The quintessential product of industrial civilization is the automobile, which, for all its convenience, is the emperor of waste. To accommodate our 200 million vehicles, we have paved the equivalent of Georgia; in highly decentralized cities such as Los Angeles, two-thirds of the land is devoted to the automobile. And when we’re done with our cars we simply throw them away: Between 1900 and 1984, we junked 647 million automobiles and trucks.
If we put aside the absurd way we’ve designed our cities to make room for the car, not to mention the fact that we have simply too many people driving too many cars, what is astonishing about the modern automobile is that it’s hardly any different from cars built 50 years ago.
The Hypercar Center at the Rocky Mountain Institute, in a project led by “reformed” physicist and author Amory Lovins and coordinated with a handful of other designers, analyzed the modern car and discovered that it is so heavy and awkward that it expends most of its energy moving itself around. In fact, a car wastes between 80 and 85 percent of the energy it generates, because of its weight and inefficiently run engine. To accelerate, the engine must be so big that it can use only a small fraction of its power for actual driving. For every five to seven gallons of fuel, only one gallon’s worth of propulsion energy gets to the wheels of a car. The 15 to 20 percent of fuel energy that does reach the wheels is used up in three ways: about a third gets lost accelerating and braking during city driving, another third in air friction, and the last third in heating the road and the tires. Of the energy delivered to the wheels, 95 percent moves the car and only the remaining 5 percent moves the driver. Thus only 1 percent of the gasoline moves you to your destination.
To improve car efficiency, Lovins and other designers started from the wheels and worked toward the engine. They created an entirely new car — the ultralight, ultraslippery, hybrid electric “hypercar,” now in various stages of development by two dozen different companies around the world. The hypercar consists mostly of a superlight carbon-fiber body (safer than steel because it absorbs crash energy better), a scooter-sized engine, a gas turbine or fuel cell providing a constant source of electricity, and variable-speed reversible electric motors that can recapture braking energy for reuse after temporary storage in a battery or super flywheel. Quiet, safe, nearly 95 percent less polluting than a conventional car (engines running at a constant speed reduce emissions by 90 percent and such a light, low-drag car needs roughly one-tenth as large an engine as a regular car), the hypercar gets between 100 and 200 miles per gallon.
Hybrid electric cars will begin rolling out of the factories by the end of the decade, presaging an automotive design revolution as significant to the automobile industry as the introduction of desktop computers was to the typewriter industry.
Because the hypercar is essentially made up of modular plug-in components, much like stereo and computer systems, it’s easy to service. If the engine fails, mechanics can replace it in 10 minutes. The hypercar has one-tenth as many moving parts and up to 10 times the fuel economy as a standard car. Its low cost will also make it cheap to lease or rent. In the future, we may even have cars that run on smart cards available throughout every city. When you finish, you’d just park it and leave it, just as they do with bicycles in Copenhagen.