It’s a sobering statistic. Around the world today, roughly a billion cars are on the road, and by some estimates we’re on track to double that number in 20 years. China and India, in particular, are developing car cultures that may soon rival our own. Add to that the fact that each gallon of gas burned releases 5.5 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere, where it combines with oxygen to create 20 pounds of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, and this kind of growth starts to seem like an impending disaster.
How can we avert it? Abandoning the car simply isn’t an option. During the past century, we’ve invested far too much in driving—economically, culturally, and psychologically—to be able to give it up anytime soon. The only realistic solution, the journalist Jason Fagone asserts in his new book, “Ingenious,” is to design a radically new kind of car, one that not only gets dramatically higher mileage than anything on the road right now—say, 100 to 200 miles per gallon—but is also safe and appealing enough to sell on the mass market. That might sound more like a dream than reality, but the point of “Ingenious” is this: We already know how to make that car.
In 2007, a $10 million contest called the Automotive X Prize invited competitors to build what Fagone calls a “safe, practical, 100-mile-per-gallon car.” The cars entered could run on any kind of fuel, but the rules demanded that they be “production-capable” and “designed to reach the market”; that they seat two people comfortably; and that they be extremely simple to operate. None of the big automakers chose to enter, so by default the contest became the domain of backyard tinkerers and inventors.
Fagone, a contributing editor to Wired and a writer-at-large for Philadelphia magazine, zeroed in on several very different teams of contestants, each of which he thought stood a chance of winning the competition. For four years, he followed them as they obsessively designed and fretted over their creations, often putting their financial futures and even their marriages at risk in order to stay in the game. Several of the teams he followed produced cars that became genuine contenders, and one, the Very Light Car, managed to win a share of the prize.
But inventing a single car to win a prize is a far cry from producing millions for the masses. A lot would have to happen to make that possible: The world’s fuel and transportation infrastructure would have to change; companies would have to make vast, risky investments in uncertain new technologies; consumers, a largely reactionary bunch, would have to be convinced to embrace funny-looking cars. Fagone doesn’t gloss over any of these challenges. But in the end, he argues, we really have no choice: If the super-efficient car of the future can be made, then at some point, probably in our lifetimes, it will have to be.
Fagone spoke with Ideas by phone from Philadelphia.
IDEAS: What drew you to this story?
‘The Very Light Car is really an argument about why most cars are ridiculous. It’s a provocation.’
FAGONE: When I heard of this contest, I was captivated by it, because it seemed like the big guys, the automakers, had let us down. The idea of the contest was to look for solutions from a broader set of people, from the little guys. I liked thinking that maybe some inventor or entrepreneur out there, maybe even a student, could make a more efficient car than GM.
IDEAS: You write that the business of making cars has become evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
FAGONE: The basic plan of the automobile hasn’t really changed in the past 50 years. A car today is basically a heavy metal box that gets smashed through the air by the force of cheap gasoline. Which is insane.
IDEAS: Why don’t the big automakers embrace the challenge of making super-efficient cars?
FAGONE: Because they fear consumers will think they look weird. But when people say to me that super-efficient cars look weird, I ask them, “What’s weird to you?” To me, it’s weird that we’re still going to the gas station and putting flammable liquid into a 3,000-pound machine that warms the planet every time you take your kids to school....The automakers actually have tried to make radically different cars before, and it hasn’t worked. There was the famous 1934 Chrysler Airflow. Walter Chrysler went to his engineers and said, “Make me the best car that’s ever been built,” and his engineers came back with the Airflow, which was one of the first cars to be designed in a wind tunnel. It was shaped like a reverse teardrop, which is one of the most aerodynamic shapes known to man. Incredibly efficient car, which set a number of speed records. The problem was, it didn’t sell. One automotive writer at the time described it as having a “rhinocerine ungainliness which automatically consigned it to the outer darkness of motordom.” People thought it looked ugly, and didn’t buy it, so Chrysler went back to making cars like it had made cars before.
IDEAS: But is a prize really the way to solve a problem this big? What about something like a government-sponsored moonshot?
FAGONE: This is my whole point: You don’t need a moonshot to make a radically better car. One of the teams I write about is Illuminati Motor Works, which basically was a 39-year-old dude, Kevin Smith, in the middle of central Illinois, who decided to build an electric car in the pole barn behind his house, along with his wife, his dad, his brother, and his friend....He went to the scrap yard, got lengths of steel, melted them in his wood-burning stove, bent them around plywood forms, and welded together these lengths of steel to make the skeleton of the car. In the skeleton he put parts scavenged from dozens of other cars. Then he sprayed foam on top of the skeleton and put layers of fiberglass epoxy on top of the foam. When I first saw the car, I thought it looked like a dead fingernail, because of all the epoxy. I didn’t believe in it, I didn’t want to sit in it, I didn’t want to drive it. But it ended up getting 207.5 mpg-equivalent on the industry-standard test.
IDEAS: The teams you write about all focus on two things: aerodynamics and lightness.
FAGONE: Those are the two fundamentals. At highway speeds, about half of the fuel you burn goes toward just pushing air out of the way in front of your car. So, really, it’s a no-brainer to make cars more aerodynamic. And it’s possible. I went to the GM wind tunnel with [a team called] Edison2 and saw them test the aerodynamic qualities of their car. They had an expert from Northrup Grumman design the contour of the car. Its drag coefficient came in at .161. That’s dramatically lower than any production car in history....The Illuminati Motor Works car did great, too. It was eyeballed at around .2—and Kevin Smith did that just with a textbook that he got from an interlibrary loan.
IDEAS: Edison2 made the Very Light Car, right?
FAGONE: Right. It’s made by a fiery German named Oliver Kuttner...who is completely committed to the idea of lightness. Oliver believes cars are too heavy and bloated, and that if we can make them lighter, we’ll be ahead of the game no matter what kind of propulsion technology we use: electric, internal combustion, whatever.
IDEAS: But how safe can a very light car really be?
FAGONE: That was my first question to Oliver: Won’t these cars just crumple like paper in a crash? But it’s possible to think about safety in different ways. One aspect of safety is surviving a crash, but another is avoiding a crash. American consumers tend to undervalue avoidance, because we like heavy cars that ride up high. But a lot of those cars don’t maneuver well. The Very Light Car is much more maneuverable. As for what happens if it does crash: It’s built almost like an Indy racer, with wheels outboard of the body. Think about the crashes you’ve seen on TV, where parts of the car go flying all over the place. Even at 150 or 160 miles per hour, the car rarely engages head on. It tends to skitter off barriers and other cars, and the driver walks away safely. Oliver’s idea was to bring safety ideas from the world of racing into a passenger car for the masses.
IDEAS: The Very Light Car ended up winning. Does that mean designing a radically different car for the masses is possible?
FAGONE: I think so. The Very Light Car is really an argument about why most cars are ridiculous. It’s a provocation. Because if it’s possible for us to make a car that’s safe and weighs 1,000 to 1,500 pounds, and I do think it’s possible, then it’s insane not to make it.
On Monday, Dec. 9, at 5:30 p.m., Jason Fagone will be appearing at MIT’s Edgerton Center along with Kevin Smith, of Illuminati Motor Works, and his 207-MPGe electric car. To RSVP, visit http://edgerton.mit.edu/MITingenious.Toby Lester is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and the author of “Da Vinci’s Ghost” (2012) and “The Fourth Part of the World” (2009).