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

January 27, 1995

Air Date: January 27, 1995


Solectria Sunrise / Virginia Biggar

Virginia Biggar visits the Boston based car company Solectria where a prototype electric vehicle, the "Sunrise" has been built. Their goal is to have 20,000 of the lightweight cars on the road by 1997. (06:48)

A Promising Compromise / Matt Binder

The Swedish company Volvo is working on a hybrid car that uses both electricity and gasoline. An on-board gas generator will keep re-charging this electric car's battery. Matt Binder reports from Berkeley, California where in 1998, the car is expected to be available. (07:12)

Imagining the Hyper-Car

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. (06:02)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Joel Southern, Craig McCulloch, Virginia Biggar, Matt Binder
GUEST: Amory Lovins

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The gears are spinning on the next generation of cars. New electric cars are due soon from tiny Solectria in Massachusetts, and from Volvo in Sweden.

MAN: I drive a Volvo, and I've been waiting and hoping that it'll hold out until somebody comes up with an electric car that I can buy.

CURWOOD: Volvo's new electric will extend its range with a gasoline generator. Efficiency guru Amory Lovins says combining that concept with lightweight materials could lead to a real revolution.

LOVINS: On paper we can push pretty close to a thousand 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.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth, right after the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. The US Interior Department denies that Secretary Bruce Babbitt has a conflict of interest in urging more cruise ship entries into Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park. Joel Southern reports from Washington.

SOUTHERN: The National Park Service is deciding whether to sharply increase the number of summer cruise ship visits to Glacier Bay Park, the home of whales and other sensitive marine wildlife. A recent story in the Washington Post raised conflict of interest questions about Interior Secretary Babbitt's role in the process. Last month, Babbitt and a top aide were personally involved in urging consideration of more cruise entries. Before they joined the Clinton Administration, they worked for a big national law firm that represented the Holland America cruise line company in a dispute with the Park Service over Glacier Bay entry permits. Holland America controls about a third of the current permits and stands to gain from more entries. But Interior Department spokesman Kevin Sweeney says any implication Babbitt or his aide have acted inappropriately is wrong and unfair. Neither of them worked on the issue at their old law firm and both have recused themselves from matters involving the law firm's clients. The Park Service has not yet made its final recommendations, but critics say more cruises into Glacier Bay could harm the marine wildlife. For Living on Earth, I'm Joel Southern in Washington.

NUNLEY: Plans for a new DuPont chemical factory in southwest India have sparked violent protests. One man was killed when police opened fire on demonstrators outside the proposed nylon factory in the state of Goa. That led to further demonstrations and a general strike which closed shops and schools in the region. DuPont offices were ransacked during the protest. Residents are concerned that pollution from the plant will damage crops and fish. DuPont officials promise to increase outreach to the community.

The Clinton Administration wants major changes in the operation of Pacific Northwest dams to protect salmon runs. The latest version of the national Marine Fisheries Service's salmon recovery plan was prepared after US District Judge Malcolm Marsh rejected an earlier draft. This scheme would spill more water over dams to help flush young fish out to sea and improve the barging of salmon around dams. The controversial technique of draw-downs, partially draining reservoirs to help fish migrate, was left out of this proposal. Environmentalists say draw-downs are vital to salmon survival, but the hydropower industry says releasing that much water would disrupt electricity production.

British Columbia is also taking action to protect salmon. The provincial government has ended construction of a controversial half-built dam on the Nachako River near Alaska's panhandle. Craig McCulloch reports.

McCULLOCH: Despite having already sunk $500 million Canadian into the Camano Hydroelectric Project, BC premiere Mike Harcourt said he decided to cancel the billion-dollar dam because of the threat it posed to the environment. Harcourt said the dam would have endangered the Pacific salmon who spawn in the river by decreasing its water levels and by increasing the temperature. The government had underwritten an interest-free loan worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Alcan Aluminum to build the project, which was supposed to power the company's smelting operations. The premiere said his decision was justified because the company had negotiated with false information.

HARCOURT: We're breaking a deal that was based on faulty information, that was based on environmental information that was wrong. That was based on economic assumptions that may have been valid in 1987; they certainly aren't now.

McCULLOCH: Now the company and the government are wrestling with whether or not to compensate the project's investors, and what to do with the remains of the dam. For Living on Earth, I'm Craig McCulloch in Vancouver, British Columbia.

