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Is there a "hypercar" in your future?

STANFORD -- In the near future, consumers may buy automobiles from companies like Hewlett-Packard and Sony, rather than General Motors or Toyota.

That is the contention of Amory Lovins, the energy analyst and environmental pundit who delivered this year's von Gugelberg Memorial Lecture on the Environment at the Graduate School of Business on Monday, April 17.

Lovins, a 1993 MacArthur Fellowship recipient and co-founder, with his wife Hunter, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, has been an articulate advocate for alternative energy, including solar and renewable energy sources and energy conservation, since the 1970s, when he coined the term "soft path" to describe them.

In his talk, he provided the Stanford audience with a preview of some of the material in a forthcoming book that will be published initially in Germany under the title Factor 4: Double the standard of living with half the resources, and later in the United States with the title Natural Capitalism.

"In the book, we give 50 nifty examples, 50 case studies, of how to quadruple the efficiency with which we use energy and resources. It's a kind of eco-capitalist manifesto," Lovins said.

The big surprise of the last 15 years in the energy industry is the fact that not only does energy conservation pay for itself, but that energy-saving technology can actually lead to higher quality of life at lower cost than has been possible with current technology. "The reason for this becomes clear if you look at a typical home," Lovin said.

Using a house in Davis, Calif., as an example, Lovins asserted that it is possible to use a variety of existing energy-saving technologies, including a form of triple-glazed windows that he called "super-windows," to eliminate the house's furnace, air conditioner and related ducting.

As a result, the house would cost about $1,800 less to build and have a comparable decrease in maintenance costs over its lifetime, when compared to the same house with conventional insulation, windows, furnace and air conditioner. In addition to costing less initially, such a house would substantially reduce the amount of pollution released to the environment from heating and cooling, he said.

"New technologies have been doubling the amount of energy we save [a concept he terms 'negenergy'] for a third the cost every five years," Lovins said.

The potential savings in electricity alone are very large, the energy analyst estimated, somewhere around $300 billion annually, an amount greater than the defense budget or the national deficit, he said.


Lovins told his audience that he saw the application of new technologies to the automobile as the area where change will come fastest and will have the greatest impact.

Rather than supporting incremental changes in existing auto technology, Lovins advocates "leapfrogging" to an entirely new level of energy efficiency by rethinking the car from the bottom up. The result is what he calls a "hypercar" that would be about 100 times more energy efficient and 100 times cleaner than current highway iron.

The key technologies for Lovins' hypercar are composite materials such as the graphite epoxy from which expensive sports equipment is made, combined with a hybrid electric propulsion system.

Because composite materials are stronger and lighter than steel, they can reduce the weight of the automobile by about two- thirds. Because they can be molded into virtually any shape, they can increase the "slipperiness" of cars as well. When combined with the best performing radial tires, the car's rolling resistance can be reduced as well.

As an "existence proof" of this approach, Lovins pointed to General Motors 1191' concept car that was built out of composite materials. The 100-day, $4 million design effort resulted in a car that could get about 100 mpg with a standard internal combustion engine. Adding a hybrid-electric engine could boost this to 190 mpg, Lovins calculated.

Hybrid electric propulsion consists of a small engine that runs at a constant speed, a small battery and electric motors that run the wheels. According to Lovins, this system has two major advantages over other methods of propulsion:

  • The hybrid engine can operate about twice as efficiently as a normal auto engine because it runs at a constant speed.
  • The system can use what is known as "regenerative braking" to recover energy normally lost in braking. In essence, it brakes by turning the electric drive motors into electric generators that slow the car by generating electricity that is stored in the battery. About 70 percent of the braking energy can be recovered in this fashion.

Critics have dismissed the use of composite materials for automobiles because they cost about 20 times more per pound than steel. But the cost per pound is irrelevant, Lovins said, it is the cost per car that counts.

In a study at the Rocky Mountain Institute, Lovins and his colleagues have estimated that the cost of a composite monocoque body for an ultralight automobile would cost about the same as a steel unibody, when all the factors are included.

Despite the fact that in a collision between two cars, the lighter one must absorb more energy than the heavier one, Lovins maintained that it should be possible to build ultralight cars that are just as safe as, if not safer than current automobiles. A 10- pound cone of crushable composite material can absorb all the energy from a high-speed collision, he said. In addition, the ultralights will represent less of a threat to pedestrians and other vehicles. Also, he foresaw major improvements in "post-crash recovery," such as automobiles with cellular phones that would automatically dial 911 when the airbag inflates.

"Ultralights are not just another kind of car, but represent a whole new culture," Lovins asserted. "It's more like a computer with wheels than a car with chips."

To make a steel-bodied automobile requires 1,000 engineers working two years to produce $1 billion worth of dies from which the parts can be stamped. The dies required for composites are much less expensive and have much shorter lifetimes. So Lovins imagines a production process with much greater customization and continuous improvement

"It's much more like the computer mail-order business, where small companies build customized products by combining their own designs with stock components," Lovins said. "So you are just as likely to be purchasing one of these $15,000 automobiles from nimble, technologically aggressive companies like Hewlett-Packard or Sony, who don't have any automobile experience, as you are from a current auto manufacturer."

Lovins said the institute has been promoting the hypercar for a couple of years now and is working with about 20 automakers and "wannabes" that have committed around $1 billion in capital in hypercar development.

"People are not going to buy these cars because they save energy. They are going to buy them because they are superior cars," Lovins asserted.

He readily acknowledged that there was a downside to his vision. If the hypercars become a reality, they will make individual automobile ownership even more attractive than it is today. "Instead of running out of oil and air, we may begin to run out of roads and patience," he said.



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