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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Imagining the Hyper-Car

Air Date: Week of

Energy efficiency pioneer Amory Lovins talks with host Steve Curwood about his concept of a hyper-car for the future. The hyper-car would be made of super light materials and be twice as efficient as a large combustion-engine vehicle.


CURWOOD: At first blush, Volvo's gas/electric hybrid might not seem like such a great leap forward in automobile technology. But to energy efficiency pioneers Amory and Hunter Lovins, the hybrid car could launch what they call the biggest change in industrial structure since the microchip. The Lovins's run the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy and technology think tank. And writing in the Atlantic Monthly, they argue that hybrid technology, combining new power systems with new lightweight materials, could bring us cars which get hundreds of miles to the gallon and would be safer, sportier, and no more expensive than today's cars. They call their idea the hyper-car. The Lovins's could perhaps make a bundle if they patented their idea, but instead they're publicizing it, hoping it will be picked up by car makers seeking a competitive edge. We spoke about the hyper-car notion with Amory Lovins from his office in Snowmass, Colorado.

LOVINS: Well, the hybrid gives you the advantages of electric propulsion without the disadvantages of batteries. In a normal car, you have a great big engine that's mechanically coupled to the wheels, and the torque is directly sent to the wheels and makes them spin. In a hybrid, you don't have that mechanical coupling at all. Instead, the wheels are driven by electric motors. Then the question is, where do you get the electricity. Well, in a battery car, mainly you carry batteries around. But in a hybrid, instead, you carry the fuel, and you have a tiny little engine, or fuel cell or gas turbine or whatever to turn the fuel into electricity only as and when you need it. You can also recover braking energy by using the wheel motors to convert motion back into electricity; then you temporarily store it, and you use it to boost or augment the power of the tiny engine. So you have plenty of oomph to go up hills and to accelerate.

CURWOOD: Well now how does the efficiency of the hybrid compare to the ordinary combustion engines we have in cars?

LOVINS: The engine gets almost twice as efficient. In a normal car you need such a huge engine to accelerate the heavy steel car up the hill and so on, that the engine is using maybe a sixth of its power cruising on the highway and only about 4% running around in the city. And being so over-powered, or to put it the other way, idling most of the time in effect, because you're using so little of its capacity, cuts its efficiency about in half. The hybrid engine is not running the wheels, it's running a generator. So you can run it at constant speed and at its most efficient point all the time. And when you don't need it for a while it turns off. And then of course you add to that the advantage of regenerative braking. So altogether, the hybrid car, if you don't change anything else in it, will end up about 30 to 50% more efficient than an equivalent car with direct mechanical drive.

CURWOOD: Okay, the drive train is one way to be more efficient. What else would you add to a car to get to, oh, you say that cars could be 10 times more efficient than they are today.

LOVINS: The other half of what we call the hyper-car is ultra-light and very slippery construction. That is, you make the car 3 or 4 times lighter than now, weighing as little as, say, 900 pounds for a family-sized car, that will actually be safer than now because the ultra-light materials are aerospace composites that are extremely bouncy and strong and crashworthy. And you then make the car very carefully sleek, and by itself making the car very light and slippery would increase its efficiency by a factor of 2, maybe 2-and-a-half. The hybrid drive would give it 30 or 50% extra efficiency. But we discovered, when you do both together, they reinforce each other and you end up gaining a factor of 5 to 20 in efficiency.

CURWOOD: So in essence, what would take a gallon of gas now, I could use a 20th of a gallon to get someplace with it.

LOVINS: On paper we can push pretty close to 1,000 miles a gallon. I don't know if you'd actually want to do that, but it's very straightforward to do a few hundred miles a gallon and end up with a car that would take your family coast to coast on one tank of any convenient fuel. Assuming you didn't want to stop along the way.

CURWOOD: Well, with my family I think you'd have to make a lot of stops. It sounds like a great idea, Amory Lovins, but am I or anybody with an ordinary income going to be able to afford this car? It sounds very expensive, these composite materials.

LOVINS: We think hyper-cars will cost about the same as normal cars, and quite possibly less. The materials cost more per pound but less per car, because the way you manufacture with them is so much simpler. A lot of stuff you need in a normal car simply goes away: stuff like engine cooling, power steering and brakes, because it handles better without them, being so light and nimble; axles, differentials, transmission. The car body, for example, has maybe 1% as many parts. The tooling is about 10 times cheaper. So I think it's a difference between a different and greener kind of Volvo, which I think a lot of people will find attractive, and something that completely reinvents what a car is and provides all the attributes we expect from a car, only better. That is, people will buy hyper-cars for the same reasons they now buy, say, compact discs instead of vinyl phonograph records.

CURWOOD: And last, let me ask you about this: you've been advising major corporations and indeed heads of state, and now have quite a wide audience for your ultra-light concept of cars. Do you think American business can respond to your challenge?

LOVINS: We are now advising upwards of 20 current and wanna-be automakers around the world who are eager to bring hyper-cars to market in large numbers. And our job is to maximize competition among them to encourage the others. It's not easy to change the whole way they think about cars and make cars and sell cars. But I think they're rapidly realizing that whoever gets first to the hyper-car market with its decisive competitive advantages is going to win on a very big scale.

CURWOOD: Well thank you very much. Amory Lovins is co-founder and Vice President of the Rocky Mountain Institute. He joined us from his office in Snowmass, Colorado. Thank you, sir.

LOVINS: Thank you.



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