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Why Won’t Big Automakers Build the Car of the Future?

The big automakers aren’t rethinking the automobile from scratch, from the ground up. They’ll bolt the future onto the bones of the past. And if the big guys won’t lead, the little guys will.

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At car shows and in TV commercials, automakers like to brag about their “radical engineering.” But there’s nothing radical about the automotive business. It’s the ultimate incremental industry: conservative, afraid of consumer rejection, and comfortable with innovation that proceeds at a slow drip.

Even Tesla Motors, the startup electric carmaker led by billionaire Elon Musk, isn’t as innovative as it appears. The Tesla Model S luxury sedan is a wonderful car, but it weighs more than 4,600 pounds. Granted, improvements in weight are rate-limited by battery innovation, but the car’s ingenious guts are still contained within a familiar, even banal shape … like a robot hand in a leather glove.

Why do major leaps forward come so rarely in the auto industry? There are of course the usual suspects: crash test standards, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requirements, European pedestrian safety protections; entrenched capital investment in infrastructure and manufacturing methods; long vehicle development cycles — the whole legacy kaboodle of a mature and highly regulated industry. But I spent four years researching, interviewing, and writing about inventors who aren’t limited to thinking like the auto companies, and who made cars that are drastic departures from the ones we’re driving now. They did this as part of a grand-challenges approach to innovation — a $10 million X Prize that pushed inventors to build the super-efficient car of the future.

Auto companies like to sneer at legitimately futuristic cars, calling them “science projects” and saying consumers will never buy them. I believe this is a mistake. Because ultimately, they don’t really know. They’ve never tried to make and sell cars like the ones that ended up excelling in the X Prize contest. And they’re awfully good at blaming consumer timidity for their own engineering fears and failures.

Announced in 2007 and staged in 2010, the Progressive Insurance Auto X Prize attracted diverse interest — not from big automakers but from lone inventors, garage hackers, students, entrepreneurs, and startup companies all over the world, all with different ideas about how to shape the future of the automobile. To win a piece of the $10 million prize pot, teams had to build a safe, practical car that could travel 100 miles on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas (MPGe) and emit 200 grams per mile or less of CO2 (a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming).

One of the teams built a four-passenger car so light you could push it across the floor with your thumb. The team was called Edison2. Its leader, a fiery Virginian named Oliver Kuttner, believed that if he could create a safe car that was also very light, he could achieve amazing efficiencies no matter what he used to propel the car — an internal combustion engine, an electric drive, whatever. Every part of the car had been designed from scratch with an eye to lightness, all the way down to the lug nuts, which were one-third to one-tenth the weight of typical lug nuts.

He called it the Very Light Car. And to make the car safe, Kuttner borrowed ideas from the world of racing, where drivers routinely survive high-speed crashes: The Very Light Car’s four wheels extended out from the body like the wheels on an Indy Car racer, allowing it to skitter away from certain kinds of crashes … deflecting instead of engaging.

The car was also designed to be inexpensive — instead of carbon fiber, it was made mostly of steel and aluminum — and its body was extremely aerodynamic. Good aero is crucial to efficiency; at highway speeds, you burn half of your fuel just to push the air out of the way, and if you make that job easier, you use less fuel.

The Very Light Car had an incredibly low drag coefficient. With a drag coefficient, lower is better. The lowest drag coefficient of any production car in history is the General Motors EV-1 (the car at the center of the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?). The EV-1’s drag coefficient was .195. A Tesla Model S is .24. The average sedan is about a .3. When Kuttner’s Very Light Car was tested at the General Motors automotive wind tunnel in the summer of 2010, its drag coefficient was measured at .16. Because the Very Light Car was so aerodynamic and light, it ended up getting 102.5 MPGe in the X Prize while burning gasoline and ethanol. A subsequent electric version clocked in at 245 MPGe.

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Another innovation spawned by the Auto X Prize is a car created by an eccentric dude in rural Illinois — a 39-year-old state employee named Kevin Smith — who decided he’d try to win the prize by making a four-passenger electric car with his bare hands. He built it in a converted barn behind his house, with the help of family and friends. They gave themselves a grandiose team name: Illuminati Motor Works. The Illuminati members forged the steel of the car’s skeleton in a wood-burning stove and welded the lengths of steel. They filled the skeleton with parts of other cars they found in junkyards. Then they created a super-aerodynamic body inspired by vehicles from science fiction — like the Cloud Cars in Star Wars’ The Empire Strikes Back — as well as the streamlined cars of the 1930s. They made the body by hand, too, using layers of foam, fiberglass, and epoxy.

