In America alone, nearly 70 percent of oil consumed is by the cars we drive. Can efficient automobile design mitigate the environmental damage caused by our beloved cars? General Motors unveils The Volt, a super-hybrid vehicle, and the fuel cell-powered Sequel, while technology firm Fiberforge shows off the latest in ultra-light materials for car manufacturing.

Paving the Way
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Paving the Way
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Paving the Way
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Bird, the director of General Motors Design and Technology Fusion Group, is responsible for bringing the GM Sequel from concept car stage to the market. Previously, he was program manager for two other GM concept cars, AUTOnomy and Hywire, which were the first vehicles to include the fuel cell and control technologies found in the Sequel. Borroni-Bird is one of the world's leading experts on fuel cell technology.


At General Motors, Burns oversees advanced technology, innovation programs and corporate strategy. Burns is championing the company's "reinvention" of the automobile around advanced propulsion, electronics, telematics and materials technologies. The company's goal is to create a zero-emissions vehicle, powered by fuel cells, that can compete economically with traditional automobiles by the year 2010.


Fox-Rubin co-founded Fiberforge, a Colorado-based company that develops sturdy yet lightweight composites, some of which are being used in the next generation of automobile design. Prior to the creation of Fiberforge, he worked for the Rocky Mountain Institute. In 1999, the institute created a for-profit spinoff to research a hydrogen-powered vehicle, the "Hypercar." That spinoff morphed into Fiberforge in 2004.


Little is a journalist who writes Grist's "Muckraker" column on environmental politics and policy. She also interviews major environmental figures for the site. Her articles on energy and the environment have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to The New York Times Magazine and Outside. She was a founding editor of Feed, the first-ever online magazine, which launched in 1996.


Lovins is an "experimental physicist" and a vocal proponent of energy efficiency. In 1982 he founded the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute, a policy and technology think tank that advocates for energy and resource efficiency in many industries: automobile, real estate, electrical, water, semiconductor and others. The institute even developed a proposal for the "Hypercar" - a hydrogen-powered vehicle built with ultralight materials - to demonstrate to the auto industry that the technology was worth pursuing. Lovins' most recent book is 2005's "Winning the Oil Endgame."


Madej is the president and CEO of Exatec. A partial subsidiary of General Electric Plastics, Exatec was created in 1998 to develop polycarbonate window systems for the automotive market.


Roble oversaw the design, manufacturing and implementation of GE Plastics' technology in the General Motors/Chevrolet Volt: a concept vehicle that, in its present form, is capable of running on electricity, gasoline, E85 or bio-diesel. The car will be ready for market in another three-to-five years.


Vaitheeswaran - the Global Environment & Energy Correspondent for The Economist - is also the author of "Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution will Transform an Industry, Change our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet." He recently completed the forthcoming "Zoom: The Race to Fuel the Car of the Future."

When Henry Ford released the Model T in 1908, it got 25 miles per gallon and ran on ethanol and gasoline. A hundred years later, the average U.S. automobile gets 21 miles per gallon. Nearly 97 percent of the cars on our highways run on gasoline, and Americans alone consume their weight in gasoline every week, putting transportation at about a third of the U.S.'s total fuel usage.

Though Congress enacted nationwide fuel economy regulations in 1975 as a response to the global oil crisis, passenger car standards haven't changed since the late 1980s, and the U.S. continues to have the world's lowest fuel economy standards. But recent legislative crackdowns on emissions, and growing concerns about limited fossil fuels and rising gas prices, have started shifting the focus of automakers - and buyers - back to efficiency. With Japan at the forefront of the electric market, car manufacturers worldwide are testing new technologies - gas-electric hybrids, electric plug-ins, hydrogen fuel cells, ethanol and other biofuels, and new ultra lightweight designs - for the car of the future. Not to be left behind, a few innovative U.S. companies and engineers, including Detroit-based General Motors, General Electric Plastics and Fiberforge, have developed lighter weight materials for use in hyper-fuel efficient concept cars - advancements that just might put the U.S. back on top in terms of auto innovation and help curb America's - and the world's - gas gluttony.

