The auto industry -- one-seventh of the GNP, and the highest expression of the Iron Age -- is about to trigger the biggest transformation in industrial structure since the microchip. Ultralight cars molded from net-shape advanced composites can be several-fold lighter than present steel cars, yet safer, sportier, and more comfortable, durable, and beautiful. Modern hybrid-electric drives boost efficiency approximately 1.3-1.5x in heavy steel cars, but approximately 5-20x in ultralight, very slippery plafforms. Synergistically combined into ultralight-hybrid 'hypercars,' these elements can yield state-of-the-shelf family cars that average 150-300+ mi/gal -- twice that with state-of-the-art technologies -- yet can also be superior in all other respects, probably including cost: carbon-fiber monocoques can actually be cheaper to mass-produce that steel unibodies. Designing cars more like aircraft and less like tanks requires not only an approximately 400-500 kg curb mass and very low air and road drag, but also an aerospace philosophy of engineering integration. Mass, cost, and complexity turn out to compound with heavy hybrids but to decompound with ultralight hybrids, owing partly to radical simplification. Excellent aerodynamics, preferable including advanced techniques for passive boundary-layer control, will be the key to successful design integration. Transforming automaking is a competitive and environmental imperative, could form the nucleus of a green industrial Renaissance, and would enhance national security by, among other things, saving as much oil as OPEC now extracts. However, this transformation faces serious cultural barriers. For example, hypercars will be more like computers with wheels than like cars with chips -- they'll have an order of magnitude more code than today's cars -- but Detroit is not a software culture. Just the transition from stamped and welded steel to integrated and adhesive-joined synthetics is difficult enough. Nonetheless, hypercars are rapidly heading to market in the late 1990s, because approximately 25 current and intending automakers are eager to capture their potentially decisive competitive advantages -- including order-of-magnitude reductions in product cycle time, tooling cost, assembly effort, and parts count. Hypercars will succeed, and may well sweep the market, not because of mandates or subsidies, but because of manufacturers' quest for competitive advantage and customers' desire for better, smarter cars.
Urban Technology and Transportation
Transportation Beyond 2000: Technologies Needed for Engineering Design; 155-182; NASA-CP-10184-Pt-1