Uphill struggle for a 150 mpg supercar

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The Independent Online
WHETHER you like it or not - and the car-hating upper-middle classes of a green disposition do not like it at all - one of the first ambitions of aspirational middle-income people is to have their own car; and if this means the M25 must be widened to accommodate them, so be it.

Enthusiasm for car ownership is not limited to the Western world. As countries become richer, their car populations soar. This week DRI, the automotive consultant group, published estimates that global car sales will grow from 34 million last year to over 41 million in 1998, with nearly all the growth coming from the 'new' markets in the Far East, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

If the world is going to have more cars, the sensible thing is not to bleat about it, but to look at ways in which the car can be civilised - made less polluting, more efficient, quieter, safer.

On the other side of the world from these markets, in Colorado in the US, there is an organisation called the Rocky Mountain Institute that thinks it has the answer: reject the car- makers' present approach of making small, incremental improvements, and apply the best available technology to every aspect of car design.

The mission of the institute is to make the world more energy efficient. The institute itself, with its argon-filled window panes, super-thick insulation, solar panels and a conservatory where they grow bananas, is a model of what can be done with available technology.

It is run by a brilliant self- publicist, Amory Lovins, and his wife, L Hunter Lovins. Readers with longish memories may recall that during Margaret Thatcher's green period, she invited a US expert to Downing Street to advise on energy conservation. He came out saying that Number 10 was one of the most energy-inefficient buildings he had ever been in, and got himself on the front pages as a result. That was Dr Lovins.

Much of the consultancy's work is in helping to design more efficient buildings. But in a way, that intellectual battle has been won - designers now know that it pays to spend a little more on careful design and insulation. We know what we ought to do, even if we don't do it. The intellectual battle for more efficient cars rages on, and Dr Lovins has now turned his hand to that.

Some progress has been made. A modern small car has slightly better fuel consumption than a Morris Minor, is a little more comfortable and can go a little faster (though for most trips that is irrelevent). But the basic technology of a car today is identical to that of 30 years ago, merely slightly refined. Dr Lovins argues that while the manufacturers' instinct is to refine - because they have vast investments in building steel bodies and fitting them with engines and gearboxes - this is a blind alley.

So too is the conventional electric car approach. Given the problems of battery technology, all the manufacturers are producing is superior milk-floats: aside from the fact that they do not create local pollution they are in every respect - performance, cost, convenience - worse than conventional cars.

Dr Lovins starts from the other end. First, use carbon fibre to produce a very light but strong body. A carbon fibre body weighs a third as much as a steel one, and if it can be made tough enough to enable Nigel Mansell to crash his Indy car at 180 mph and walk away with slight back pains, then it ought to be possible to make cars able to withstand a bump in town, maybe even a pile-up on the M6.

Next, make it truly aerodynamic, again using racing-car techniques such as smoothing the underside of the car, and use the best available technology to reduce the rolling resistance of the tyres. Power would come from a set of electric motors (using, for technical buffs, a British design called switched reluctance drives) recharged by a small petrol or diesel engine. This has four advantages over conventional transmission:

The engine is sized to the average load, not hill-climbing or acceleration, because its power can be supplemented by running down the battery for peak load;

It drives a generator, not the wheels, so it always runs at its most efficient speed;

It never idles, for in traffic it simply switches itself off;

When braking, the electric engines will double as generators, feeding power back to the battery.

Put all these technologies together, plus more efficient accessories (the typical US car has an air-conditioner large enough to cool a house), and Dr Lovins reckons that the 150 mpg car becomes perfectly possible.

That is the vision. Will it happen? Not if the large motor manufacturers have anything to do with it. Producing cars with a completely different set of technologies requires them to learn quite new skills - skills found more in the aerospace industry than in the metal-bashing world. The Lovins' work does draw on some of the technologies that the car makers have incorporated into their 'concept cars', but if you look at the scale of change the motor industry would face, not just in manufacturing but in service and distribution, it is hard to see them willing to cope with such change until it is forced on them.

This will probably come from outside the industry - not from the Clive Sinclairs of the world (though Sir Clive is interested in this field) but perhaps from the aircraft manufacturers. Remember that it was the French aerospace company Matra that developed the Renault Espace and gave birth to the concept of the people-carrier, one of the few sectors of the motor trade still expanding through the recession.

Alternatively, change might come from the racing-car industry: if Benetton feels it attracts favourable publicity for its jumpers by financing a Formula One team, might it not attract even better publicity by financing an environmentally friendly car?

Moreover, change might come not come from the present advanced industrial world but from Taiwan or Mexico. As for timing, my suspicion is that anything dramatic is probably about 15 years off. The experience of the transistor and the microchip shows that it takes that sort of time to get from concept to mass production.

Finally, it is possible that there will be no radical change, that incremental advance will win the day: this would satisfy the car-haters as well as the motor industry. The first could continue to hate; the second to make. But from the world's point of view it would be sad, for the new rich of the next century are going to have their cars, and it would be better for all were those cars as efficient and non-polluting as possible.

A technical description of the project 'Supercars - The Coming Light-Vehicle Revolution' by Amory B Lovins, John W Barnett and L Hunter Lovins, is published by the Rocky Mountain Institute, Snowmass, Colorado 81654-9199, USA.