The Car of His Dreams

Amory Lovins says gas prices won't stick, but even if they do, he's still stuck on his Hypercar.
Amory Lovins says gas prices won't stick, but even if they do, he's still stuck on his Hypercar.
Fortnightly Magazine - February 15 2001
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Amory Lovins says gas prices won't stick, but even if they do, he's still stuck on his Hypercar.

This just in—if you can believe Amory Lovins, who has the news posted on the network of Web sites sponsored by his Rocky Mountain Institute.

Sheikh Yamani, the Saudi oil minister for a quarter century up until 1986, reportedly stated last July, according to Britain's , that world oil prices will plummet in this decade, due in no small part to competition from hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

"This is coming before the end of the decade and will cut gasoline consumption by almost 100 percent," Yamani is quoted as saying, in warning of potential economic consequences for Saudi Arabia.

"Thirty years from now there will be a huge amount of oil, and no buyers. ... Thirty years from now ... oil will be left in the ground."

Is this legit? Even those who believe in the benefits of a hydrogen-based economy might question how the energy industry could possibly make such a transition. Yet Lovins has ready answers for would-be critics.

To Lovins, an early proponent of renewables, conservation and "negawatts," that car of yours sitting out in the middle of your office parking lot could become a 20-kilowatt fuel cell generator, but only if it's built light enough and efficient enough to be able to run the fuel cell off of its own onboard hydrogen gas storage tank. Once that's possible, there's no need to first construct an interstate hydrogen gas pipeline, since the building where it's parked would produce its own hydrogen from natural gas, and pipe it to vehicles sitting in the parking lot with little more fanfare than an upgraded garden hose.

Then, as fuel cells proliferate, the hydrogen infrastructure would expand in tandem, complete with hydrogen pipelines and hydrogen "gas stations." Initially, though, fuel cell "Hypercars," (the service marked name given to ultralight, ultra-low-drag, hybrid-electric vehicles by RMI's spin-off Hypercar Inc., could be leased to people who work in buildings with fuel cell generators, presumably in areas with tight emissions standards, such as Southern California.

In this issue, Lovins and colleague Brett Williams offer their vision of how the United States might create a hydrogen-based energy economy. And in the following interview, Lovins expands on his article and shares some updates on what's been happening of late.

How safe is an ultralight, carbon fiber car? Would it fare well in a collision-say, against a tractor trailer?

Probably not a tractor trailer, because that will mash anything except another one or a locomotive, I suppose. But actually an ultralight advanced-composite car can be safer than a conventional car. The advanced-composite materials in a correctly designed crush structure can absorb five times as much crash energy per pound as steel, and do so more evenly so that the crush link or stroke can be used twice as effectively. It is possible, for example, to design—and Hypercar Inc., has designed—an SUV replacement Hypercar vehicle comparable in interior volume and superior in load hauling and other attributes to the most popular