Lighter Cars Can Help the U.S. Kick Oil

Environmental champion Amory Lovins argues that modern cars weigh too much. New composites could change that

Amory Lovins has his pitch down. The chief executive of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit, environmental consultancy based in Snowmass, Colo., delivers it in staccato fashion, laptop in front of him. He has a formula for kicking America's oil addiction and it involves free-market solutions, not government fiat. He practices what he calls "institutional acupuncture," poking large companies to get them on a path to eco-wellness. His focus today: ultra-lightweight vehicles.

The scene was the first-ever Designing Sustainable Mobility summit, organized by the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. Lovins' speedy Feb. 8 presentation was given, appropriately enough, in a former wind tunnel once used by the neighboring California Institute of Technology. The hangar-like space was accented by orange-and-green mood lighting. Ecofriendly vehicles were parked near the entrance. On either side of the room, Art Center students jotted down notes on a large white sheet of paper or painted on an even larger canvas, inspired by what they heard from the stage.

Market Solutions

Focusing on the environment does not need to come at the expense of economic growth, Lovins says. The last time the world looked so intensely at fuel economy was the period from 1977 to 1985. The U.S. gross domestic product grew 27% during that time. Oil usage fell by 17%. "We customers turned out to have more power than the oil supply cartel," he says. Nor should politicians or government bureaucrats try to help. "No new mandates," Lovins says. He believes, for example, in eliminating the "illegal 100% tariff on Brazilian ethanol."

Lovins' goal is simply to "get us out of oil" by 2040. (His strategy is laid out on Doing so, Lovins figures, will create 1 million new jobs, particularly in the farm belt where more labor will be needed to grow agricultural products for energy use. In the meantime, jobs presently at risk in the automotive industry will be saved, because foreign competitors would not be seizing market share from Detroit. As a bonus byproduct of the end of oil dependency, carbon dioxide emissions will be cut by 25%.

Lovins says the public and automotive industry impression is that eco-friendly cars have to be "small, unsafe, sluggish, costly, and ugly." What Detroit needs is a technological leap, akin to the one that brought the music industry from vinyl records to compact discs and now digital downloads. "We can get better products as a byproduct of better engineering," he says. "People will want to buy [eco-friendly] cars because they're cheaper, rather than because they're good for the environment."

Composites to the Rescue

The biggest enemy of fuel efficiency is the weight of today's vehicles. The average weight of U.S. cars has risen by more than 18% since the mid-1980s, he says. Just 1% of the energy produced by gasoline goes to actually moving the driver. The solution is lightweight composite materials. To demonstrate his point, Lovins pulls out a bowl-shaped object produced by Fiberforge, a company he is involved with. He hits it and a gong-like sound is produced. "Plastics have changed a lot since The Graduate," Lovins says. "You don't need the weight of steel for safety. If you did, your bike helmet would be made of steel and not carbon fiber."

The poster child for this new way of thinking, Lovins says, is Boeing (BA). Its former executive vice-president and chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Alan Mulally, embraced composite materials in building the new 787 Dreamliner plane. The innovation saved the company. Conveniently, Mulally is now running Ford (F), where he presumably can accomplish a similar transition.

Can he? Following Lovins' presentation, representatives from Honda Motor (HMC), Ford, and BMW Group took to the stage. Ben Knight, vice-president for auto engineering at Honda, pointed to his company's first-to-market hybrid car, the Insight, and the company's new private jet made of lightweight composites, which is 35% more fuel-efficient than previous small planes. Larry Erickson, chief designer at Ford, described an unsuccessful attempt he made early in his career to get an expensive new car design to market at General Motors (GM). "Everyone's trying different things, including composites," Erickson said. "When you get in the car industry, the numbers that have to ponied up," added Christopher Bangle, the black-clad chief designer at BMW. "Investment rates become important."

Click here to see a roundup of the most fuel-efficient luxury cars.

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