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Driver’s Seat: Innovation at the Wheel

By Randy Essex


RMI’s breakthrough Hypercar never carried passengers, but it drove transportation advances that continue today—inside and outside RMI.

The prize-winning ultralight, ultrasafe automotive concept RMI developed in the early 1990s illustrates how the small Institute punches above its weight, with its research spreading into action and impact across the world’s largest industry. Hypercar embodied the vision of RMI co-founder, Chief Scientist, and Chairman Amory Lovins, using whole-systems design to create vehicles whose drastically lower weight and drag can achieve unparalleled fuel efficiency, without compromise, at comparable production cost.

The direct legacy of Hypercar and RMI’s subsequent work on fuel efficiency and lightweighting includes:

  • Two RMI for-profit spinoffs: Fiberforge, which makes carbon-fiber parts and sells manufacturing systems for cost-effectively producing ultralight structures to parts producers across aerospace, automotive, and other industries worldwide; and Bright Automotive, an attempt to bring the Hypercar to market as a fleet van. Fiberforge is flourishing. Bright succumbed this winter to a paralyzed federal loan process.
     
  • Project Get Ready, an RMI-led partnership to prepare cities and the electrical grid for electric vehicles.
     
  • The North American Council on Freight Efficiency, a three-year-old nonprofit RMI spinoff whose 500 industry affiliates advance trucking efficiency. The council, evolved from RMI’s Transformational Trucking Project, just released a study showing how efficiency is saving top fleets $4,400 per truck per year. Walmart (another RMI partner) in 2005–10 cut its fleet’s fuel intensity by 60 percent.

The indirect impact of the Institute’s transportation work is even more far-reaching.

In 2010–11, three major automakers—BMW, Volkswagen, and Audi—announced volume production by 2013 of the kinds of carbon-composite electrified autos that Lovins and RMI have long advocated. Automakers including General Motors (now partnered with No. 2 carbon-fiber maker Teijin) and Ford are pushing weight savings and electric drive. Lovins believes that between three and seven automakers have adopted or are moving to adopt this strategy, and considers the VW XL-1 the closest vehicle yet to a production Hypercar. Lightweighting was the central theme of the 2011 Frankfurt Auto Show. And this year, a coalition of suppliers and researchers was formed at the University of Michigan’s Center for Automotive Research (CAR) to accelerate lightweighting, aided by new Department of Energy funding.

John Casesa, former head of Merrill Lynch’s automotive group and widely considered the leading Wall Street sector analyst, described how automakers’ thinking is shifting toward RMI’s longstanding message. “[T]he industry is entering a period of enormous innovation, true transformation…As we speak, companies are reinventing the car,” Casesa said at October’s launch of RMI’s Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era. “Ford Motor Company is beginning to make the lightest cars on the planet….When Amory first showed me [a carbon-fiber part] ten years ago, I said, ‘I don’t think car companies will use it.’ Well, they’re using it. It’s happening today, because there is an enormous economic incentive to do it.”

Revolutionizing transportation is critical to freeing the United States from oil. Each day, the nation burns 13 million barrels of oil, about two-thirds of its total oil use, just for mobility. That oil costs $2 billion a day—plus hidden economic and military costs totaling twice that much, or roughly $1.5 trillion a year, exceeding the annual federal deficit. Adding what we pay directly for the oil brings its total cost to one-sixth of GDP—excluding any costs to health, safety, environment, global stability and development, or national independence and reputation. Reinventing Fire roadmaps RMI’s competitive strategy for eliminating transportation oil use by 2050, saving $4 trillion net.

RMI’s transportation practitioners plan to “keep up the momentum for lightweight, electrified cars by building understanding of the opportunity and the challenges facing the players,” says Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, RMI’s managing director for research and collaboration. “We want to attack one key barrier head-on: the nature and size of the bet required to make cars out of fundamentally different materials,” he said. “Our approach is to help the industry and the U.S. government define and organize work on specific precompetitive issues in manufacturing, materials sourcing, and safety.” A nonprofit consortium like Sematech (SEmiconductor MAnufacturing TECHnology), formed 25 years ago to revitalize U.S. capabilities in the chip-making business, may be the key to speed automotive ultralighting and electrification.

The beginning

The Institute’s work on the challenge began in 1990–91 when the U.S. National Research Council, urged by Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council, asked Lovins to speak on automotive fuel economy. His speech led GM’s then-head of advanced engineering, Donald Runkle, to invite Lovins to view the firm’s still-secret Ultralite concept car. That 100-mpg carbon-fiber four-seater confirmed Lovins’s intuition of a new design space where making an auto lighter and more slippery so it needs half to a third less engine power could create strong synergies with smaller, more-advanced powertrains.

