The jury’s in: the ozone layer is dissipating, global warming is real, and with 750 million cars on the road, it’s only going to get worse – much worse. The rapid expansion of middle class consumers in China, India and Russia will result in one billion cars by 2027 and 3.4 billion by 2050. That will not only fill our skies with trillions of tons of CO2, methane and nitrous gases on a daily basis, but aggravate geopolitical tensions, send oil prices sky high and destabilize economies worldwide. “Our earth clearly doesn’t have the capability to carry that burden,” warns Toyota’s Bill Reinert.

Fortunately, the next generation of automobile designers feel the same way. “They are truly worried about the future,” says Professor Dale Harrow of the recent applicants to London’s Royal College of Art. “They are passionate about cars and design, but they genuinely want to make an impact and change the world.”

So do students in Germany, Sweden, Italy and America. “I think what we’re seeing is a generational shift,” explains Geoff Wardle, Director of Advanced Mobility Research at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. “Those who are in their 20s look to gas-guzzlers in the same way that they look at cigarettes – that their time is over.”

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College for Creative Studies' Evan Mai designed a sustainable vehicle for Cadillac, using GM’s V-Flex platform, which was inspired by Formula 1 cars. The power comes from an electric motor, which is augmented by a gas-powered generator, while its aluminum
Image courtesy College for Creative Studies, Michigan

So what are they looking at? Students at Michigan’s College for Creative Studies, which is next door to America’s “Big Three” auto manufacturers – GM, Chrysler and Ford – are particularly interested in alternative fuels of every sort. But few agree over what kind of alternative fuels will power America’s next generation of vehicles. (Never mind that the Big Three have over 30 alternative fuel vehicles in the pipeline.) Ethanol and natural gas offer some potential. Both come from organic, renewable sources, would be cheaper for consumers, produce far less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, and would alleviate our dependence on foreign oil.

But if you ask CCS’s professor Mark West, he’ll tell you when you have to grow and harvest that much corn, beets or sugarcane to produce the equivalent of 30 billion barrels of oil per day, the results would be disastrous – from massive greenhouse gases to widespread clear cutting to higher food prices worldwide. “From the research I’ve seen,” says West, ethanol is a poor option. Hydrogen fuel on the other hand seems to be a real solution.”

Indeed, hydrogen may be one of the most exciting solutions available to car manufactures worldwide. It’s one of the most abundant resources on the planet, it offers 25 percent better fuel efficiency than gasoline, and the only thing that comes out of the tailpipe is a trickle of water. As GM’s chairman, Robert Stempel says, “It’s an almost perfect fuel.”

Yet, just because we can make hydrogen from water doesn’t mean that it will be readily accessible. Detractors argue that it will cost about $60 billion to build an infrastructure of filling stations across the US alone, and there are still questions about the high cost (which will be much higher than gasoline), whether it will function in freezing weather, and what to do with the precious metals required for hydrogen car fuel cells. “I think the jury is still out on hydrogen,” says Wardle of Art Center. “At the moment the process for making hydrogen is still very energy intensive and laboratory expensive.”

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Art Center’s Jason Hill and Hyesung Yoon collaborated with USC's Department of Architecture to design a light rail system for the Futian District of Shenzhen that allows the rail car to be customized to any given demographic, time period or service.
Image courtesy Art Center College of Design

Wardle’s school, Art Center College of Design, has been at the forefront of sustainability issues for the past five years. The California-based institution has placed dozens of top designers in the industry, including star designer J Mays and BMW’s chief designer, Chris Bangle. But as Wardle sees it, their mission is “also to foster discussions about sustainability outside academia.”

That was part of the reason for creating an annual Designing Sustainability Mobility, which brings together educators, theorists and executives such as Arup’s Gary Lawrence, the Department of Energy’s John F. Mizrach, and Tata Motors’ V. Sumantran into dialog with one another. At this year’s summit, there was much talk about bridge vehicles such as hybrids, which will undoubtedly be the first “green” car that most people will buy. The current crop of hybrids have gasoline engines that are augmented by electric drive trains, which means electric power takes over at the lowest RPMs and cuts fuel consumption by 10 percent. The gas-powered, low emission Toyota Prius is the best known hybrid in its class, but GM, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, Porsche, Lexus, Mazda, Nissan, Saturn and even Ferrari are currently rolling out their own versions.

“The problem is that most people assume that an even better car is right around the corner,” says Wardle. “So in the meantime, they’re going to keep driving gasoline cars until that perfect car comes along.” That’s why a lot of Art Center students, like their contemporaries, are looking at plug-in hybrids as a first step toward sustainability. As the name implies, plug-ins can be charged by any standard electrical outlet, which gives them enough energy to drive approximately 30-60 miles on electric power alone. (That’s less than what 70 percent of Americans drive on a daily basis.) And once the battery level drops, a diesel, bio-diesel, or any other alternative fuel engine, kicks in to recharge the battery for additional driving. That translates to extraordinary reductions in emissions and cost. (Utility companies claim that charging a car at home will only add $10 to monthly power bills.)

