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Hypercar: One Vision of the Car of the Future (Part 1)

Back in 1982, on the heels of the oil crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s, resource analysts Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins founded the Rocky Mountain Institute [www.rmi.org] (RMI) to examine and consult on energy policy, and have since helped shape the policies of some of the biggest corporations and governments around the world. In 1991, RMI proposed the Hypercar [www.hypercar.com] vehicle concept, designed to maximize efficiency in a way that the world had never seen before. Design and materials formed a synergy that produced some astounding prototypical numbers and launched a whole new way to think about cars and personal transportation. In a two part look at the Hypercar, we’ll explore one vision for a sustainable future that still includes four wheels (and not bicycles or bus-riding for everyone). In part one, we’ll look at some of the thinking behind the design.

Before we launch into what the Hypercar potentially offers the world, let’s look at why the world needs something like this. At the top of this list is that while remarkable advances have been made in automotive technology, today’s vehicles are still incredibly inefficient, using only about one percent of their fuel energy to propel the driver, due mostly to massive engine and powertrain losses through heat and friction. Just 15-20 percent of the fuel energy reaches the wheels, but due to the great mass of a modern vehicle compared to the driver, around 95 percent of this fuel energy reaching the road just moves the car, leaving one percent of the original fuel energy to move the driver. So the solution seems easy: make the cars smaller, more lightweight and more efficient, thus requiring less energy to move and leaving a larger percent of the energy to move the driver.

Efficiency being the primary goal means that by reducing the weight of the car, the size of the engine required is reduced as well. If the size of the engine is reduced, that reduces the weight further, allowing the engine size to be reduced even more. If the car weighs less, the brakes and other components can be smaller, and moving a car that weighs less than half as it used to requires less fuel, no matter what fuel source or drive train is installed. Huge fuel efficiency improvements are just one part of the equation, though. In a high-volume environment like automobile manufacturing, improving efficiency can also bring down the price of everything involved; in the case of the Hypercar, making a car using lightweight carbon-fiber composite allows the materials to be mixed, cured and pressed into shape on-site, cutting way back on the transport in heavy raw materials (like steel), which cuts back on costs. Different pigments can be mixed in with the carbon fiber when its made, making painting the cars unnecessary: bye-bye paint shop; hello to further savings. Since carbon fiber can be readily pressed into really complicated moulds, fewer individual pieces are required to make a car body, saving the labor and time needed to deal with the hundreds of pieces that are the puzzle of today’s cars. There are more examples of the efficiencies of this concept, from drawing board to rolling off the assembly line, but you’re getting the idea, right? We haven’t even mentioned the increased safety that comes with vehicles manufactured with lightweight carbon fiber composites. Since they’re stronger and stiffer than metals (by weight), advanced composites like carbon fiber can absorb five times more energy per pound in a collision. Since they’re lighter, Hypercars would also carry less momentum than today’s heavier cars, making collisions less damaging for both car and passenger.

As you can see, it’s a whole new way to think about cars, and while it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to head down to the neighborhood dealership and buy one within the next decade, they’re still a very compelling example of how to remake the way we get around. Later this week, we’ll take a look at some of the astounding design features that make the Hypercar go. Stay tuned!