Many U.S. companies are now investing in worthwhile, incremental, energy-saving changes, but the most we can get out of those changes is a reduction in the use of gasoline, not the wholesale revolution required for the 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions the planet needs to protect the climate. Where will the true revolution in cars and oil savings come from?
In some cultures the future is predicted by reading sheep entrails. In others, palm reading will do. But if you want an exciting vision of the possible future of the car, a soft-spoken visionary in Snowmass, Colorado, named Amory Lovins is available to provide it.
Lovins is an engineer who has spent the last twenty years designing the future of energy, a future that is rapidly becoming reality. Founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute and the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship "genius" award, he is both a breaker of molds and a voice calling us to stretch our imaginations when it comes to cars.
He rages at the machine. His rage is justified, he says, because the technology of the car has made such modest improvement in one hundred years. "After more than a century of devoted engineering effort, today's cars use less than 1 percent of their fuel energy to move the driver. Only 13 percent of the fuel energy reaches the wheels, and just 6 percent accelerates the vehicle—95 percent of the weight it pushes is its own, not the driver's"36
Given these pathetically inefficient numbers, even the best modern car may be fairly considered an energy hog. If the aeronautics industry had advanced in airplanes at the same rate the auto industry has advanced in efficiency, we would still be flying propeller-driven biplanes. The comparison, though, is unfair. In truth, the auto industry has produced spectacular advances in technology over the last twenty years, improving performance about 2 percent per year.37The problem is that, until recently, almost none of those improvements were dedicated to improving energy efficiency, because they haven't had to be. Cars in America have become safer, they have become more powerful, they even made the huge technological leap forward of the cup holder, but they have not become more efficient.
It does not help to know that the modern car releases its own weight in carbon dioxide annually. It's not comforting to know that each day the average car consumes gasoline made from one hundred times its own weight in ancient plants. These facts portend great changes for the car of the future.
In improving efficiency, Lovins focuses on weight: "Two-thirds . . . of the fuel use is caused by the car's weight. . . . Obviously, then, the most powerful way to reduce fuel use and emissions of cars is to reduce their mass radically—say, by half."38
Steps in that direction are being taken in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, at the Fiberforge company—a spin-off of the Hypercar proj-ect—which was launched by Lovins to demonstrate the potential to profitably mass-produce cars that achieve radical increases in energy efficiency, Fiberforge is now building spare-tire wells and strut towers out of composite materials. These seem like small items, trinkets almost, but the advanced manufacturing techniques the people at Fiberforge have developed may allow the creation of a car with a 50 percent reduction of its present body weight without sacrificing strength or safety. When that happens, fuel efficiency could skyrocket.
High-tech composites are well known—they are used in everything from tennis rackets to the new Boeing 787. But industry has not focused until now on developing manufacturing techniques that get away from essentially doing the work of producing high-tech composites by hand. Fiberforge has patented a process to quicken the pace of production and radically reduce waste.
Fiberforge's system is a ways from application on major parts of the car body, but the potential in composite manufacturing techniques for strong lightweight cars is tremendous. Fiberforge's carbon-nylon composite is sixteen times stronger than stamped steel and four times as stiff but vastly lighter. It is no wonder that Fiberforge was in talks with one of the Big Three's competitors as of late 2006.
Revolutions sometimes happen overnight with a bang and sometimes take more time and develop quietly. The revolution in the weight and aerodynamics of the new car is of the second type, but its impact will be no less profound.
Engineers like Tadge Juechter, assistant chief engineer of Chevrolet, are excited about a slew of technologies coming on line to save weight throughout the car. "Polycarbonate glazing will be in production within ten years," Juechter says. "To an ice scraper or car wash it will look like glass, but you have a 50 percent weight reduction."39 The weight of tires will also come down, with one company, Dymag, cutting their weight by 5 kgs, a savings that is magnified by 50 percent when the tire is rotating.40
A change in the shape of cars, too, is the shape of things to come. "The aerodynamics become a factor exponentially the faster you go," says Nissan's Richard Plavetich. The air is four times harder to push at 16 mph than at 8 mph. So we can look forward to cars that appear more upright and slender.41
Lovins's vision is a mix of obvious applications of existing technologies and some yet to be achieved. He sees the near-term path as a series of steps, each of which will significantly improve mileage per gallon of gas. No single step requires technology more than five years off; most are here today. When they are assembled, a stunning improvement in miles per gallon of gas is possible—decreasing oil use by a factor of ten. This vision mirrors the industry's own strategic plans in many respects and captures an emerging consensus on how we can break the grip of oil. Here it is:
• First, we broadly employ existing hybrid technology like that used in the Ford Escape, Toyota Prius, and Honda Civic. This can roughly double fuel economy nationally.
• Second, we deploy lighter and stronger carbon composite materials for car frames and bodies. This step cannot be guaranteed, as mass production of these materials is still in development; but the advances made in composites have been stunning in just the last ten years. The combination of reduced weight and reduced drag will again double mileage per gallon. At this point we have quadrupled gas mileage.
• Third, we install flex-fuel capability in hybrid engines, so that they can burn E85 (a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) when the engine demands an assist from the internal combustion engine or the batteries are drained. This quadruples the mileage per gallon of oil, because at that point the car is running on either electricity or 85 percent biofuel.
The best way to drastically increase the miles generated per gallon of gas in a car is to not burn gas in the first place.
