What if someone told you there will soon be cars on the market that get 125 to 240 mpg? What if that same person told you it's possible to phase out oil entirely by 2050 and run a 158% larger U.S. economy that needs no coal, no nuclear energy and a third less natural gas? Finally, what if this person also said this radical transformation is possible without any new laws and is based entirely on technologies that already exist?
Let's put it this way: You'd be skeptical and you wouldn't be alone.
But that's the fascinating premise of the new book "Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era" by Amory B. Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute.
"I'm fond of saying, 'If you can't solve the problem, make it bigger,'" Lovins told me, and in "Reinventing Fire" he and RMI take up the challenge. The book tackles the basic problem that powering our industrial economy on fossil fuels - especially coal and oil - is dangerous, dirty and problematic for our sustained prosperity. The good news, Lovins says, is transforming our transportation, building design, industrial and electricity systems will not only make the U.S. safer, more secure, cleaner and more competitive globally, but there's also a fortune to be made for industries, businesses and individuals who can see around the corner.
As an automotive journalist my interest is in the book's take on passenger automobiles and the bold prediction of 125 to 240 mpg cars — what the authors call "Revolutionary+" vehicles — in the near to mid-future. The book explains how this already has begun to happen by boosting the "low-hanging fruit" of efficiency.
"Everything is based around the notion of vehicle fitness," said Greg Rucks, a transportation consultant, who worked for Boeing Co. before joining RMI to do the heavy lifting of the research for "Reinventing Fire's" transportation chapter. "Lightweighting, aerodynamics and low-rolling resistance: We found that by taking that incremental approach, without doing any retooling, that we can get a 50% improvement in fuel economy, on average, across the board, and we're already seeing automakers do this."
Examples abound, but take the next-generation Audi Q7. Audi has already said it plans to make every new model lighter than what it replaces; the next Q7 will still seat seven, be capable of towing a boat, sacrifice no performance and weigh 770 pounds less.
The next step after the low-hanging fruit will come from whole-system design, which Lovins describes as a "recursive design cycle." When it comes to cars this means that weight loss begets weight loss in a snowballing effect. Once engineers have shaved pounds by making gains in certain parts (for instance, if the Volkswagen Touareg drops a low-range transfer case), the "lighter auto needs less power, so its powertrain can be smaller and simpler." These weight savings then begin to multiply throughout the vehicle.
Finally, the parallel developments of advanced composites and electrified powertrains have the potential to transform consumers' car choices.
"I think once they've experienced electrified vehicles they'll never want to go back. Today's cars will seem like the horse and buggy," Lovins said.
Rucks added that consumers have already begun to tip demand in this direction.
"We're looking at existing tech and seeing 50% efficiency increases available without any new technology. There's been some additional design impetus to get that lightweighting, and the new CAFE standards have helped with that," Rucks said. "But ultimately, it's consumers that are going to drive this."
One of the those consumers is Katie Davis of Santa Barbara, Calif., whose family owns a Nissan Leaf that runs on electricity supplied by a 5-kilowatt solar installation on their house's roof.
"[It] cost us $18,000 after tax rebates," she said. "Since we have an energy-efficient house, we never could have justified [the solar panels] on our electric bill alone. However, since it eliminates both our electric bill and about $200 a month in gas, we figure payoff is in about six years."
Davis (pictured below) added that her family doesn't use all the electricity produced by the solar panels, and a recent California law will mean that the Davis' utility company will have to send them a check for the extra electricity their home produces.
"I enjoy being able to drive a car and not feel guilty about it," she said. "If you just move straight to electricity it's not much better to be using coal-fired electricity. But it only made sense [financially] when we started thinking about powering a car."
According to "Reinventing Fire," vehicles like the Leaf and the Chevy Volt are just the tip of the (rapidly melting) iceberg. The Leaf weighs 3,366 pounds and the Volt comes in at 3,781 pounds.
As ultra-light but ultra-strong carbon fiber composites become cheaper and more inventive, they will drastically reduce vehicle weight. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, for example, has a method to make biomaterials from plant fibers that could potentially cut the cost of carbon fiber by 90%. Currently, carbon fiber is so expensive it's used sparingly on high-end sports and luxury cars.
The cost savings would make carbon fiber competitive and even better than steel when comparing dollar-per-pound. Such advances in lightweighting will make those electric powertrains capable of taking the vehicle farther on a single charge. At the same time, Lovins fully expects electric motors and batteries to become lighter, cheaper and more reliable as manufacturers hurry along the learning curve.
Even with government encouragement, Revolutionary+ vehicles won't take over the roads overnight, but by 2050 the book claims only enthusiasts will drive today's typical combustion engines.
What's the reward for reinventing fire in the consumer automotive sector?
It's not just that 71% of America's oil addiction is wrapped up in transportation or that automobiles use 60% of that oil; it's if you don't need refiners to make gasoline than you don't have to burn the equivalent to 180 million gallons of crude oil every year.
If you're like Davis, environmental considerations play a major role in the kind of car you drive.
"You feel guilty driving around in a car when you have family members with bad asthma, but it's also climate change considerations. I just think of my kids and how quickly things are changing and how it's already affecting the weather," said Davis, who is a wife and the mother of three young children.
Yet like Lovins, Davis recognizes that money will drive most people's car-buying decisions more than any other factor.
"Even if environmental reasons are not accepted or recognized, though, I think the economics of it make sense," she said. "Electricity is so much cheaper than gas, and the tech is only getting better. There is an economic logic to it, too."
According to Lovins, the thesis of "Fire" is that consumers like Davis and businesses like Ford, GM or Toyota will lead the way when it comes to fundamentally changing the way we power our industrial society.
"We're saying business needs to lead and do what it's good at: making money," Lovins said. "Would Boeing have developed the Dreamliner if they waited for Congress to tell them to? Would Toyota have developed the Prius if they waited on the Japanese government? These are the entrepreneurial spirits that changed the game. American industry has the engineering and marketing talent to pull this off and regain a commanding presence in world market. And ultimately, it's your readers that will make this happen."