
higher-end cars, that happen to be less efficient,
generally subsidize the lower-end cars. So the Ford Escort
may have never made a dollar for Ford—but the bigger
cars that they make have a much higher profit margin in
them. It essentially subsidizes the more efficient, smaller
FOX: Right. So, we think we'll see many
different types of players trying to enter the automotive
New car companies?
FOX: Potentially new car companies. Maybe
a consortium or two, some computer manufacturers, and maybe
even some traditional automotive manufacturers from foreign
countries, that aren't as committed with their resources to
the steel-stamping industry that is so prevalent in this
MEN: I think it's kind of interesting what
you said earlier about the car industry not being willing
to take a blank slate look at redesigning the car. But the
electric vehicle almost is that to too much of an extent. A
hybrid is almost an amendment to the regular car, as
opposed to totally taking out its entire fuel system. Your
car has batteries and a fuel system just like today's cars.
BRYLAWSKI: To the consumer, but not to the
producer. I mean, to GM, this is . . .
This is a totally new manufacturing process?
CRAMER. Yes, in fact, it's even more of an
issue with design. An electric car—it seems like when
people design an electric car, they say, "Let's start from
a clean sheet and build an electric car." But if you say,
"If we start from a clean sheet and [just] build a car;"
then what do you get? Well, we think you get a hypercar.
BRYLAWSKI: And most electric cars today
are basically conventional cars that they've stripped out
conventional processes and put in batteries.
FOX: Except for the EV-1, which would be
an incredible car if it wasn't carrying around that mass of
So what happened to this wave of
electric vehicles? Now they're switching to hybrids. Did
they all decide no one's going to pay $25,000 to buy an electric car?
BRYLAWSKI: At least $25,000.
FOX: Yeah, that's one of the fundamental
problems with electric cars, is that they're more expensive
and they don't provide the same functionality as today's
cars. So they're relegated to being niche vehicles. And
that's one of the fundamental differences between the
hypercar concept, if it comes to fruition, is that it can
have widespread availability in the market.
Because it's going to be cheaper.
FOX: The goal will be to be cheaper but,
actually, because it'll be a better car. It'll provide all
of the same attributes that users want today and meet the
ones they'll want tomorrow—such as improved safety,
and amenities, and also range. That's where the electric
cars fall off is range, and also subtle environmental
problems like battery recycling and disposal. When you have
1,500 pounds of batteries, it's a huge mass that you have
to deal with every two to three years if they've been
working correctly. And there's no real experience how well
they're going to work.
BRYLAWSKI: The main issue with that is
that battery vehicles do have emissions: they come from
power plants. We call them "elsewhere-emissions vehicles."
The emissions that you could get at the tailpipe of a
hypercar aggregated could be less than a battery-electric
car even under the cleanest scenarios.
How quickly do you think hypercar
technology will be incorporated into marketable
BRYLAWSKI: It depends on what kind of a
hypercar you're talking about because they're all
different. "Hypercar" is just a concept; it's not a
specific technology. So some of the near-term hypercars
won't get the 200-mile-per-gallon figures—maybe more
towards 80—and they won't have fuel cells which
produce virtually no pollution. They may have a gas
turbine. These cars could come out, we think, within a
FOX: And perhaps within five years.
BRYLAWSKI Because, for example, if you
take GM's EV-1 car, and you made it into a hybrid, you'd
have a two-seater hypercar.
FOX: Pretty close to a hypercar.
Is the EV-1 made out of light materials?
FOX: It is made out of light materials,
it's very aerodynamic . . .
But it costs $34,000.
FOX: The average price of a new car today
is $22,000. The EV-1 is a niche vehicle, two-seater sports
car. It's priced about right for its class.
So the first hybrid-electric are not
going to be mass-produced, inexpensive cars?
FOX: It's unlikely. I mean, it's more
likely that they'll be the high-end cars, and it'll diffuse
down rapidly because it'll be a simpler, cheaper way to
make a batch of cars.
BRYLAWSKI: It's generally the standard
operating procedure of new technology
CRAMER: One important thing about this is,
we're not saying that this would be the first hypercar.
