Cars are the dinosaurs of travel

Motoring

In an age of computers, satellite communication and advanced aircraft, the modern car is an anachronism: a collection of heavyweight mechanicals with just enough advanced electronics thrown in to give the impression of modernity. Today's cars are mechanical typewriters in an age of laptops, steel tanks in an age of advanced light-weight plastics. They are leftovers of an earlier age that continue because of the vested interests of the companies that make them, and because of the deep conservatism of those who have the power to effect change, but choose instead to pursue a policy of expensive incremental refinement.

The modern car is, essentially, much as it was 70 or 80 years ago: a heavy steel body lugged around by a petrol-burning engine of needless mass and power. All cars, even the newest ones, start with these parameters, which leads to a panoply of inefficiencies.

Steel is used because it is cheap. It needs huge energy to press and heat and cut, but as all car companies have invested massively in the technology required to master it, so all car companies, save a few minnows whose production volumes are insignificant, continue to use it.

The petrol internal combustion engine is just as old-tech. Sure, it has been tamed by a host of measures, effected by clever car company engineers who are long-practised masters in the art of compromise. It is controlled by electronics to help eke out the last drop of fuel; it is cleansed by catalytic converters to stamp out as many toxins as possible. But it is still a crude device, even if it is an ingeniously updated one. Its innate problems are obvious; look how many add-ons are needed to make it socially acceptable.

The typical modern car is an appallingly wasteful mass. It weighs between 2,000 and 4,000lb, largely because of the steel body. This means that the engine must be big and powerful to propel it. The gearbox has to be beefy as a result, and so do the drive-shafts and the couplings and the radiator and the pumps and pulleys. It must have vast brakes, to stop the monster. And all this to propel, typically, from one to four persons.

The environmentalist Amory Lovins, however, has an alternative. And he'll talk about it at a seminar in London this Wednesday. The seminar coincides with the publication of his latest book, Factor Four - Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, which deals with his vision for the modern car, as well as other energy-saving measures.

"Modern cars are an extraordinarily sophisticated engineering achievement - the highest expression of the Iron Age," says Lovins. "But they are obsolete, and the time for incrementalism is over." Striking innovations in advanced materials, software, micro-electronics and in other areas, he believes, have now made possible a modern family car 10 times more fuel efficient than current vehicles.

I first heard of Amory Lovins through a friend, the American writer Bob Cumberford, about a year ago. Cumberford even gave Lovins' new car its name - the Hypercar. (Lovins originally tagged it the Supercar, before it was pointed out that car makers had already hijacked that expression - to tag cars that are faster and even less fuel-efficient than their normal ware.)

The Hypercar Program, part of Lovins' Rocky Mountains Institute - a non- profit energy think-tank based in Colorado - is already under development by two dozen companies, some of them large motor manufacturers. Lovins claims that more than $1bn has so far been committed to his ideas - which he does not patent, but puts into the public domain to foster competition. Lovins accepts that to bring such a car to market is a formidable challenge, but insists it is eminently practicable. It may be a big car company; but equally, he says, "the winners might be some smart, hungry, unknown aerospace engineers tinkering in a garage right now - founders of the next Apple or Xerox."

The Hypercar is a hybrid-electric vehicle which uses an on-board power source (such as a small, internal combustion engine) and electric engines fitted into the wheels. Just as important, it has a composite fibre plastic body, much lighter than traditional steel. It is the mixture of the two - hybrid power and lightweight body - which sets the Hypercar apart.

Car makers are certainly familiar with hybrid power-trains, but they make the mistake of fitting these units to traditional, steel-bodied vehicles. They make the same mistake with electric cars which, neutered by vast weight, typically show appalling performance and range.

Lovins, who trained as a nuclear physicist at Harvard,and became an Oxford don at the age of 21, reckons that the hybrid car is a better solution than the pure electric car. There is no need to recharge your car using power generated from coal- or oil-burning power stations, no need to lug around big battery banks, and none of the inconvenience of overnight recharging.

Lovins accepts that the only way to tempt people out of their current cars is to offer a better product. Environmentalism has never been a good enough incentive. The lightness should make for better performance as well as much better fuel economy, better braking and better handling. In short, better cars, which will be more fun to drive.

The composite fibre plastic bodies would be not only much lighter than steel, but also stronger and safer, and would give car designers more scope: it is easier to mould plastics than it is to beat steel into shape. A subsidiary benefit is that the bodies would be colour-impregnated, not painted - the most environmentally damaging part of car manufacture.

Lovins insists that, if the volumes were big enough, the cost of plastic composites (widely used in Formula One racing cars and in aerospace) would drop steeply. Given all the accompanying savings that such a light body would ensure (less bulky transmissions, lighter brakes, no power assistance etc), the total cost of making a car would be no higher than it is now. All it needs is a company that has the guts, and the will, to be different.

Lovins reckons that, before long, such a company will emerge. So do I - whether it is to make a Hypercar or some radical alternative quite different from Lovins' vision. The car industry now is at its most vulnerable. It is obsessed by improving old technology, and by intangible concepts such as sex appeal and power that have no practical benefit. Effectively, it is still making typewriters - good, beautifully made typewriters that have never done their jobs better. But someone, somewhere will unleash the equivalent of the modern computer. And the car industry won't know what hit it.

Amory Lovins' book `Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use', written in collaboration with Ernst von Weizsacker and L Hunter Lovins, is published this Wednesday by Earthscan, price pounds 15.99.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

    Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

    Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

    C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition