Many of the concepts that led to the development of hybrid cars like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius (see opposite page) stem from a broad 1991 proposal for the so-called "Hypercar" by the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute and its research director, Amory Lovins.
His Hypercar is so far just a proposal for automakers and others to build. It uses a lightweight, aerodynamic, composite shell, many aerospace parts to reduce weight, drag, and friction, and a hybrid-electric or ultra-clean fuel-cell-electric drivetrain.
His drawings look like compact cars. But his concept could be applied to family sedans, sport-utility vehicles, even sports cars. Many new products already take cues.
"If, for example, you wanted a big 'suburban-assault vehicle' - even radar-stealthy and bullet-resistant - that could haul three-quarters of a ton up a 30 percent grade, carry six and extensive luggage in luxurious comfort, perform like a sports car, offer improved safety, durability, reliability, flexibility, recyclability, and other ... attributes, sell at a normal SUV price, emit nothing but hot drinking water, and get the hydrogen equivalent of 100 to 120 miles per gallon, we know how to do that," says Dr. Lovins.
"Such cars will sell because they're better, not because they save fuel or [reduce] pollution," he says. "So their market performance will not depend at all on gasoline prices or government policies," he says.
Though Hypercars would require expensive materials and technology, Lovins says they can save on costs by using smaller quantities and by not needing the expensive equipment used to build today's cars.
Lovins thinks most big automakers have too much manufacturing overhead to build Hypercars anytime soon. So nimble start-up companies - and even fast-moving high-tech manufacturers - may beat them to it.
Traditional automakers "face serious cultural - not mainly technical or economic - obstacles," he says. "Some may pull this off, but most will be slow, or will fail, in these transitions."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society