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Mar 27, 2012

The Electric Car: Lighter, Less Costly, Plugged In


In writing “The Electric Car, Unplugged” for the New York Times of Sunday, March 25, John Broder and his informants assert that “enthusiasm over electrification in the industry has begun to flicker and the price of battery technology remains stubbornly high.” Yet they unaccountably omit the most promising way to make electrified autos rapidly affordable: use ultralight materials like carbon-fiber composites, and new manufacturing techniques to make them into automotive structures, to produce integratively designed tripled-efficiency autos. Their “fitness”—losing a ton of weight while improving aerodynamics and tires— saves up to two-thirds of the batteries or fuel cells otherwise required. Making those costly components fewer before making them cheaper makes electric autos affordable, so their higher sales make their components cheaper.

This reversal of traditional industry and government priorities engages three steep learning curves (making more lowers the cost)—in ultralight materials, structural manufacturing, and electric powertrain—that together create a breakthrough competitive strategy. Surprisingly, the smaller powertrain plus the carbon-fiber autobodies’ radically simplified manufacturing, requiring only one-fifth the traditional amount of capital, pays for the carbon fiber, making ultralighting free. That is, such ultralight carbon-fiber cars cost no more to manufacture than today's steel autos, but their higher value makes them more profitable to make and sell.

Our team and its industry partners designed an uncompromised, 52-percent-lighter carbon-fiber SUV in 2000 getting 67 mpg on gasoline or 114 on hydrogen fuel cells, repaying its extra cost (due to its powertrain, not the ultralighting) in a year or two. Toyota showed a concept carbon-fiber plug-in hybrid in 2007 with the interior volume of a Prius but one-third its weight—the day after the world's biggest carbon-fiber maker announced a $0.3-billion factory to “mass-produce carbon-fiber car parts for Toyota.” Now VW, BMW, and Audi have announced volume production of the first three electrified carbon-fiber autos by next year. VW's offering, the two-seat XL-1 plug-in hybrid, is rated at 230 miles per gallon of gasoline equivalent. Up to four other automakers are quietly moving toward a similar strategy.

Other efforts are under way to build momentum. The University of Michigan’s Center for Automotive Research this year launched the Coalition of Automotive Lightweighting Materials to support efforts by auto manufacturers to cut vehicle weight. The coalition includes materials associations for aluminum and plastics, along with several auto suppliers. Finally, President Obama last week announced a $14.2 million Energy Department effort to accelerate the development and deployment of stronger and lighter materials for advanced vehicles.

The potential for automotive lightweighting is described and documented in Rocky Mountain Institute's October 2011 business book Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era, and summarized in my article in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. The attitudes Broder reports do reflect automakers' old conventional wisdom, but thankfully, not the industry's most advanced strategies and activities, as will soon become evident in the marketplace.


Showing 1-4 of 4 comments

March 27, 2012

You're the man, Amory. May you live a long healthy life & keep pushing, we need it. Thank-you.

April 3, 2012

I'm reading Nat Capitalism at the mo and all I can say is the concept made sense back then, and it makes absolute sense now - less fuel, less emissions, better safety, better electric integration and even cost savings. It's good to see the US government dipping their feet in as well, even if it's just small change at the moment. Thanks for the information Amory, you've got a concise and sensible way of explaining things.

April 4, 2012

It's hard to get people to buy smaller cars but that makes a huge difference. The prius C is 500 lbs lighter than the regular prius and that's a big step.
The new Envia lithium batteries due out in about a year are more than twice and powerful as todays best lithium batteries and could give EVs 3 times the rangeBUTeven better would be still have 100 mile range and make them 1/2 the price. We don't need SUV electrics, smallerand lighter is much better.
Using a bicycle for short 1 person trips is even better. 0-10 miles should always be a bicycle just like in Europe. We drove our 100% electric LEAF less thn 10K mile last year and our bicycles 3K miles.

April 5, 2012

Amory, I agree with your approach and lightweighting is certainly a requirement of the transition to EVs.

My company has developed a motorcycle half the weight of a conventional bike of similar type, although we use super-thin high strength steel (4130 chrome molly, 1mm/0.040" wall) for the chassis.

Porsche uses similar material to lighten some of their high performance cars.

Our strategy is to begin with the super-lightweight 2-wheel platform in 125mpg gasoline format, then integrate with our in-development series-hybrid (range extended to 4 hours riding time) electric drivetrain, then go fully electric.

We're also collaborating on electric power-assisted mountain bikes with our same gasoline / propane micro-generator extending the range to a practical (4 hour) level.

With the shift to carbon fiber in aircraft construction it seems evident that is the way to lighten, particularly if you want to retain the same overall capacity. Making the same size SUV half the weight would seem to have only this solution.

But what about supply issues? I'm no expert but I heard the cost of carbon fiber has skyrocketed due to the demand from aircraft and other makers.

And of course there is research and development, a major upfront cost, particularly with the liability that even minor defects can bring to automakers.

Do you think there is room for collaboration with the likes of RMI and/or DoE on our kind of development, or is the focus solely on 4-wheelers?

Mike Hodgkinson

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