The final car turned out long, wide, and heavy. But partly because it was so aerodynamic, it racked up an impressive 188 MPGe on the highway during the Auto X Prize. Later, after making a number of significant improvements, Smith and his friends asked professionals at Chrysler to test the car’s efficiency again, this time using the EPA’s official procedures for determining the combined “sticker” MPGe of electric cars like the Nissan Leaf (115 MPGe) and the Chevy Volt (98 MPGe). On this test, the Illuminati Motor Works car rated 207.5 MPGe — not bad for a machine that cost just $110,000 to build.

Now, it’s true that these are just prototypes. They’re not ready for mass production. They haven’t been fully crash-tested; they haven’t gone through the sort of multi-year development process that would validate their durability and reliability and that would be key for realistic adoption. But the Auto X Prize did impose tough standards to weed out mere “concept cars.” All prize cars had to conform to a sizable subset of federal safety standards. They also had to pass real-world tests of braking, acceleration, and maneuverability; the tests were monitored by a team from Consumer Reports.

The cars are real. They aren’t drawings in magazines. I’ve seen them swerve gracefully through cones and do endless laps on a NASCAR track in the brutal heat of a Midwestern summer.

You might argue that Edison2 and Illuminati Motor Works are small outfits with no hope of ever putting their cars into production. But to me, their smallness is exactly the point. They didn’t have armies of engineers and designers and coders and marketers. They didn’t know any billionaires. They were working in the depths of a severe economic recession, maxing out credit cards. Yet they solved a hard and important problem. These mere mortals had three years to reach 100 miles per gallon and 200 grams of carbon dioxide per mile. That was their race. And they won it. They prove that we can do better.

The auto companies are now in a race of their own. They have 12 years to hit the government’s tough new government efficiency and emissions rules. By 2025, vehicle fleets must average 54.5 MPG — that’s twice the current efficiency — while halving emissions to 163 grams per mile of CO2.

se targets are tough and won’t be easy to hit, which is why the big automakers should pick the brains of the Auto X Prize teams. They should ask folks like Edison2 and Illuminati Motor Works to build them prototypes using the constraints the auto companies have to live within — sort of like an automaker’s version of the X Prize. Then the automakers should test the results in their wind tunnels and crash facilities. Poke them, prod them, bash them. It would be a smart way for the automakers to study and create the future — to approach the people who are unencumbered by legacy thinking and brave enough to build what they dream.

The companies probably won’t do this. Even today, with new government targets looming and with potentially disruptive technologies like autonomous vehicles gaining speed, the automakers are still resisting radical change. They think they can clear the regulatory hurdles by adapting vehicle architectures that already exist. They’re not rethinking the automobile from scratch, from the ground up, like the successful Auto X Prize teams did; they’ve ceded leadership on self-driving car technology to Google, a competitor from outside the industry, which has been free to envision a completely new kind of driving experience.

And with a few exceptions, such as the BMW i3, the automakers are also failing to make significant investments in bringing down the cost of advanced composite materials that are light, strong, and durable. (One Nissan executive recently “quipped” to Green Car Reports that the company doesn’t want to make cars out of carbon fiber because it’s too durable: “We don’t need such a material,” the executive said. “That means we cannot sell a new car in 30 years.”)

All of this means that when the automakers do introduce innovative new propulsion systems — electric drives, hybrid drives, fuel-cell hybrid drives — they’ll likely install them in old, heavy boxes. They’ll bolt the future onto the bones of the past.

But the terrain beneath the industry is starting to shift. It’s shifting due to tighter government rules. It’s shifting because of internet culture: In the era of the smartphone, Americans no longer venerate the automobile the way they once did, viewing it less as a sacred object and more as a humble tool. Finally, the terrain is shifting because it has to: the planet is baking, oil is a finite resource, and physics is physics.

The cars of the 21st century can’t be like the cars of the 20th century, or else we’re screwed. And if the big guys won’t lead, the little guys will. As the men and women of Illuminati Motor Works wrote in chalk on the wall of their barn: “Somebody has to do something, and that somebody is us.”

Jason Fagone is a contributing editor at WIRED and the author of Ingenious – a book about inventors and cars — published in November. Follow him on Twitter @jfagone.