[Because automakers may have their own developments using
these technologies. Ford's P2000 comes awfully close to the
hypercar concept.] But what this demonstration project will
do is build a hypercar right.
FOX: With our vision and with the
resources we identified through multiple years of research
as being the most viable technologies to go into this
platform. And, really, the main focus is to demonstrate
manufacturability of hypercars at a low cost. We know we
can build one of anything. That's what this country is
really good at.
CRAMER. But can you make them at all
competitive with existing products?
And how far along are you in getting
together a consortium for the demonstration project?
FOX: We have very interested parties that
haven't signed on any dotted lines but have committed
resources to the project, such as engineers and materials.
And many of these are materials that haven't been in the
automotive market traditionally. So these players are very
interested in opening up a new market for themselves.
And are there some people who have
been in the automotive industry?
Can you say who?
What about a time line for when that
FOX: Our personal goal, in terms of the
Hypercar Center, is to have the product finished early
enough to have an influence in where the Original Equipment
Manufacturers are going with their block programs and their
project programs. The PNGV [Partnership for the New
Generation of Vehicles] is trying to determine what are
going to be the best technologies to produce an
80-mile-per-gallon car that the government has challenged
them to do.
FOX: The PNGV deadline is 2003, and
they're rolled back one deadline already, so that's not
etched in stone. But we'd like to be done far enough ahead
of that so that we can have a positive influence in their
thinking and the way they're viewing it, because they're
getting close to our line of thinking with this Ford
car—the P2000—which is essentially an aluminum
aerodynamic lightweight vehicle. It's not as light as an
advanced composite car could be.
BRYLAWSKI: But the other thing about the
demonstration vehicle, we're going to try to be very
flexible in the technology. Because what Jon said is very
important—just as there was a lock-in on steel cars and
internal-combustion engines, there may be a tendency to lock
in the technology for the next generation of vehicles. For
example, the materials competition, where you have steel,
which is rapidly trying to shed its own mass due to design
principles, aluminum, and the polymer industry, all fighting
to become the dominant material in the new automobiles. And
it may be tempting for automakers to lock into one choice. We
emphasize composites, but we have specs. The hypercar, once
again, is a concept and if a metal can achieve the safety and
mass production requirements that a hypercar would need to be
very efficient yet high-performance, all for the better,
FOX: Right. We're not wed to any one
particular technology or material.
So in the vehicle you designed, you
don't name anything too specifically.
CRAMER: Right. So sometimes people say,
"Well, I want to see your hypercar." We say, "No, no, no,
it's a concept; it's an approach to building cars."
One of the main criticisms of
designing an auto using light materials is the safety
factor. Are we safer in bigger cars?
CRAMER:Well, first of all, there's a big
misconception there in that we're not talking about small
cars; we're talking about light cars. And, you can have a
car the size of a Ford Taurus that's half the mass, and you
can have it be just as crash-worthy because the materials
that you'd use, and the way you'd design the car, can
absorb energy just as well as the other car.
FOX: But the other thing is, what's
happening in the market today is this mass armament-type
phenomenon, where sport-utility vehicles are becoming more
and more popular.
So would you consider this trend an
obstacle to this idea?
CRAMER: Well, it's also an obstacle to
general demeanor on the road. If I'm driving a Ford
Expedition, then I might be making myself safer.
BRYLAWSKI: But not necessarily.
CRAMER: Not necessarily. But I'm also
putting everyone else that I might hit, or who might hit
me, at a higher risk because I'm putting them at a
FOX: And the federal government recently
acknowledged this, and there's talk of regulating the
weight of sport-utility vehicles. Sport-utilities are heavy
cars, but they're not very safe. They roll over very
easily, and over half the accidents today that kill people
are not collisions; they're single-car accidents. And so
when you get these vehicles where people feel safe, they're
driving faster than they should—they're actually
exceeding the limits of the vehicles. So there's the notion
of perceived safety, which is what makes you buy a big car,
and then there's the actual safety. Does that big car
absorb energy in a crash? Many of these big cars are so
stiff that if they hit a very solid tree, it transmits the
shock directly to the occupants. And that's much less safe
then hitting it in a light car that's designed to absorb
its own energy, so there's a lot of mitigating factors.