NUNLEY: A San Diego company has patented a process to make crops genetically resistant to insects. The biotech firm Micogen developed a way to splice proteins from a bacteria known as BT into plants. When ingested the proteins are supposed to make insects' stomachs swell up and burst, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides. Some biologists are concerned that use of BT is a recipe for resistance. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists calls the bacteria a valuable biological pesticide, but warns it may become useless as insects adapt to it.

A top Russian official says a sunken nuclear submarine poses a severe threat to the oceans of the Arctic. Deputy Civil Defense Minister Sergei Chetagurov wants the European Parliament to help Russia seal the hull of a Soviet submarine which sank in 1989. Earlier attempts to salvage the sub were abandoned out of fear that radioactive material from its reactor and missiles would spill into the ocean.

The program to reintroduce wolves into the West is being threatened on 2 different fronts. In Congress, freshman Republican Representatives Helen Chenowith of Idaho and Barbara Cubin of Wyoming held hearings aimed at stopping the release of the wolves in their 2 states. Meanwhile, in Yellowstone National Park, park rangers say they must guard the wolves around the clock because of death threats from ranchers. The wolves are being kept in one-acre pens to acclimate themselves before their release in the next couple of weeks.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Solectria Sunrise

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Electric cars as a concept to reduce urban air and noise pollution have been around for a good while as pretty much just that: a concept. Less than 1,000 electrics have been made this decade, and all but a few are conversions of standard gasoline vehicles. They've been slow, short-ranged, and pricey curiosities. But a small Massachusetts company says it will be the first to mass produce an all new electric car that will go 50% further than the current electrics and sell for less than $20,000. The secret for their hope for success: lightweight composite materials instead of steel. Virginia Biggar of member station WBUR has our report.

(Hammering on the shop floor)

BIGGAR: Solectria's production plant in suburban Boston is not your typical auto plant. There are no sparks flying and no greasy hands. On one side of the oversized garage, production workers are converting cars, replacing standard gas engines with electric motors. Off to the side, protected by a thick plastic curtain, it looks more like a laboratory with scientists wearing white coats and goggles.

ROGERS: This is fiberglass.

BIGGAR: John Rogers is an electronics mechanic for Solectria.

ROGERS: It has the weight of burlap. It looks like burlap. It feels like silk to the touch. When you take this cloth and you cut it into small pieces, you can take the pieces and pile them on top of each other, fill the spaces with a resin. Once it hardens it retains that shape. It's very, very strong.

BIGGAR: Rogers is mixing chemicals to find just the right resin to make the body of the Sunrise, Solectria's newest electric car. Until now, Solectria, like most others in the business, has relied on conversions of cars made by other manufacturers.

WORDEN: The Sunrise, once it's developed and goes into production, will override and take the place of conversions. And in fact, conversions won't make any sense once that is out there.

BIGGER: James Worden is Solectria's CEO. He says by building the Sunrise from the ground up, Solectria can make the car as aerodynamic, energy efficient, and cost effective as possible.

WORDEN: The Sunrise and the ground up purposeful car lets you put everything exactly where you want it, really lets you zero in on all the details so that the combination of safety, comfort, maintenance or lack thereof, and efficiency are really pushed to the limit. But yet it's a real car that can go on the road.

BIGGAR: Worden says the first generation Sunrise will travel between 100 and 120 miles per charge. That's up from the 60 to 100 miles per charge the company's converted cars travel.

(Shop floor sounds)

BIGGAR: The Sunrise prototype now sits in a corner of Solectria's production plant awaiting a motor. The car is about the size of a Honda Accord, with the streamlined look of a sportscar.

BIGGAR: Can I sit in it?


MAN: I hope you can.

BIGGAR: The Sunrise seats 4. Inside it looks a little unusual. There's no gear shift, just a switch for forward, neutral, and reverse. But the production model will have conventional features like cruise control, a CD player, power steering, and power brakes. The company says it wants to appeal to average consumers. The Sunrise was developed with help from the Federal government and Boston Edison, a local electric utility. Jim Hogarth is Edison's Director of Electric Transportation Development.

HOGARTH: We worked with Solectria and told them what we thought the vehicle needed to be able to do, and how it should look from a fleet standpoint. And then also looked at the aesthetics of it so that it would also be attractive to the consumer market.

BIGGAR: Boston Edison is handling most of the marketing for the Sunrise. Jim Hogarth says they'll look overseas in countries like France and Sweden that have shown interest in electric vehicles. He says they're also counting on business here in the US, in states that will be requiring some zero-emission vehicle sales. Hogarth says the Sunrise will be the ideal company car.

