Believe the hype

The technology to build a hypercar several times more efficient than the vehicles of today already exists. David Fowler looks at how Hypercar Inc aims to speed the journey to market

Imagine a car that weighs half as much as is typical today, with greater aerodynamic efficiency, capable of achieving fuel consumption of 2-3 litres/100km, but with the same performance as today’s cars. This is the hypercar, a leap forward in automotive design which capitalises on recent advances in materials, micro-electronics, software and motors.

The hypercar’s essential features are ultra-light construction using advanced composite materials; low aerodynamic drag; and a hybrid electric drive. A crucial ingredient, though, is an integrated design approach to optimise the design as a whole rather than individual parts, to bring about a process called `mass decompounding’.

The traditional approach of designing and optimising components individually works against the efficiency of the whole, argues Amory Lovins, co-chief executive of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profitmaking research organisation which has been developing the hypercar concept since the early 1990s.

If, argues Lovins, you approach the design by assuming that the car’s mass can be halved and design everything else on that basis, all the other components, from the engine and transmission and suspension to the fuel tank, can be made smaller too. Moreover, many components – power steering, for example – can be thrown out as unnecessary.

Add a hybrid drive, in which a petrol or diesel engine (or ultimately a fuel cell) is used to generate electricity to drive the car via hubmounted wheel motors, and the need for most of the transmission components disappears too. (Lovins says not one of the RAC’s list of top 20 highway breakdown causes would appear in the hypercar.)

The RMI put its ideas into the public domain in 1993 to encourage competition among car makers to commercialise the technology. But progress towards making the hypercar a reality has been slower than Lovins and his RMI colleagues anticipated. For that reason, earlier this year the RMI spun off a new company, Hypercar Inc, to speed up development.

The company `will help existing and new entrants in the automotive market accelerate the commercialisation of the hypercar in a variety of ways’, says Lovins.

It will focus on four main areas: first, demonstrating the manufacturability of an advanced composite body at high volume and low cost; second, designing a car as a whole system with a high level of integration and simplification; third, integrating most of the car’s functions in `whole-platform, open-architecture software, so it becomes a computer with wheels’; and fourth, re-optimising the hydrogen fuel cell for this application, which requires only a third the tractive effort of a conventional car.

Lovins stresses that there are opportunities for UK industries, from Formula One designers to textiles, to play a leading role in this process – provided they make contact with each other.

A missing piece of the jigsaw is the ability to make composite panels at low cost in volumes comparable with the rate at which the car industry stamps out steel pressings. Structural composites are normally thought of as a low-volume, high-cost item, as is the case in the aerospace industry.

Lovins admits that `the traditional reliance on metal for autobodies is one of the most difficult cultural barriers to be overcome’. But he adds: `The basic elements of the production process that would meet our requirements have been individually demonstrated in the automotive, and other, industries. It remains to combine them into an integrated process.’

For example, French component maker Sotira makes semi-structural spoilers at the rate of thousands a day `with a class-A finish out of the mould’ and are going on to develop parts with higher structural loadings.

Lovins admits: `That’s not the same as making something as big as a car with the structural demands and other requirements that are put upon it’. However, he insists there are enough examples to suggest the problem can be cracked, with enough effort.

To lead the effort, Hypercar Inc has recruited David Taggart, a former Lockheed-Martin Skunk Works engineer. Taggart led a team that developed a 95% composite fighter aircraft which was a third lighter and two-thirds cheaper than its predecessor.

Lovins’ insistence that a high level of integrated computing power is essential to the concept may seem surprising at first, especially to people used to desktop computers crashing. But he argues that an integrated approach will give better functionality, reliability, upgradeability and customisation, while reducing duplicated hardware.

`Cars tend to have a proliferating number of single-purpose black boxes strung together with software sticking plasters,’ he says. These are unreliable and expensive. `What we have in mind is a highly integrated software architecture which will eliminate duplicated hardware and provide unparalleled functionality and flexibility.’

All this can be made reliable, Lovins argues: `You obviously don’t want to have to reboot your Windows Automotive System as you head towards a tree.’

So the integrated system will have a `simple robust kernel’ developed using mission-critical software techniques used in the aerospace industry. `Also, it helps that we will have a radically simplified vehicle with less to be controlled and less to go wrong.’

The hypercar could have a range of power sources, though a fuel cell would be the ideal. `You can make a very respectable hypercar with a petrol or diesel engine, a Stirling engine or gas turbine,’ says Lovins. `It wouldn’t be as good – it would be capable of 3-4 litres per 100km instead of 2-3.’

Lovins believes that current fuel cell development is aiming at the wrong target: to meet the power and range requirements of a typical car, which needs about 100kW of power, the hydrogen fuel tank required to give a good driving range would be too big.

`It makes a lot more sense to make the physics of the car three times more efficient. This allows you to make the gas small enough to package. It also enables you to tolerate three times the fuel cell cost per kW’ – so fuel cell development can reach break-even point years earlier.

How seriously are manufacturers taking hypercar development? Lovins says $500m (£311m) has been committed to research and development worldwide `by several dozen current and intended car makers’ – the exact figure depends on what is defined as hypercar development.

He stresses that not only traditional car makers could get into the market. A large electronics or software company with a culture of innovation and strong management and system integration capabilities would have all the necessary skills. Specific car-related expertise such as crash testing and homologation could be bought in.

On this point, Lovins is full of praise for companies such as Lotus Engineering, with which RMI has worked on the project: `Lotus is a very capable firm with experience in design integration, in hybrids and with composites. But perhaps most important is the ultralight tradition, the mass decompounding emphasis that came from the Colin Chapman racing tradition.’

He also hints that he would like to see the skills of the Formula One design teams `that do miracles on a fortnightly basis’ let loose on the problem. And the textile industry, the cradle of Britain’s original industrial strength, has a lot of the techniques needed for automated lay-up of reinforcing mat for composites.

All that is needed, he says, is `a little co-ordination’.