Move over, Henry Ford
Move over, Henry Ford
Engineers and artists have long imagined futuristic cars free from the constraints of standard automobile designâ??cars that could be planes or boats, with sleek interiors that look like living rooms. Unfortunately, these designs have remained only dreams.
This is due to the physical limitations of traditional autos. The internal combustion engine is heavy, it is generally placed at one end of the car instead of being balanced in the center, and it requires a great mass of insulation to shield the passengers from engine heat. This, more than anything else, is responsible for the cramped, energy-guzzling cars we know.
Now, technologies like self-driving cars, lithium-ion batteries, carbon fiber materials, and 3D printing offer to move autos beyond those pesky limitations. But the car itself is only part of the story. Much more of a car's life-cycle power consumption, emissions, and cost come from the materials and energy required to build it (mining, processing, manufacturing and assembling parts, and disposal) than from the car's operation. We need to dematerializeâ??to reduce dramatically the material and energy required to build cars. (National Academies Press, Jul 20, 2015)
It's already happening. Bold new breakthroughs in "Advanced Manufacturing" offer cars that are cheaper, more spacious, personalized, energy efficient, and easy on the environment. (Forbes, Jan 21, 2015)
One breakthrough has come from replacing the internal combustion engine. In a Tesla, the drive train is the entire floor of the car, freeing up a lot of space above it. The lithium-ion batteries that power the cars (and will also power homes) are still quite heavy, but the latest advancements in battery technology offer to reduce their size and weight dramatically.
A good example is the revolution in batteries being pioneered by Yet-Ming Chiang, a materials-science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology best known for founding A123, a lithium-ion battery company that had the biggest IPO of 2009. Chiang says his company will slash the cost of an entry-level battery plant 10-fold and cut 30 percent off the price of the batteries themselves. This would allow batteries to compete with fossil fuels. (Quartz, Jul 22, 2015)
Other advances involve the car itself. 3D printing is now practical at the size needed for auto manufacturing. This allows complex parts to be made as single pieces, saving time and materials and improving strength and durability. And with carbon fiber materials now available, parts can be quickly printed using light, cheap composite material. Companies such as Local Motors and Divergent Microfactories now showcase 3D-printed cars that are expected to go on sale in 2016. These companies boast that 3D printing allows custom designs for each customer at competitive costs. The version from Divergent Microfactories uses 3D-printed alloy connectors joined into a space frame by carbon-fiber tubing. The result is a chassis that weighs only 61 pounds, less than one-tenth the weight of a conventional chassis.
Finally, the self-driving cars that Google, Uber, and other companies are already road testing will eliminate the need for a human driver. Studies have shown that the technology works well, and that a majority of the public would welcome it. Self-driving cars can follow traffic laws and communicate with each other in real time, eliminating most accidents and congestion. A less obvious benefit is that a self-driving car eliminates the need for a driver's seat! In a driverless car, people can sit in the front, rear, or center; face each other; or lie down.
Technology almost never turns out the way science-fiction writers predict, but the basic elements of this dream have arrived. Alternative ways to propel a vehicle can free engineers to try a wider range of sizes and designs, while trimming the vehicle's weight. Cheaper, lighter, stronger materials soon might even make flying cars feasible.
It is interesting that none of these advances were pioneered within the auto industry. This is often the case with disruptive technologies.
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