HOGARTH: We think any fleet who currently operates a Ford Taurus vehicle, for example, as their fleet vehicle, would be very interested in this vehicle.

HOEY: Digital's considering the use of electric vehicles.

BIGGER: Michelle Hoey is with Digital Equipment Corporation of Massachusetts. Digital owns 4,000 vehicles, 400 of which run on alternative fuel, such as methanol.

HOEY: There are 2 considerations in moving to electric vehicles. One is currently there's not the infrastructure in place for recharging, and the second is the range that is offered with electric vehicles. Our salespeople need to have a range that exceeds 100 miles, and right now the recharging would only be 100 miles per charge.

BIGGAR: Solectria believes the Sunrise will be the car that finally exceeds that 100-mile standard. Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California in Davis, is impressed.

SPERLING: The concept seems to be the right concept for the future.

BIGGAR: He says while the Sunrise is a big advance, the project faces some uncertainties.

SPERLING: This is a car that's intended to be built by a consortium of companies. Now, most of these companies don't have a lot of experience building cars. The question is, can they build a vehicle, the Sunrise, that will cost $20,000 and provide the performance that they say it will?

BIGGAR: But Sperling says Solectria has a reputation for building top-notch electric drive systems. He adds the company is smart to make the Sunrise adaptable to improved battery technologies as they're developed. And Sperling says others will be watching.

SPERLING: Solectria's stepping up and saying that they will do it, that they will bear the risk of doing it, and so in a sense, the automobile industry is going to sit and watch. And if Solectria can pull this off, first they'll show that it can be done. And two, it'll put pressure on the big automakers to follow suit.

BIGGAR: Sperling says its failure, though, could chill the development of electric vehicles. Solectria and its business partners are now looking for sites to manufacture the Sunrise. Their goal is to have 20,000 orders and their assembly lines running by 1997. For Living on Earth, I'm Virginia Biggar.

Back to top

(Music up and under [a 1970s song "Low Rider"..])

A Promising Compromise

CURWOOD: Solectria's Sunrise marks a breakthrough in automobile technology, but it'll still have to stop and wait a good while to recharge its batteries. But from the other side of the Atlantic, the Swedish car maker Volvo has announced an electric vehicle that'll go further, by combining an electric motor with an on-board gasoline generator that keeps on charging the batteries. The concept is called a hybrid car, and Volvo hopes it'll appeal to consumers who like the idea of an electric, but who don't want to wait hours to refuel. Volvo plans to put it on the market in California by 1998. We asked reporter Matt Binder in Berkeley to look into it.

(Horns honking; sounds of metal)

BINDER: The Volvo hybrid car is an innovative design. Electric motors drive the wheels and the car will have 850 pounds of nickel cadmium batteries so that the car can run 100 miles on battery power alone. When the batteries are drained, the car can be plugged into any outlet to recharge, or it can keep going by switching on an on-board gasoline generator which will produce enough electricity to recharge the batteries and keep the car running for another 150 miles. When the gas runs out you just fill it up with regular and go on. Bob Austin, the marketing director of Volvo of North America, says the hybrid car is meant to be as similar as possible to a normal car in operation and appearance.

AUSTIN: Any low-emission car of the future really has to operate in very much the way that we're used to using cars today. People are willing to stop every 250 miles or so or 300 miles and fill the tank of their car, which may take 5 minutes. They're not willing to stop every 100 miles and charge their car for 4 hours. So that's really one of the big hangups with electric cars.

BINDER: But the Volvo hybrid itself has some serious hangups. Though it will look on the outside just like a full-sized Volvo 850, it will have less passenger and trunk space, sluggish acceleration, and cost $40,000, or $10,000 more than a normal 850. In addition, the batteries will have to be replaced every 2 or 3 years at a cost of $3,000. Austin admits the hybrid will be a tough sell, but he says Volvo has other goals for the car. First, to get some real world experience with semi-electric cars as it prepares to meet the tough California requirements for totally electric vehicles; and secondly, Volvo hopes to convince the state of California that hybrids would be actually better for the environment than totally electric cars.

AUSTIN: You can make a pretty strong case that a hybrid car can actually even generate its electricity cleaner than many of the coal and oil fired electricity generating plants that we have today. So if you look at the net environmental load, it could be lower with a hybrid car than it could be with a pure battery-operated car.

