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How Hyper-Light Cars Will Keep Oil Prices Low Forever


As Brent crude-oil prices recently crashed from $72 to below $20 per barrel, most analysts forecasted a rebound as economies reopen and demand recovers. But over decades of gyrating oil prices, a potent competitor has stealthily emerged—the largest in a family of mobility technologies to displace the world’s oil and save trillions of dollars. It’s all-American, inexhaustible, clean, safe, climate-protective, stably priced, and implementable by competitive markets without mandates or subsidies. Today it costs around $7 a barrel; in a few years it’ll cost less than zero. Yet oil forecasters and climate modelers ignore it. 

This overlooked gamechanger is not electric autos, more than two million of which were sold last year worldwide. Rather, it’s the separate and complementary option of efficient autos that use lighter weight, sleeker aerodynamics, and better tires to save half to two-thirds of the energy needed to move them, no matter how they’re propelled. Efficiency can make electric autos cheaper by driving the same distance with fewer batteries and smaller motors, saving even more cost and weight (whose savings then snowball). Fewer batteries recharge faster, need less shared charging infrastructure, and help outcompete oil-fueled autos sooner. Lean, light, fit autos plus energy-saving, reliable, muscular electric propulsion create far more benefit than the sum of their parts. They will sell mainly because they’re simply superior vehicles.

 Efficient autos are nothing new. US oil productivity rose 5.2% a year in 1977–85, chiefly by making new domestic autos 7.6 mpg more efficient while improving safety, health, driver attributes, and automakers’ competitiveness. Yet electrification has lately pushed efficiency out of the automotive conversation. The rationale was (as Mencken said) clear, simple, and wrong: Electric traction displaces gasoline, you can’t save the same fuel twice, so efficiency became irrelevant. Actually, efficiency adds three unique benefits and shares eight more with electrification. All those benefits are valuable, so they should be combined, not traded off. Electric autos will compete best if efficient. Efficient autos will compete best if electric. 

Lightweighting Drives Profitable Efficiency

The Society of Automotive Engineers International’s new Journal of Sustainable Transportation, Energy, Environment, and Policy opens its inaugural issue with a startling free paper on this opportunity. It shows why autos’ energy use is caused mainly by their weight, so safe lightweighting is the key to profitable efficiency. Contrary to official dogma that lighter means costlier, the industry’s designs and products prove that lightweighting can cut autos’ total cost, partly by shrinking the propulsion system for the same acceleration. Thus a 2007 project that I co-led with a major automaker found a strong business case for raising a high-volume production car’s mpg by 60%. Weighing 31% less, it could accelerate 14% faster with a half-sized engine whose shrinkage helped buy the aluminum and magnesium.

Cost can drop further if rapidly maturing ultrastrong materials save over half the weight. Carbon-fiber composites can smoothly absorb 6–12 times more crash energy per pound than steel. In 2000, my team virtually designed with industry a carbon-fiber hybrid SUV that could repay its extra price in two years by 3.6-fold higher mpg with a 1-liter gasoline hybrid engine (0–60 mph in 7.1 seconds). By applying those shared design methods, Toyota’s 2007 1/X carbon-fiber hybrid concept car weighed 68–70% less than the already-light same-sized Prius.

Ultrastrong Materials and Whole-Vehicle Redesign Offer Mighty Gains 

Deepening that magic, the BMW i3 electric car I drive—Europe’s electric best-seller in 2018—combined quadrupled efficiency with competitive price, uncompromised performance, five-star safety, and six years’ rising sales and consistent profits, so its model life was just stretched four years beyond the normal seven. How? Its carbon-fiber passenger cell was paid for by fewer batteries—plus radically simpler production using one-third the normal capital and water and half the normal space, time, and energy. Rather than lightweighting individual parts, the engineers redesigned the whole vehicle and its production to offset electric propulsion’s extra weight and cost with synergistically reduced weight and cost elsewhere. Perhaps the formid­able electrification strategy of the world’s largest automaker, VW, may move master electrifier Tesla

TSLA
to riposte with BMW-style ultralighting.

The official view that efficiency makes autos cost more, with diminishing returns and dwindling opportunities for further improvement, is contradicted by 15 actual vehicles or designs using steel, light metals, or advanced composites. The standard incremental method of analyzing efficiency gains part-by-part exaggerates costs and conceals efficiency potential three times greater than it reveals. This flawed methodology makes potential efficiency gains look severalfold smaller and costlier than integrative whole-vehicle design can actually produce. Thus the auto efficiency standards that the White House just rolled back (to many automakers’ deep dismay) are more conservative than had been thought. Moreover, the opportunity for getting autos off oil and decoupled from climate is larger and cheaper than climate models and policies assume. That’s bad for oil owners but very good for the rest of us. 

Make autos electric and efficient, and watch the benefits roll in.

Amory Lovins SAE, cofounder and chairman emeritus of Rocky Mountain Institute, led its 1990s development of ultralight electric Hypercars®, creating several spinoffs, advising major automakers, and receiving international automotive, energy, and environment awards.

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