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The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a non-profit organisation, was established in 1982 by resource analysts L. Hunter Lovins and Amory B. Lovins in response to the oil crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s to examine and consult on energy policy. RMI now has around 40 full-time staff and consults to extensively to the automotive industry, amongst others.

In 1991, RMI proposed the Hypercar ultralight vehicle concept designed to maximise efficiency as a synergistic union of ultralight materials formed into an ultra-low-drag vehicle body powered by a hybrid electric drive. Separately, these design ideas have advantages and drawbacks, but by combining them together, a synergy can be created between the individual elements, which multiplies the benefits.

The need for the Hypercar to exist was based on the fact that while remarkable advances have been made in automotive technology, today's vehicles are still incredibly inefficient, using only about one percent of their fuel energy to propel the driver due to massive engine and powertrain losses through heat and friction. Just 15–20 percent of the fuel energy reaches the wheels, but due to the great mass of a modern vehicle compared to the driver, around 95 percent of this fuel energy reaching the road just moves the car, leaving one percent of the original fuel energy to move the driver. Hypercar vehicles are designed to minimise these energy losses, increasing by tenfold the fraction of the final energy that actually moves the driver.

See more about the Hypercar - its background, history and more images - after the jump.
The basic concept of a Hypercar is if you can make the body panels and structural frame out of lightweight carbon fiber composite, you reduce the weight of the vehicle substantially - which then allows you to achieve greater performance and/or efficiency. To this point, lightweight composite design has been expensive so it has only really been used as a way to increase performance in, for example, Formula 1 cars. If efficiency is your primary goal though, by reducing the weight of the car, you can reduce the size of the engine required. If you reduce the size of the engine though, that reduces the weight further allowing you to reduce the engine size even more. If the car weighs less, the brakes and other components can be smaller. And once you're trying to move around a car weighting a less than half as much, you're obviously going to use less fuel no matter what drive train technology you incorporate.

But massive fuel efficiency improvements are just one side of the coin. In a high volume environment like automobile manufacturing, improving efficiency can bring down the price a lot. If you are making a car using lightweight carbon fibre composite, the carbon fibre raw materials can be mixed, cured and pressed into shape on-site meaning you don't have to transport in heavy steel raw materials which saves on your input costs. If different pigments can be mixed in with the carbon fibre when its made, you don't have to paint your cars any more, saving you an entire paint shop. If the carbon fibre can be pressed into really complicated moulds, you need less individual pieces to make a car body, saving time in labour to deal with the hundreds of bits that make up cars today. If the pieces themselves can be carried around by hand because they're so light, you don't need cranes and heavy lifting equipment any more. If the pieces can be snapped together like Lego blocks and bonded with special glues, you don't need welding equipment any more. If the final cars are lighter, you wont use as much energy to move ship them to their final destination. And all the way along the manufacture process, from top to bottom, you can save money which effectively offsets the higher cost of using carbon fibre in the first place.

Increased safety is another by-product of vehicles manufactured with lightweight carbon fiber composites. By virtue of being stronger and stiffer than metals, advanced composites can absorb five times more energy per pound in a collision. And being lighter, advanced composite cars carry less momentum than heavier cars, making collisions less deadly to the people they hit.


Between 1991 and 1993, RMI refined and validated the Hypercar concept through peer review by scores of industry and independent experts. It was determined that a lightweight carbon fiber composite Hypercar would be four to eight times more efficient than an electric vehicle using standard sheet metal automotive construction technology.

In 1993, the concept was publicly released at the International Symposium on Automotive Technology and Automation with supporting details. After receiving the Nissan Prize, RMI organised a dedicated conference on Hypercars in 1994. Also that year, RMI founded the Hypercar Center, an additional nonprofit arm dedicated to supporting the rapid commercialisation of ultralight hybrid vehicles.

From 1994 to 1996, Hypercar Center's emphasis was on further validating the concept from design and market perspectives through computer modeling and by publishing technical papers. demonstrating that Hypercar vehicles could work, that all market requirements could be met, and that the myriad of technical challenges could be overcome.

In early 1996 the landmark technical assessment, "Hypercars: Materials, Manufacturing, and Policy Implications" was published.

By mid-1997 the Hypercar Center was engaged in discussions and collaboration with around 30 current or intending automakers

In 1999 Hypercar, Inc. was spun off as a for-profit start-up company to commercialise the Hypercar concept and to start getting them made. And by 2000, all key technologies had been demonstrated.

It was expected that well-integrated models would be expected on market in 2003–05, but I guess the dot com crash and 9/11 have both set the timeline back. There is certainly a great deal of activity in the industry towards hybrid and pure electric drive systems, but less so in the use of lighweight materials.

RMI has since morphed Hypercar, Inc into Fibreforge, which now specialise in the manufacture of incredibly lightweight structures for high volume applications. Hopefully we'll see more carbon fibre composites and other light weight materials making it into new vehicles in the next few years.

Stay tuned to AutoblogGreen for an upcoming interview with Michael Brylawski, Senior Consultant at the Rocky Mountain Institute, who co-founded the Hypercar, Inc. spin-off.

UPDATE: The in-depth interview with Brylawski starts here.

Related:
[Source: Rocky Mountain Institute]





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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 9 Comments
      • 6 Years Ago
      I have an unconventional idea or two to improve fuel efficiency:

      1. Large coil springs (like the ones found in watches---only much bigger) could be designed into the hubs of wheels so that when a person brakes his car the energy required to slow the car is used to coil up the spring. When acceleration is desired the system is reversed so that the energy stored in the spring is used to help propel the vehicle. Many design details would have to be worked out to make this happen, of course. A computer would probably be used to regulate the functioning of the spring.