Pushing the trend toward "lightweighting," Colorado-based Fiberforge created a new method for mass-producing ultra-light carbon materials for car bodies. A cheaper alternative to steel, the material can be stronger than titanium and reduces a vehicle's weight by half, which improves its safety and fuel economy.

Under the vision of Chief Technology Officer Larry Burns, General Motors has designed two concept cars: the Chevrolet Volt, which features E-Flex technology, a highly customizable platform that allows GM to fit a car with an electric plug-in, ethanol or biodiesel engine depending on what fuel is available in the destination market; and the GM Sequel, a hydrogen fuel cell-powered SUV that can run up to 300 miles on its fuel supply and produces only water vapor emissions.

GE Plastics manufactures new clear composite plastic materials, including one made from recycled water bottles, used in the Chevy Volt. Highly formable, the tough plastic replaces glass or ceramic components, significantly lowering the vehicle's weight and upping fuel efficiency, and allows for greater design versatility.


NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: Was it a conscious decision, or a momentary lapse of reason? How did progress take priority over humankind? Could harnessing the world's energy that allowed our ascent now be the lynchpin of our downfall? Could it be we are connected to all living things in the universe, not the center of it? That decisions in Washington affect the mountain glaciers of Peru, deforestation in the Amazon affects the heat waves of Paris, that power plants in China affect air quality in Los Angeles. It's about facing what seem to be insurmountable challenges for what they really are: opportunities, to reinvent and redesign. E Squared: The economies of being environmentally conscious.




NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: When Henry Ford proclaimed, "I will build a car for the great multitude," not even he realized how great that multitude would be. Or just how much asphalt, congestion, and carbon dioxide would be created from his vision. Our obsession with the automobile, while still a symbol of independence, just might show us how dependent we really are.

AMANDA GRISCOM LITTLE: The average American drives 1000 miles a month, 12,000 miles a year, the distance to the moon every 20 years. You know, if you had to distill the American ethos into a single product, it would undoubtedly be the car. But the bigger point is that, Americans consume three gallons of gasoline a day, their own weight in gasoline every seven days.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: Some people that look at the question of energy and cars say, the problem is America's obsession with the automobile, that SUV's are the work of the devil. Well I say that actually gets the problem wrong. What cars represent are actually good things: freedom, mobility, independence, personality. This is why people anywhere around the world, whether it's China, Brazil, or South Africa, as soon as people can get enough money, they aspire to get into their own cars. There are a lot of good things that come from cars. I say the problem is oil and cars can be the solution.

LARRY BURNS: You know, the issue of cars and oil really is a global issue. There's 850 million cars and trucks in the world today and that sounds like a lot and it is a lot, but with over 6 billion people, that means that just 12 percent of the people in the world own an automobile. Now we're forecasting that by the year 2020 that global number of automobiles is gonna grow to about 1.1 billion. Now if you take those cars and park them end to end and wrap them around the world, they'll go around 125 times.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: Adding to that orbit will soon be hundreds of millions of cars from developing countries. India's Tata Motors plans to launch a twenty-five hundred dollar car next year, leading a trend for other car companies in a race for the masses, many without emission controls. These cars will add untold demand on the world's already precarious oil supply.

LARRY BURNS: Illustrating just how frail our energy infrastructure is in the United States. We had the blackout in the northeast, we've had Katrina and Rita issues of nationalizing energy in South America. Add on all of the economic growth that's going on in China and India and elsewhere and it's just sort of screaming that there is an issue here. There's a very, very significant issue and the common denominator is petroleum and our dependence on petroleum and we have to find solutions. We have to find solutions as soon as we possibly can.