BINDER: Business analysts are mixed in their assessments of the Volvo hybrid. Conrad McKerren is the Research Director for Progressive Asset Management, a socially-responsible investment company in Oakland. He calls the hybrid car a fascinating idea that should play well with Volvo's wealthy, environmentally-conscious customer base. He says it should also play well with policy makers, because it doesn't depend on any technological breakthroughs or new fuel infrastructures.

McKERREN: It's going to be almost immediately accepted because you're not bucking the institutions that now produce fuel, and you're also promoting, in a way, the utility market, which is going to be the major beneficiary of the electric vehicle. So it's - if successful, I would think it would be warmly received.

BINDER: David Garrity, an auto industry analyst for Smith, Barney Inc. in New York, is more skeptical. He says because of its higher cost and lower performance, the Volvo hybrid won't be a big seller unless the government provides subsidies.

GARRITY: Some kind of financial incentive, whether it's in the California government or whether it's from other, from some other regulatory body perhaps, may very well be necessary. Otherwise, the California regulators are going to have ended up mandating that the manufacturers build products that can't be sold.

(Cash register at a supermarket. Women's voice: "One oh one sixty eight, please.")

BINDER: I'm now standing in the lobby of Whole Foods, a huge, natural foods supermarket here in Berkeley with lots of Volvos in the parking lot. Let's see if I can find someone here who'd buy a Volvo hybrid car for 40-thousand bucks.

BINDER: Excuse me, sir, can I ask you a question? Would you buy a car from Volvo in 1998 that will run on either gasoline or electricity? It'll have zero emissions running on electricity, low emissions running on gas. But it'll cost $10,000 more than a normal Volvo?

MAN #1: Actually I drive a Volvo, and I've been waiting and hoping that it'll hold out until somebody comes up with an electric car that I can buy. So - would I be willing to pay more? If I had the money I probably would be.

MAN #2: I happen to like Volvo; it's a great car. I definitely would do it. But the Americans should have done it about 15, 20 years ago. They had the technology to do it.

BINDER: So you think there's a lot of people that would buy such a car?

MAN #2: No, I don't. I think there are a lot of people in Berkeley who would buy such a car, but I would say if you went 10 miles in any direction that virtually no one would buy such a car.

WOMAN #1: No. Not yet, not until they came down in price.

BINDER: Do you think that anyone would buy it?

WOMAN #1: Oh yeah, I'm sure people would buy it.

MAN #3: I created Spirulina in the United States. That was a product and a technology I personally founded.

BINDER: I've tried Spirulina, and if you can sell Spirulina to the American people I would think you'd be the perfect one to give Volvo some advice on how to sell their hybrid car for an extra $10,000.

MAN #3: My advice to them would be straightforward, you know. Magnify the excitement and the imagination of what this product is a symbol of. A different world in which there's sane ecological resolution and many of the threats that depress us today are vanished. They're gone; it's a world of new possibilities.

BINDER: Volvo plans to start selling its hybrid car in California in 1998. For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder in Berkeley.

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(Music up and under: "I'm crazy 'bout a Mercury. I'm crazy 'bout a Mercury. I'm gonna buy me a Mercury, I'm cruisin' up and down the road...")

CURWOOD: So now you've heard about Solectria's electric, planned for under $20,000, and Volvo's hybrid for $40,000. Which if any would you buy, and why? Give us a call on our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our Internet address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Or you can write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. You can also order transcripts and tapes at the same address; they're $10 each.

(Music up and under: "I'm crazy 'bout a Mercury. I'm crazy 'bout a Mercury. I'm gonna buy me a Mercury, I'm cruisin' up and down the road. I'm gonna buy me a Mercury...")

Imagining the Hyper-Car

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.

Back to top

(Music up and under, Johnny Cash: "Well I left Kentucky back in '49, and went to Detroit working on assembly line. The first year they had me puttin' wheels on Cadillacs. Every day I'd watch them beauties roll by and sometimes I'd hang my head and cry, 'cause I always wanted me one that was long and black...")

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is directed by Deborah Stavro, and produced and edited by Peter Thomson. Our coordinating producer is George Homsy; our associate producer is Kim Motylewski. Our production team includes Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Jessika Bella Mura, Heather Corson, David Dunlap, and Amy Roe. Special thanks to Jane Pipik. Our WBUR engineers are Louis Cronin and Mark Navin. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and recorded at WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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