Green Machine Dreams

Experts desperately seeking sustainable solutions for a world running out of oil


  • Art Center College of Design

    Art Center College of Design

    The Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California, hosted a two-day "Designing Sustainable Mobility" summit. In the foreground is one of the few remaining EV1s. | March 18, 2010

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Twist the ignition key and the blue box that is the Volkswagen HyMotion fuel-cell vehicle doesn't start so much as wake up. A digital display on the dashboard blinks to life to announce that a fraction of the 2.5 trillion cubic feet of hydrogen that global industry uses annually will, in seconds, be at your service.

In a world rapidly burning the last of its oil, a prescription for a new energy source has proved as vital as it is elusive. But Volkswagen is giving it a shot. Otherwise silent as a shadow, the hydrogen-electric-powered HyMotion, water trickling out the tiny exhaust pipe, shoots out of the Pasadena Art Center South Campus parking lot with a snappy little wheeze. And though some details (like a slow-mo 14-second 0-60 acceleration time) suggest just another wan eco-mobile, the HyMotion actually has a lot going for it.

Helping to propel the HyMotion is what may prove to be the partial Holy Grail of the post-oil Western world: the fuel-cell stack. Using a thin plastic membrane to transubstantiate hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, the HyMotion has a range of up to about 120 miles. Drive the HyMotion and its bigger, more blue-blooded cousin, the BMW Hydrogen 7, and the revolutionary news is that both cars are normal and are as easy to use as their gas-powered ancestors. And while neither is a car to rob a bank in, the power loss commonly associated with hydrogen is negligible. BMW's Hydrogen 7 has a V12 engine that dines on conventional gas, with a hydrogen option as sort of a clean-energy hors d'oeuvre, altogether delivering an impressive range of 500 miles.

But the Germans are prepared to go even further. Inside the Art Center College of Design, as part of the two-day "Designing Sustainable Mobility" summit, we find plans for the Volkswagen Nanospyder. Able to be "assembled, disassembled and reassembled on a microscopic level," the Nanospyder's wheels bloom from its axles like flowers from a stem. A car more born than built, the low-slung Nanospyder looks designed to race in a Martian Le Mans.

Created from a womblike, liquid-filled assembly tank by "billions of tiny nanobots no larger than a millimeter in diameter, using a spinach-based bioengineered protein, the skin of the vehicle uses photosynthesis to generate electricity." After its useful life is over, the Nanospyder returns to its womb and "the nanobots disassemble the car...and await instructions to build the next generation."

Honest, that's what it says.

A gathering of green minds

The Sustainable Mobility Summit was like a meeting of the Politburo of the American green energy movement. Everybody from Robert Kennedy Jr. to Dean Kamen (the inventor of the Segway) to the other top green energy "Jr." Ed Begley, gathered to share ideas. Christian Flavin, president of Worldwatch, set the agenda. After identifying the "current energy system as a megascale design problem," he starkly predicted that the "petroleum economy will kill us."

Over the two-day conference, attendees heard similar dire statements and predictions from the speakers:

  • The '70s were about safety, the '80s about aerodynamics, the '90s about quality and the '00s about quantity, as in way, way, way too many cars.
  • Just wait until 200 million Chinese soccer moms get rich enough to buy Suburbans.
  • The Chinese have replaced their 1.5 billion bicycles with a near equal number of two-cycle motor scooters, pound for pound perhaps the most polluting vehicles on earth.
  • The peak availability of oil is occurring right about now, and in the very near future production will begin to decline.
  • Why not put a sign on gas pumps that reads, "Each gallon of gas releases 19 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere...and sends 40 cents to countries that hate us."
  • Everybody on earth could drive a Prius and it wouldn't begin to fix the mess we're in.

Design center elite

Despite its small size (120 graduate students and 1,500 undergraduates), Art Center alumni represent the cream of automotive design not only in the U.S. but Europe and Japan. However, the Art Center no longer wants to be just a supplier to industry, but a participant.

Former GM designer Dan Sturges wondered why in this computer age, when one CAD guy can make a car, why is change so difficult? "When somebody like Paul McCready can design a 78-pound bicycle/airplane, the Gossamer Condor, to fly over the English Channel, why do we need a 4,000-pound SUV to drive 1 mile to get a cup of coffee?"

For his part, McCready suggested the global energy solution might have to be a transformative green energy mobilization at the World War II level. McCready came up with the GM electric Impact, which was the father of the EV1, doomed star of Who Killed the Electric Car?, a refugee from a future that never happened. (The last EV1 squatted behind the audience, a streamlined red Lazarus.) He argued that a five-passenger electric sedan could handle the transportation needs of at least 60 percent of the population.