In 1993, after private exploration of the concept with GM and others, RMI published preliminary conclusions, receiving the Nissan Prize. To maximize competition in exploiting the concept, RMI put it into the public domain so it could not be patented. This free-software-like approach, plus extensive briefings and consultancies that stimulated rivalry in the global auto industry, evoked strong industry interest in hybrid powertrains (especially in Japan), much fitter platforms, and other innovations—and by 2000, an estimated $10 billion in industry commitments to such developments. That’s over 3,000-fold leverage for the philanthropy that had funded RMI’s $3-million R&D investment.

Fiberforge

Cost was an obvious barrier to making cars out of carbon-fiber composites—long a slow and expensive handcrafted material for racecars. To address this, RMI in 1999 spun off Hypercar Inc. as a for-profit venture to develop and license or produce cost-competitive ultralight-hybrid autos. In 2000, with two noted auto engineering firms, Hypercar designed an uncompromised midsize SUV that would get 67 mpg on gasoline or 114 mpg equivalent on hydrogen and repay its extra cost from a year or two of U.S. gasoline savings. The extra cost was due to the hybrid powertrain, not to the ultralighting, whose costlier materials, the team found—and deeper analysis later confirmed—could be paid for by simpler automaking and a smaller powertrain.

The capital-market crash in late 2000 made production capital unavailable to Hypercar, but automakers liked the design’s potential for far cheaper manufacturing of high-volume, high-volume, advanced-composite parts, and urged Hypercar to develop and apply its conceptual process. In 2004, the company published a summary of the SUV design and renamed itself Fiberforge to reflect its new manufacturing-technology focus.

Today, at last capitalized for growth, Fiberforge is a world leader in selling manufacturing processes and equipment for mass-producing lightweight carbon-fiber parts. From its base in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, 28 miles from RMI’s birthplace in Old Snowmass, Fiberforge remains at the forefront of a fast-growing global industry. Lightweighting, along with use of thermoplastics, is gaining traction with automakers and is also a strong fit in the aerospace industry, says Executive Vice President Dr. Jon Fox-Rubin, who joined RMI’s Hypercar team in 1996 and with ex-RMI colleague David Cramer has helped lead the company since its inception.

Fox-Rubin says the company is evolving as it stays focused on executing the Hypercar vision. “We’re doing it in ways we may not have anticipated,” he says. “We are an enabler of RMI’s long-term strategic vision. It will continue to mature in transportation.”

Bright Automotive

In 2008, RMI spun off another automotive venture with Alcoa, Johnson Controls, Turner Foundation, and Google. In April 2009, Indiana- and Michigan-based Bright Automotive showed a driving prototype of the aluminum-intensive IDEA plug-in-hybrid commercial fleet van, which achieved the equivalent of 100 mpg in typical daily fleet driving.

The company, formed nine months before the 2008 financial-market crash, survived the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. With private capital largely frozen, it applied for a $450-million loan from the Department of Energy. Bright won a $5 million investment from post-bankruptcy GM’s new venture capital arm, strategic partnerships with GM and AM General, and a $1.4 million U.S. Army contract, but after waiting 39 months for the DOE loan, which had become a prerequisite for private capital, Bright shut down in February 2012.

The concepts that drove Bright will endure, says Michael Brylawski, a longtime RMI researcher who became a Bright executive. “RMI’s message for [ultralight and electrified] auto designs, the vast and still unmet potential for lightweighting, and the opportunities to save millions of barrels of oil with intelligent engineering and business approaches is still sound.”

Dr. David Cole, founder and chairman emeritus of CAR, concurs: “Amory has been pushing the technology for many years and it is now catching up with his vision.”

What's next

As RMI continues to collaborate with automakers on strategic and technical projects and to speed their progress through military innovation, its Project Get Ready works with more than 25 partner cities and 40 strategic partners to bring together academic institutions, utilities, nonprofits and private enterprises to establish the groundwork and infrastructure to give electric vehicles a fighting chance at more than a niche market.

“Since electric cars have hit the streets, RMI is also supporting DOE labs and others in really understanding early driving experiences and usage patterns,” Hutchinson says. “This effort will continue to evolve by developing analytic insights to help electric utility planners and others optimize their spend and roles.”

What RMI has achieved in transportation is phenomenal, says Bright Automative’s first CEO, John Waters. “We were not constrained by Detroit,” recalls Waters, who also designed the battery pack for GM’s EV1 before joining RMI as vice president of its Transportation Practice. “This little think-and-do tank in Snowmass and Boulder wants to change the world. It’s worthy of a movie.”