AMORY LOVINS: In round numbers, 1/3 of our energy goes to buildings, 1/3 to industry, and 1/3 to transportation. The actual numbers differ a bit. What's really important though, is in the use of oil. Our transportation is about 97 percent oil fueled, and about 70 percent of our oil use fuels transportation. So, those are the two sectors that are intimately intertwined.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: The clean car of the future will not burn gasoline in an internal combustion engine. Now what will it actually burn? It may not burn any fuel at all. It might be hydrogen fuel used in a fuel cell. It could be an electric car. It could be a plug-in hybrid. It could be a flex fuel vehicle that has ethanol, for example, or another kind of bio-fuel. Right now there's an explosion of technologies, and a marvelous air of innovation in transportation technologies that we haven't seen in 100 years. Let's remember that back at the turn of the 20th century there were more electric cars on the roads than there were gasoline cars and Henry Ford's Model T ran on ethanol as well as it ran on gasoline - it was a flex-fuel car. So we might really be going back to the future.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: Henry Ford would be appalled at how inefficient that future is. In 1908, his Model-T got twenty-five miles per gallon. One hundred years later, the average car today, gets twenty-one.

AMORY LOVINS: A typical car today uses, every day, a hundred times its own weight in ancient plants, inefficiently converted to gasoline. What happens to that fuel energy when it goes in your tank, 7/8 of it gets lost before it gets to the wheels. Only the last 6 percent of the fuel energy actually accelerates the car and then heats the brakes when you stop. And yet, 95 percent of the mass you're accelerating is the car not the driver.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: Barely one percent of the energy in a gallon of gasoline is used to move the driver in a forward direction. I mean that's incredibly inefficient and that's after 100 years of the world's best engineers working on this.

VOICEOVER [HISTORICAL FOOTAGE]: "What kind of car will the city of the future see?" "The monster is trundled out onto the highway to frighten other motorists." "New sources of power are being developed which may eventually bring the gasoline age to an end."

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: Dream cars of the future have promised many things, even the ability to fly. The first step in getting there is making them weigh less.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: I have no question that the future for transportation involves lightweight materials. This has got to be the future, in part because it allows us to have our cake and eat it too. You have the same car but it's made from very strong but much lighter materials, you'll use less fuel.

AMORY LOVINS: We use carbon composites in military and aerospace, where cost is almost no object, but to move into auto making, you need to make these composite structures a thousand times higher volume and lower cost than now. And now we actually have ways to do that that can make aerospace quality at automotive cost and speed and that's the revolution I think everybody in the auto industry has been waiting for.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: Colorado start-up, Fiberforge, is pioneering a new method for mass producing lightweight carbon fiber.

JON FOX-RUBIN: The fiberforge process is aimed at creating affordable structures that are lighter in weight. Today's carbon fiber ranges from $10 a pound to $120 a pound and the cost per pound to process that is also very high. It's on the order of $100 a pound for most commercial processes. And we said well let's - what if we just took the $10 per pound fiber and came up with processes that were much more affordable to get into a finished part.

JON FOX-RUBIN: What you see here is the fiberforge automated lay-up system and it is essentially a high speed tape dispenser that dispenses the pre-impregnated thermoplastic tape onto a 2D table.

JON FOX-RUBIN: We decided to focus on thermoplastics when we came up with the idea of making products that can be stamped. Most other composites on the market are made with thermo-set resins that take two chemical compounds, mix them together, put them into the final shape, and then they need to cure and the chemical reaction needs to occur. And so that's a challenge to manage from a high speed through put. What we use are thermoplastic resins such as nylon six. It's a readily meltable resin that can hold these fibers together and transfer the load from one fiber to another in a finished part like this.

AMORY LOVINS: And uh you end up with an amazingly strong material, this particular one is stronger than titanium (taps bowl), and really stiff as you can tell from the sound. So, plastics have changed since The Graduate [chuckle].

JON FOX-RUBIN: This is a concept vehicle that the company made about four years ago. It was a two-year effort to develop a lightweight hybrid electric vehicle that was about half the weight of today's cars. So it was a 2000 pound vehicle that would be comparably safe hitting a Ford Explorer as the people in the Ford Explorer.

AMORY LOVINS: These materials can absorb 12 times as much crash energy per pound as steel and do so more smoothly, so use the crush length up to twice as effectively. So, safety actually improves when you make the car only half as light as the stuff around it.