• Fourth, we employ plug-in technology to radically increase the storage of electricity in the batteries and dramatically cut the use of fuel. This also allows the smart electrical grid to use the batteries as a storage reservoir for power.
When these steps are implemented together, the amount of gas required for an American car to go one mile will be reduced by 97 percent. This exercise demonstrates an amazing potential. It has been calculated that just running a plug-in hybrid on E85 ethanol could get an effective fuel economy approaching five hundred miles for every gallon of gas. Even a fraction of that savings could break our reliance on oil and radically improve our carbon footprint.
When all these pieces come together, the result will not be just a car, it will be an industrial revolution. For a moment, pause and consider what the world will look like in this scenario. Farmers will produce the new fuels for drivers to use in their tanks. Solar energy, wind energy, ge-othermal and tidal energy, and coal with sequestered carbon will produce the electricity that feeds into the batteries overnight. These will all be CO2 free. Well-paid Americans will produce the composite bodies of the cars using advanced technology. A plug-in, flex-fuel, composite-body, hybrid car is the ultimate internal-combustion-engine car that not only will reorder our streets, but also will rebuild our nation's manufacturing and agricultural base.
These are not outlandish steps. Two of them—flex-fuel cars and hybrid cars—are already on the road in cars straight from the manufacturer. Plug-in hybrids are already being driven using modification kits. Only composites are not present in large quantities on the streets today, although the BMW M3 now sports a carbon fiber roof.
No one step in isolation will realize this potential. All of them cumulatively can.
Because the U.S. automobile fleet takes sixteen years to turn over, it is possible to envision a fleet that is entirely hybrid and flexible-fuel enabled, with half of those engines including plug-in capability, by 2027. Making just those two changes in the fleet would reduce projected national oil consumption of 21 million barrels per day by 12 million barrels, or over half, according to Anne Korin, a national security and energy expert.42
Korin notes that in the 1970s much of our electricity was generated by oil. After the oil shocks, we moved to alternatives, and now oil accounts for only 2 percent of electricity production. We've done it before, and we can do it again, this time in transportation. The job impacts would be significant, too, no less significant than the climate and security benefits. As Korin asks, "Do we think it's important that there be a U.S. auto industry? If we do, then we must ask how to help the industry help itself without breaking the bank. Plug-ins with flexible fuel are a very attractive option."43
Work remains to be done, of course, but the plug-in hybrid battery acceptable for mass production, the key step, is close. "The fundamental tool kit—the weight, volumetric efficiency, the demonstration of life in a lab basis, and safety through extensive testing—have all been demonstrated," says David Vieau, president and CEO of A123 Systems.44 A123's battery is already powering hybrid plug-in conversions manufactured by the Hymotion Company in Ontario. Only time and scale are obstacles to full deployment of plug-ins. To fully integrate hundreds of individual lithium cells into a single cell takes time, but it has already been done by A123 in the nickel-metal hydride battery in use on GM's hybrids.
"Sure, we have $60 million in financing, but we are just small fry to GM," says Vieau. "It takes a while to get a big outfit like GM to really place a big bet on a new one like us. But we'll get there. This new contract we have with GM says we are the real deal"45 When you have a battery three times as powerful as that used in the GM EV1 just eight years ago, good things happen.
Those good things are already being realized in California at the EnergyCS company, where they are converting hybrids into plug-ins to put cars on the road today that "really turn heads," as CEO Peter
Norman likes to say. "These batteries cost more than a normal hybrid, but I believe it's entirely realistic to project that economies of scale will get them down to only $1,500. Since your car will get 150 miles a gallon, you'll make that back over the life of the car in saved fuel costs— easy."46
If we're to realize that possibility, though, we need to do more than rely on voluntary technology changes by industry. Only by legislating guarantees that fuel is saved across our fleet will the cost and scale barriers be rapidly overcome to ensure that Americans receive the option of plug-in hybrids, new composite materials, and flex-fuel vehicles. We must change the policy incentives to change the market for a new generation of cars and fuels. The existing market, in which there is no cost for putting CO2 out the tailpipe, simply does not require manufacturers to produce the cars needed to dramatically reduce emissions. Yet even if a cap-and-trade system is implemented to produce price signals on carbon, the transportation sector will need additional policies to drive higher efficiency and a new range of fuels, as the market has been remarkably inelastic, with surprisingly small responses to shifts in gas prices.
For years, Congress has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by rejecting all meaningful efforts to achieve oil savings. The original CAFE standard requiring improved fuel economy required doubling mileage from 13.5 miles per gallon to 27.5 miles per gallon. As a result, our dependence on foreign oil dropped from 46.5 percent in 1977 to 27 percent in 1985. It happened for the same reason seat belts were installed, air bags were installed, and catalytic converters were installed— Congress mandated it. If we had continued making progress at the rate we were during the Carter administration, we would be free of oil imports from Saudi Arabia today.47 Updating standards to guarantee greater oil savings and require less carbon in our fuels could drive the revolution in technology that is just waiting to be deployed.
With all this potential, our fleet of private vehicles today gets lower gas mileage than it did in 1982. During the time we invented the Internet, mapped the human genome, and saw into the farthest reaches of the universe, Congress did not move a muscle to break America's dependence on oil. As a result, we are stuck in the same mileage rut as when we used rotary dial phones and the closest thing to a cellular phone was Maxwell Smart's shoe phone. If today we show one tenth of the optimism and confidence John F. Kennedy showed in the 1960s, we can break our dependence on oil.
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