Monday, July 14, 2008

Thinking about the sustainable car.

I'm currently enjoying the flood of unanticipated consequences flowing from $4+ gasoline. Of course this has generated a surge in interest in the cars I love best. Small, quirky and diesel. For the first time in history, Honda reports that Civics are selling in larger numbers than Accords. But interest like this is still a knee jerk reaction. What is really required is no less than a design revolution, one that encompasses every aspect of our lives and one that ultimately makes the personal car as we know it obsolete. More on this later.

What piqued my interest most recently was press about the Eco Elise from Lotus. Unless you are a car nut you probably have never heard of them. An English company founded by Colin Chapman in the 1950's they have worked a little niche building racing cars and sports cars. Chapman was known for being a nut for making cars light. He readily embraced new technologies that allowed him to make his cars lighter and stronger and therefore faster. Making more with less or as Buckminster Fuller would have it "ephemeralization". The Elise is the basis for the all electric Tesla sports car currently sold in the US.

Lotus has had trouble surviving as a car company but its engineering arm is alive and vital. Consider the amount of energy involved in manufacturing a car. My guess is that mining the materials, forming the plastics, and transporting everything to the showroom in finished form uses as much or more fossil fuel as you are likely to burn in the tank in a car's lifetime. (Anyone who has actually researched this should let me know!) Suddenly Lotus's less is more engineering techniques are very desirable.

So what does a respectable, forward thinking automotive engineer do next? How about planting your own hemp field! In pursuit of new and sustainable materials that is just what Lotus has done. The Eco Elise demonstrates the use of natural, renewable substances not only in the places you expect, like the upholstery and trim, but in the places you don't, like the seat frames and fittings. Lotus has developed a new composite using hemp and resins to replace many of the hard fittings in the car. Elsewhere hemp, sisal and natural wool replace traditional interior materials.

Currently Lotus must use oil based polyester resins for the hemp composite parts but they are committed to finding a more natural binder for this purpose. And more power too them I say. Other manufacturers are making progress toward the recyclable car but are concentrating on nonrenewable resources like aluminum and plastics. If Lotus succeeds, their efforts would represent an important step forward on the path to truly sustainable resources.Read about it here.

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