JON FOX-RUBIN: This is the composite demonstrator of the left front portion of the vehicle. So this would be the door frame and it shows how several pieces come together in a pretty complex design where this is the front firewall of the car and then this is the apilar right behind the driver's side door. And it approximately weighs on the order of 60 percent less than a steel structure of the same geometry.

AMORY LOVINS: Ultra-light materials have some strategic advantages steel doesn't in manufacturing. They can cut the tooling costs by about 99 percent, get rid of the body shop or the paint shop, which are the two hardest and costliest parts of making a car, and cut the total capital intensity by at least 2/5 below the leanest plant in the industry. It's what's called a disruptive technology and of course, it's smart for auto makers to adopt something like that right away before their competitors do and sell them their steel stamping equipment to slow them down.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: The lightweight materials make cars safer, less costly to manufacture, and more fuel efficient. So, why aren't automakers doing it?

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: When I talk to senior executives in Detroit, what I hear about the industry's reluctance to embrace lightweighting and the idea is championed by Amory Lovins and Fiberforge, one, they have a lot assets to defend in terms of having conventional steel stamping facilities, and it's gonna cost them a lot to scrap that and to build untested, risky, expensive new ways of doing things. This is an incredibly risk-averse business. That's the first point. The second point is they express some skepticism about what will be the real gains in terms of efficiency? And ultimately remember, the consumer might benefit because we use less gasoline, save some money. The society might benefit, but Detroit doesn't see an immediate benefit to making their cars more efficient. In part because their public policies don't encourage them to make more efficient cars. So they say, why should we spend the money now for someone else's benefit?

AMORY LOVINS: I was talking, in late 2005, to the heads of advanced engineering for each of the big three auto makers in Detroit, and I asked the most conservative of them what he would do if he became convinced there was a strategically advantageous new way to make cars, but it would require him to abandon his steel stamping capacity. And to my delight, he looked me in the eye and said, we would adopt it fearlessly and immediately, which is the right answer. But I don't think he would have told me that six or twelve months earlier. I think gazing into the abyss concentrates the mind wonderfully, and the American auto makers are in such deep trouble that they have a very strong incentive to look at fundamentally different ways to make cars.

JON FOX-RUBIN: You know, the first auto maker that really gets serious about lightweighting and either licenses our technology or comes up with its own competitive technology will really own a key piece of the next generation of transportation. Just like the Japanese automakers have really taken on the hybrids and are owning the market right now and presumably will continue to do so because they've kind of taken a leadership stake there.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: I think if you're looking for exceptions to the rule about Detroit being short-termist, not understanding innovation, ultimately mortgaging its future in return for short-term profitability, I'd say you'd have to look perhaps, for example at General Motors. We do have the chief technology officer there, Larry Burns, who's a visionary. He doesn't always have control over what happens at the company, but in terms of spending a billion dollars on technologies like hydrogen and fuel cells, which is in effect a hail-Mary pass for a company that's in a lot of trouble, ultimately the company is hoping it can leapfrog to the next level by jumping ahead of the Japanese on a futuristic technology.

LARRY BURNS: If we hope to grow our business, we're gonna have to do that sustainably. We can't have our growth be capped because of an energy issue or an environmental issue, and we think technology really holds the key to do that. And the key to that technology, we believe, is to get vehicles to be electrically driven.

AMANDA GRISCOM LITTLE: There has been more and more evidence that Detroit may be pulling out ahead in the race to develop the cleanest, greenest car. Recently at a Detroit auto show, General Motors debuted the Chevy Volt.

LARRY BURNS: Well the Chevrolet Volt is a very exciting concept vehicle. It's based on what General Motors calls our E-Flex platform and architecture. E-Flex stands for flexibility and the E is electrically driven automobiles. And here's the basic idea. If we can get to an electrically driven vehicle it has a chance to be a pretty simple vehicle. Electrically driven vehicles have about 1/10 as many moving parts in their propulsion system as mechanically driven vehicles, so we can develop a common electric drive system that's the electric motors and that's the controls for those electric motors and we can make those components, then, in higher volume and package them into a vehicle that then you can mix and match - depending on where you are in the world - batteries and fuel cells and engine generators and gasoline and ethanol, and it gives us a great deal of flexibility.

