The Future of the Auto Industry: Building a Hybrid Electric Vehicle

An interview on the future of the auto industry with high-tech manufacturers starting from a blank slate of ideas when building a hybrid electric vehicle known as "the hypercar" from the ground up.

| October/November 1997

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    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."
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    Dave, Jon and Mike perched atop some antiquated, but gorgeous technology.
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    Diagram: Parts of the hypercar.

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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 abilities.

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like universities, think tanks, and even among some (mostly foreign) auto manufacturers that the technology of cars is no longer applicable to cars.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.

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