      Here's another much simpler idea:

      Most cars have poor aerodynamic properties. That is, there is a lot of drag when one is cruising along the highway. Extremely lightweight styrofoam shapes could be added to the front and rear of the vehicle to lower the vehicle's drag coefficient considerably. This should be achieveable while increasing the vehicle's weight by much less than 1%. A much lower drag coefficient with a very small weight gain should improve overall gas mileage.
      • 6 Years Ago
      TATA INDUSTRIES OF INDIA HAS LICENSED THE AIR COMPRESSION ENGINE FROM A FRENCH COMPANY AND HAS INSTALLED IT IN " THE NANO". (SEE GOOGLE).
      THE NANO CLAIMS A RANGE OF 125 MILES AND SPEEDS UP TO 80 MPH. WHAT NOW APPEARS TO BE A SOLUTION IS TO EMPLOY TWO AIR ENGINES FOR THE FRONT AND REAR WHEELS, AN ON BOARD AIR COMPRESSOR FOR REPLENISHING THE RESERVE TANKS AND BINGO, DRIVE AROUND THE WORLD NON STOP. SINCE G.M AND FORD ARE CONFUSED AND WITHOUT A CLUE, YOU GUYS AT ROCKY MOUNTAIN HAVE THE PREFECT TEMPLATE, SO GET UP TO SPEED WITH TATA AND PUT THE LAME BRAINS IN DETROIT OUT OF BUSINESS. WITHIN ONE YEAR OF INKING AN AGREEMENT WITH TATA FOR THE ENGINE LICENSE, YOU WOULD SPIN OFF A PROFIT MAKING COMPANY, RAISE CAPITAL FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE AND RULE. WHAT NO BATTERIES?, NO PLUG IN CHARGE?, NO HYDROGEN?, NO FUEL CELL?, NO GAS? NO B.S. FROM THE CRIMINALS IN WASHINGTON, JUST GET IN THE CAR AND DRIVE FREE LIKE WE ARE SUPPOSED TO. GET IN TOUCH WITH ME AND I WILL GET YOU THE"GO"MONEY.
      • 8 Years Ago
      Excellent, excellent idea.
      • 8 Years Ago
      WOW… I'm in love. http://www.hypercar.com/ I’ve always been a huge fan of composites! Many such as fiberglass and Carbon Fiber can be beautifully sculpted. They can be light, fast, and cheap to build. They would be safe (maybe even bulletproof) and cheap to operate. With low weight we could eliminate the IC Engine and create a pure long range, quick charge BEVs http://peswiki.com/energy/Directory:Batteries They could also be easily recycled as models became obsolete http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planned_obsolescence. The EV1 was a line drive. The new battery & electronic tech coupled with the Hypercar manufacturing concepts would make the EV2 (whoever makes it) a home run!
      • 8 Years Ago
      "using only about one percent of their fuel energy to propel the driver"

      While this is true, it sort of assumes that the only thing there is to propel IS the driver. No passengers, no freight, etc. This is, of course, often true, but not always. In true efficiency terms, a Chevy Suburban with 7 passengers is more efficient that a Prius with just a driver.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Starts from a bogus premise, ends at a bogus conclusion. A moving vehicle has two resistance forces to overcome: (1) Tire drag (road friction, gravitational inertia) and (2) Air drag. Doubling speed causes no increase in the one, but squares the resistance impact force of the air on the second. Higher speeds affect all weight vehicles equally of the same shape. You could make the same car out of solid lead or gold and it would behave no differently to air drag.

      That's why wind turbines make lots more power at higher wind speeds than at lower wind speeds. The force is not linear.

      The momentum achieved by gaining speed can be partly recovered by regenerative braking (but only in the correctly designed electric car, not a gasoline car) returning 5% to 15% of the braking energy back to storage. This has no weight relationship, but dies have a fuel-consumption relationship.

      Electric motors are 90% to 95% efficient. Carnot (combustion engines) have a max efficiency around 35% only at the design ideal RPMs. Your energy easily takes you three times farther using electric drive. Equal weight, equal shape cars get these advantages equally. A lighter car with smaller engines will fight wind drag more than a heavier car with greater power, and the efficiency of the lightweight is lost at higher speeds -- none of the lightweight cars ever made had good highway cruising characteristics.

      So many false premises end in false promises. RMI has never proven they can do what they claim. No prototypes have ever demonstrated a car backing up the claims. 1991 to 2007 is SIXTEEN YEARS -- just exactly how long does it take for fiberglass to cure?

      The yakkity-yak from persistent failures like RMI distracts from paying attention to what is REAL. There are 100 mpg vehicles on the road today. There are 31 entries to the X-Prize competition and RMI is not one of them. There's a reason why that it. Figure it out.
      • 8 Years Ago
      Hopefully you can recycle the carbon fibre at the end of the lifecycle? Steel and aluminium body panels are really good that way...
      • 8 Years Ago
      In my final year of college (1996-7), I was co-hosting a radio show called Geektalk on the college station. Always pressed for ideas in the computer realm, we branched out a bit, and ended up spending an entire hour-long show covering hypercars as proposed by RMI. I thought it was a fabulous idea then, and I still do. I'm glad to hear they're still working at it.
      • 8 Years Ago
      They have created a plastic that is 4 times heavier than air [ incredibly light ]. Well i was thinking they could make entire car bodies with light plastic with an inner frame of aluminium bonded inside the resin at the necessary structural points.The whole car could then become a whole intergrated shell come safety cell that could be covered by ultra thin aluminium skin that could be painted and given metalic finishes or skins that can be swapped for color or shape that could be clipped in by owner. muchlike mobile phones and their covers