AMANDA GRISCOM LITTLE: Unlike my Prius, with, which operates primarily on a gasoline engine with a back up electric generator to improve efficiency, this is primarily an electric car with a back-up gasoline generator. That makes a lot of sense, because you can plug it in at night, you can drive the car for 40 miles on electricity alone and then if you're out and about and you can't get home or you can't find an outlet, you can fill up the back-up generator. It frees you from the pump and it frees you from the electric outlet. This is Detroit's bet, that it can trump the Prius.

LARRY BURNS: Each day you leave with this capability to go 30-40 miles and, in fact, you may not stop to buy gas more than every month or every two months and you would have a relatively low percent of your miles actually on that with petroleum or ethanol. So a pretty exciting opportunity if we can get the battery there, and that's what we're working on very hard right now.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: Unfortunately, the battery technology and the Volt will remain prohibitively expensive for several years. Presently, GM is working with General Electric plastics to create lightweight materials for their prototypes.

LARRY BURNS: General Electric developed a really fascinating composite clear-type plastic material that we used on the Chevrolet Volt to our advantage, both from a mass reduction standpoint, but very importantly as a design enabler.

JOHN MADEJ: This part weighs 17 pounds when it's done in plastic. The equivalent part in glass and ceramic structure would be close to 40 pounds.

LARRY BURNS: And what's nice about this material is its formability, its potential affordability, its toughness, and the fact that we can now be integrating some of our electronic components right on to the materials.

BRUCE BENDER: One of the beauties of polycarbonate is the ability to mold in some of the features that are the attachment points for the back light, for the struts, speakers, that type of thing can be molded right into the part.

AMANDA ROBLE: G.E.'s glazing technology can be seen on the roof and the decklet of the vehicle. And the really great thing about that technology is that it enables designers to do things that they couldn't do with traditional materials, in this case, glass. In addition, they are reducing the weight of those applications up to 50 percent. The technology that we used for the hood, which is a proprietary advanced composite material, it's actually manufactured from used water bottles. We break the water bottles down to basic chemical form and then reuse them into the products that are now seen on the Chevrolet Volt. One of the future things that G.E. is looking at is the whole front end of the vehicle and create what we call an elastic front end for pedestrian protection, which is becoming a more important requirement around the world.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: It's clear that the future of the car is tied to the future of energy. Although many years off, the ultimate fuel of the future is emission free and happens to be the most abundant chemical element in the world.

LARRY BURNS: You know, you can make hydrogen from electricity by putting electricity through the water. You can also make electricity from hydrogen by running hydrogen through a fuel cell. And that interchangeability, we think is going to be very important to long term infrastructure for energy.

CHRIS BORRONI BIRD: Here we are, the fan's coming on. In the hybrid vehicles that are on the market today, they have better fuel economy, typically, than a conventional vehicle but they don't eliminate our dependence on foreign oil, with the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that we have here, we actually eliminate our dependence on oil.

LARRY BURNS: General Motors is focusing much of our advanced technology on another concept vehicle, the Chevrolet Sequel and the Chevrolet Sequel is really the world's most advanced technology vehicle every produced. You do have hydrogen and fuel cells. You can store 8 kilograms of hydrogen on the vehicle to give you a 300 mile range before fill-ups. You have electric steering, bi-wire steering, bi-wire braking, and wheel motors, now this is pretty exciting when you can now drive the wheels independently with electric motors. Think of a future where each corner of the vehicle has a wheel motor. You can control the tour contraction of that corner and now you can control the steering and braking, tour contraction and the chassey all simultaneously. So Sequel is looking like an all new DNA for the automobile. And that's gonna inspire innovation, it's gonna stimulate growth and it's gonna be sustainable growth.