Wild card cars Unfortunately, engineers like McCready — and his counterparts in the outer space business the Rutan brothers, whose fiberglass rockets and simple-as-an-explosion rocket motors employ nothing but the best of surfboard and firecracker technology — are not corporate collective types. NASA and GM do not let visionaries tell them what to do unless they are U.S. senators or someone with the bank account of Kirk Kerkorian.

As a result, the future tends to happen a long time after it is invented. Some 70 years ago Buckminster Fuller designed a car, the Dimaxion, that weighed only 1,600 pounds, carried 11 passengers and had a top speed of 120 mph. An apostle of Fuller, Jay Baldwin, described the American automobile's problem as what he called the reliance on CATNAP — "cheap available technology narrowly avoiding prosecution."

Baldwin is a down-home innovator. His highly functional low-tech Quickup Camper — a Ford F-150 pickup that appears to impregnate itself by way of an expand-on-demand shell — sat in the parking lot, a bastion of American green ingenuity among the Audis, BMWs and Hondas. Inside the Quickup are chairs, sink, potty, bed — with a ceiling high enough so that "you can get gymnastic at night if you feel like it." Ford gave Baldwin the F-150 for a dollar so he could work his magic, but he hasn't been able to market it.

Tomorrowland

Aboard a signature Segway, wiry Dean Kamen, holder of 440 patents, collar to cuffs in signature denim, swooshed to the podium and predicted that if Henry Ford came back to earth — though he might be floored by Google or the space program — he would look at the cars in any 21st-century parking lot and say, "Not much has changed."

In a marketplace in which Ford — proving it was possible to go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people — managed to lose almost $2 million an hour throughout 2006, American cars are not only a driving force (witness the gelded Ford Thunderbird) but failures as vehicles for change.

The atypically beautiful new Chevrolet Volt concept car tells a typical tale. With an Everyman price tag of about $18,000, a slick chopped top, glass slashes for headlights, sexy styling as aggressive as an arrow and an easy-to-ID Chevrolet face, the Volt would seem an ideal GM road rocket to blow the doors off the American green market. But no. The devil is in the dollar signs. Its lithium-ion batteries cost almost $20,000, and it's claimed that a more affordable version will not be technologically available for perhaps another five years.

Design student ideas

Still, there was hope. Art Center students presented their ideas. Tomorrow's fortune-maker: the City Car, a two-person pod that folds up, powered by solar energy generated from urban rooftops. Though you rent it, you plug your digital identity into the City Car and it temporarily becomes intimately your own. The City Car's interior is a gallery of video screens. Imagine driving around inside your iPod. Then there was the car with the inflatable interior. Air blows up seats from an endlessly malleable floor, seats as firm as a basketball or as soft as a balloon, designed to give the sitter a "premium experience."

But the billionaire-or-bust sweepstakes was won by tall, slender Peter Treadway, inventor of the Treadway tank-tracked shoes. They scoot you along at 12 mph (though he is thinking of a hot-rod version that could hit 30) down city sidewalks, from house or apartment to bus or subway in a quarter of the time it would take you to walk. Hard to envision? Picture an ankle bracelet invented by Rube Goldberg, or low-rider rollerblades.

"But rollerblades," said Treadway — who swears that's his real name — "can't be worn indoors, skateboards can't handle terrain, scooters require handles." The Treadway had simple "stop" and "go" controls, and whipped Peter around the conference hall. Ultimately he plans to make tank tread soles that become rigid for regular walking and cost below $1,000.

But what, you ask, of the sustainability meta-picture? Harvard/Oxford graduate Amory B. Lovins, a certified MacArthur Grant genius and founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute announced that it would only take $180 billion in technology research and revamped infrastructure to get the U.S. transportation industry out of oil and into clean and sustainable fuels. A lot of money, even when compared to Ford's 2006 $12.8 billion red ink bath, but a fraction of what the government has spent in Iraq. Lovins comments: "And we don't need no stinkin' robots or welders." Lightweight carbon-fiber electric-powered cars require no starters, alternators, driveshafts or paint.

If Lovins were talking to the like-minded fellow members of the tree-hugging elite, this might have been business as usual, but the Sustainability Conference was well attended by not only the now "traditionally" progressive-minded Japanese and European automakers, but executives from OEM Detroit. For a better idea why the Fords and General Motors of this world are finally becoming interested in the non-petroleum future, you may take a hint from the CEO of one of the larger energy cartels, who was recently heard to remark, "If you don't come to the table, you may find yourself on the menu." Perhaps the goliaths will have to give the green future a shot.

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