BRYLAWSKI: We emphasize these technologies
in the hypercar concept can be used to make a sport-utility
car as well.
FOX: Yes, I mean, everything that people
like in sport-utility vehicles—not just safety, but
durability and ruggedness, and what have you—is part
of the actual technology of the hypercars. For example, our
electric drive system has very high torque at low speed.
The application could be towing capacity or hill climbing.
And composite materials are incredibly durable. If people
really want big vehicles, you could have
FOX: And many traditional cars are being
made with composites, as energy-absorbing elements, in
their bumpers. So we're essentially building that into the
car from the ground up, as opposed to adding it on.
Let's talk about the inherent good or
evil of cars in general. Living and working in a remote
part of Colorado, I assume you guys do a lot of driving
around . . .
CRAMER: No, we bike everywhere.
FOX: I own two cars, but 80% of my miles
are on bicycle.
There's some irony there, considering
your life's work. If you feel you should ride your bike
everywhere, wouldn't you also feel we should be working to
encourage a less car-oriented society?
BRYLAWSKI: We have two main philosophies
on that. The first one is that [hyper]cars solve two of the
most major transportation-oriented problems, which are air
and oil—oil security, the problems we've had in the
Middle East, etc. Amory says it's basically like finding an
OPEC under Detroit in terms of how much oil we could save
if everybody had these technologies. And then, of course,
But cars aren't the only way to solve
CRAMER: Right. If everyone left their cars
at home and weren't driving them.
FOX: Right. But, when people live in
suburbs today, there's no way they can get to work when
there's no infrastructure.
So, we have to accept the prevalence
FOX: In the short term.
BRYLAWSKI: It isn't a panacea, but it can
significantly help those two problems. And then it'll allow
us to focus more effort on problems that it doesn't solve,
in terms of equity and mobility and congestion.
Another problem with cars is that
they are largely responsible for urban sprawl.
CRAMER: Well, the thing is, technology
changes can occur relatively rapidly. Demographic shifts
and changes in land use happen over decades. And if we can,
within a decade, get the hypercar on the road and start
helping the environment while, concurrently, RMI's Green
Development program helps to rethink land-use planning and
building design, and to promote resource-efficient living,
then we start going to a larger system of transportation.
It's a path to sustainability, but it's a necessary
FOX: Right. And also—when we look at
how the United States exports its culture, so that the
desires of other countries are really to have
automobility—one thing we want is for them to
leapfrog the development path that we took.
You mean the Third World?
FOX: Third World. China, as an example of
a country that has tremendous economic wealth: they have a
middle class of 200 million people that can afford to buy
cars today. They just don't have 'em—but they want
BRYLAWSKI: The conventional automakers are
putting their meat hooks—they're taking their
obsolete technologies into these countries, their old
tooling, their old technologies.
FOX: That is not the path that we want
them to go on. And they don't really want it, either. So
we're saying: China, why don't you rethink this development
path, and go right to a hypercar-based economy? Those are
the kinds of low hanging fruit that really could make a
transformation. I'm not saying that cars are their mobility
solution at all—but, to some extent, they're going to
be going with cars. And it might actually be with trucks so
why not make hypertrucks for moving their agricultural
products around China and many other developing countries,
where trucking is actually 80% of their fuel consumption
for farming and agriculture use.
BRYLAWSKI: Some environmentalists have
said: Well, if you take away the problems of the cars,
you're going to have more cars; you're going to make cars
perfect. But, we emphatically think that if you solve some
of the problems, you can again focus your attention on
other ones like congestion and land-use planning.
FOX: Cars may be our enemies, but we see
them as the means to getting to a point where we can
rethink how we actually use them.
Anything else you'd like to add?
CRAMER: Just essentially what we're
talking about is a car that if your average person walked
into the dealership and saw the hypercar—it could be
a hyper-Taurus, it could be a hyper-Suburban, or a
hyper-Miata—they'd buy it, because they'd think it's
a better car...whether they care about the environment or
I might want one.
BRYLAWSKI: We'll try to get you one in ten
For more information about the Hypercar contact the Rocky
Mountain Institute, Snowmass, CO.