CHRIS BORRONI BIRD: For the very first time, we've been able to demonstrate that this vehicle meets customer needs. It's the first zero emissions vehicle that can claim that. But we still haven't solved the cost problem associated with the technology. We're working on it and we're bringing the cost down, but it's gonna take a few more years for us to bring the cost down to a level where it's competitive with a gasoline engine. There's no reason why we can't shift towards hydrogen fuel cells. And we know how to make hydrogen from sources other than gasoline at a price that is competitive. So really the challenge, is, a lot of it is political will to bring, to bear a hydrogen infrastructure and of course we have some work to do at General Motors and with our supplies to bring the cost down of the hydro storage system and fuel cell technology, but you know were making great progress here.

AMANDA GRISCOM LITTLE: A lot of people are placing their bets on their hydrogen economy. You're hearing that we're gonna see fuel cells in by 2018 or 2020. This is a bet that requires a lot of infrastructural um development. You're gonna have to put in an entire hydrogen infrastructure before you see that happen, whereas with a car like the Volt, any standard 110 volt electric plug can help charge this car. Any standard fuel pump can also help charge this car. This is something you could put on the road today and be entirely feasible to the average American.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: It's not the sole responsibility of the auto makers to change the industry. They need the buying power of the public; a public no longer in denial about their addiction to oil, and no longer enamored with horsepower and machismo.

LARRY BURNS: In the United States we've kept our gasoline prices very low and as a result of that whenever we improve the efficiency of an automobile, our customers tend to want to buy more displacement and more performance in larger vehicles rather than more efficient vehicles.

AMANDA GRISCOM LITTLE: It's not cars themselves that are marauding toward gas stations and sucking the resources dry. It's the people who are driving the cars, um, who are using the gasoline and we need to come to peace with the reality that as much as we need to change our technology, we have to change our mindsets. We have to change our willingness to take a good look at our own consumption patterns and create efficiencies in our lives in the same way that we create efficiencies in our technologies. What we need to do to incentivize Americans to adopt more efficient behavior patterns is come up with more creative solutions. So we could do more incentives for owners of efficient cars. If they're parking in two-hour spots, they could maybe get four hours. We could introduce a feebate plan where people who have SUVs that get less than 20 miles per gallon have to pay a fee for the use of that car, there are ways to nudge uh behavior patterns in the United States toward greater efficiency that go beyond just technological change.

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: Our legislators must also close the loopholes that are big enough to drive through. For instance, car companies are trying to avoid fuel efficiency standards by converting SUV's to be flex-fuel compatible. However, only one percent of drivers have access to flex-fuels.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: The problem is not Americans and their love of the car. The problem is Detroit, which is a bankrupt industry, in essence, one that abandoned genuine innovation at least 10 years ago, in favor of short-termism and I think there's a real systemic problem in the industry, as well as in how Washington regulates the industry and ultimately is held in regulatory capture by the lobbyists of the car and oil industries.

AMORY LOVINS: It would be nice if public policy would support and not distort the business logic that's leading us off oil. I'm not holding my breath. Washington has been gridlocked for a long time. There's more political leadership at a state level, but I think the most important leadership is emerging in the business community.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: The solutions to our energy problems will come from individuals and from markets, not from the government. I'm convinced of that. We are the most innovative society on earth but government has rarely come up with those innovations. The problem in energy is we've had a set of policies, energy policies and energy subsidies, all forms of distortions of the marketplace that Washington has put in place that have actually propped up the incumbent powers, whether it's oil or other forms of fossil fuels, and actually made it much more difficult for any kind of newcomer to compete on a level playing field. That's why it's so important for government to get the policies right.

WOMAN [HISTORICAL FOOTAGE]: "Now, the dream cars of tommorrow!"

NARRATOR [MORGAN FREEMAN]: Will we demand the right policies? Will we hold the carmakers of the future to their promises? A wise man once said, "Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently." That wise man was Henry Ford.



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Paving the Way

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Paving the Way

Episode Excerpt 3:00 min