Better still, when you’re essentially driving a “personal power generator,” as Wardle points out, where the vehicle actually creates surplus energy, it could lead to a scenario where car owners might be able to plug back into the power grid at the end of the day and use the excess power from their car to either power their homes or to return electricity back to the power grid. (Utility companies would, in turn, issue energy credits.)

“There still are some life-cycle issues in terms of batteries,” says Wardle. “And we need firm commitments from utility companies that they will stop using coal or fossil-based energies [which spew as much as 25,000 tons of air pollution per year]. But the plug-in hybrid, which is a 100-year-old idea, is in my view, the best possible solution available to us at the moment.”

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Pforzheim University’s Dalim Seo believes that we have to apply sexy styling not only to practical vehicles but virtual ones. His virtual car console is designed to play back memories, either imported via DVDs or stored from previous vehicles.
Image courtesy of Dalim Seo

Professor James Kelly the head of transportation design at Germany’s renowned Pforzheim University agrees with Wardle when he says, “Most of us seem to think that we’re going to end up with some kind of electric vehicle in the near future, as opposed to something that runs on alternative fuels.” Founded in 1877, Pforzheim benefits from being in close proximity to Germany’s top auto manufacturers, such as Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, and boasts an alumni that includes Audi’s head of design, Claus Potthoff, and Porsche’s head of design, Michael Mauer. But as Kelly says, we not only have to create cars that are as comfortable, convenient and enticing as the best of today’s cars, we also have to start thinking about making hybrids and electrical vehicles as sleek and desirable as anything on the road today. After all, true car lovers still want horsepower, handling, sexy designs, absolute safety and state-of the-art technologies. Kelly sees recent cars such as Tesla’s Roadster, Fisker Coachbuild’s Karma, GM’s Volt, Nissan’s Mixim and Lightning’s GT as the new face of clean-emission vehicles. The $98,000 electric powered Roadster is said to go zero to 60rpm in four seconds, which is about as fast as Mercedes-Benz’s 12-cylinder SLR McLaren, and the UK’s $300,000 Lightning boasts the equivalent of a 700-horsepower engine that is even faster and uses the styling and components of a Formula 1. As Fisker recently said, “Give people excitement and they will come.”

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Fisker Coachbuild's KarmaFisker Automotive believes that the next generation of green cars have to be as sexy. Their Karma, a plug-in hybrid, is just that. Plus it has a range of 50 miles on electricity alone and includes a solar powered sun roof.
Image courtesy Fisker Automotive

But as Wardle points out, cars such as those require 400-pound batteries, which are prohibitively expensive. (A smaller battery for a Prius costs about $3,600 alone.) What’s more, they generate tremendous heat, lose their effectiveness dramatically as they age (they need to be replaced after 7-10 years), and often contain lead, which is toxic after being discarded. Yet, problems such as those could be surmounted, argues Peter Fox-Penner of the Brattle consultancy firm, if local utility companies would lease their batteries to car owners, recycle them when they’re done, and maintain their effectiveness over the years. “That would greatly reduce the cost to owners,” he says.

But that means government intervention, which tends to find more currency in Europe than the U.S. “I believe in legislation to effect real changes in the way we drive and think about automobiles,” says professor of Vehicle Design, Dale Harrow, of London’s esteemed Royal College of Art. Harrow points to London as a perfect example. Thanks to legislation, it now costs £5 ($13.50) to enter the city with a fuel-efficient vehicle, and £24 ($50) for older cars. As a result, he says, “small city cars are booming.”

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The Royal College of Art’s Daniel Kafka explores the idea that cars are often valued more for their emotional ties than their function. His Everlast (2007) is meant to adapt to each consecutive generation as it passes the car down to younger drivers.
Image courtesy of Royal College of Art

Meanwhile, Royal College of Art students are focusing as much on city issues as they are the cars themselves. Some possible solutions include the installation of rentable electrical vehicles at kiosks around the city, much like Seattle’s Flexcar program; moving parking structures outside city limits, where packages would be delivered to nearby kiosks instead of each individual’s doorstep; and creating ride-sharing programs.

One of the most intriguing examples of the latter comes from former Art Center student Andy Ogden who has designed a ride-sharing network solution that uses cell phones and GPS navigational tools. That way participants receive alerts when others are traveling in the same direction. Thus, once a ride is identified, those people who are enrolled in the program simply call each other and rendezvous as needed.

“'Sustainability' is a buzzword at the moment, just as 'organic' was several years ago,” says Wardle. “But the social issues behind it are here to stay and I believe we’ll eventually incorporate sustainability ideas in everything we do. It won’t be a buzzword any longer. It will just be the way we live.”

Homepage image: Shenzhen Mobility Project by Roger Huh, courtesy of Art Center College of Design. Huh's compact urban vehicle is designed for the rigors of a densely populated urban environment. It has good protection all around it and would be damage resistant. The doors provide ingress/egress within the footprint of the vehicle. The focus is also on pedestrian safety, evidenced by the rounded body. This vehicle could be adapted to both a system (within an urban corridor) or autonomously driven.

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To cut down on the carbon footprint made by car manufacturing, the RCA’s Matt Croft proposes a car built mostly out of recycled steel, glass, clothing and other organic materials.
Image courtesy Royal College of Art

Posted April 02, 2008