Interview with Michael Brylawski of RMI, part one - History of the Hypercar

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It is my pleasure to bring you an in-depth interview with Michael Brylawski of the Rocky Mountain Institute. You may remember from the Short History of the Hypercar article we published earlier this month that the Rocky Mountain Institute, and its spin-offs Hypercar, Inc. and FibreForge, have been at the forefront of bringing the radical concept of super light-weight, high efficiency 'Hypercars' to the auto market since the Hypercar was first envisaged by their founder, Amory Lovins in the mid-1990s.

If you haven't already, I recommend that you read the Hypercar history article first as background to this wide-ranging and insightful interview. Michael, who is an AutoblogGreen reader himself, was incredibly generous with his time in answering my questions with the final interview being too long to post in one go. As such, I'll be running the interview as a series over the next few days.

Today, we cover Michael's personal background and involvement with the Hypercar concept.

Read the first part of the interview after the jump.
ABG: Please tell me a bit about yourself and your background with the Rocky Mountain Institute.

I joined the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in 1994 fresh out of college as one of the first members of its 'Hypercar Center.' My research and role on the team focused on the economics of the vehicle, and manufacturing and design issues for the body and structures of the car. I co-authored numerous white papers (available on the RMI site) and the report 'Hypercars: Materials, Manufacturing, and Policy Implications'. One of my first findings, in 1995, was that carbon-fiber bodies could be affordable at mid-volumes compared with steel cars due to the principles you stated in your background article: e.g., parts consolidation, lower capital and tooling costs, and fewer kilograms of materials needed to make the cars. This paper, written with IBIS associates, "Costing the Ultralite in Volume Production" is now ten years old (!) but still germane in showcasing the potential economics of new materials and lighter-weight automotive designs.

Composites essentially transform the "economies of scale" arguments in automotive from the conventional wisdom-we need to sell hundreds of thousands of a car model to make a profit-to a much lower breakeven. With the proliferation of models and sub-segmenting we were predicting in the market (which has since been borne out), we thought these new materials matched well with the dynamics we were seeing in the automotive market. Thus, it was not just about fuel efficiency, but better matching the needs of the market with advanced technologies; fuel efficiency was essentially a "side benefit."

Around 1996-97, after writing the white papers, performing computer analysis, and meeting with and consulting to numerous automakers and suppliers, we decided that we needed to start physically prototyping this concept to showcase its potential. This began what we called the "Hypercar Project," and we got 17 companies (including Volvo, Shell, Dow Chemical, Michelin Tire, Sun Microsystems, and others) to co-sponsor and pay for an independent analysis from Lotus Engineering on the feasibility of the Hypercar concept, that included a pretty innovative kick-off workshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts with the consulting firm MG Taylor. Lotus studied and analyzed the concept intensively and came back and said "this is feasible and should be prototyped."

We went back to the companies at that point to secure greater funding for a physical prototype, and they responded "what is the business model?," i.e., how were they going to make money off of the prototype. At first, we responded "if we build it, they will come," and "it will sell itself," which over the years may have proven correct, but at the time, with $1 a gallon gas, was a very hard sell. In general, you don't tell potential investors ever that a technology will sell itself--even if you are convinced of it. In the US (where this project was focused), automakers were selling large SUVs by the millions and were not about to pay for an efficient vehicle design with (to them) exotic materials and technologies. Our partners were more in the "prove it to me" mindset, and were unwilling to spend the around $5-10 million it took to make a drivable Hypercar.

Thus, we went back to the drawing board, and came up with a full business plan and model for the project. Essentially, we were going to develop the Hypercar into mid-volume production, possibly independently (but open to automaker participation), focused on targeted niche markets. Our plan was to do a more robust analysis and preliminary design, then validate the technologies and platforms with a series of physical mules, and then scale up the vehicles to a capacity of around 50,000 units a year, with a very specific customer and market in mind. We were going to involve the customer, as well, into the design process at early stages. The design approach and materials, as described above, enabled designing clean sheet vehicles for targeted customers in ways the high-volume and scale technologies like steel stamping couldn't match.

The business plan - which I was in charge of, as well as market research and development - went through probably 100 reviews, and we finally were able to secure enough "angel" funding to launch the company in 1999. We had a small office in Basalt, Colorado, with the five co-founders from RMI and some key hires from the outside. Possibly most key of these hires was David Taggart, a keen product developer from Lockheed's famed Skunkworks who had led a transformative, composites-intensive design for the Joint Strike Fighter, which ultimately chose a more conventional approach (with all of its current problems, imagine if it had chosen the Taggart solution!). Taggart led our product development, and we worked with TWR in England (we found that they had great capabilities both in lightweight, integrated design as well as mid-volume manufacturing, as they set up and produced the C70 for Volvo) to do more robust Hypercar design concept.

That concept, called the Revolution, really was a tremendous showcase of the Hypercar Concept and what Taggart's engineering team accomplished. It emphasized lightweighting, aerodynamics, highly integrated design, advanced electronics, and novel interior concepts in an uncompromised format.


The Revolution

The Revolution concept vehicle showcases our capabilities and the potential of our technologies. It is part luxury sedan, part SUV, part eco-car, and part nothing you've ever seen before...

Uncompromised Performance
  • Comfortably seats five adults and their gear
  • 99 mpg-equivalent (EPA rating of 84 mpg on the highway, 115 mpg in the city) using gaseous hydrogen fuel with 330-mi hydrogen fuel with 330-mile range
  • Emits only clean water
  • Accelerates 0–62 mph in 8.3 seconds with sports-car handling
  • Can ascend a 44 percent grade with 1/2-ton payload
  • Designed to meet Federal occupant safety standards for a 30-mph fixed-barrier in a head-on, 30-mph collision with a vehicle twice its weight
  • 69 cubic feet cargo with rear seat folded flat
  • All-wheel drive, digital vehicle stability control, and traction control
  • Ground clearance adjustable from 5" to 7.8"
  • Intuitive, easily customizable user interface
  • MP3-based audio with flat-panel speakers
  • Integrated mobile communications with "intervention" feature for enhanced safety
  • Advanced on-board and remote diagnostics
  • Durable, rust-proof advanced-composite body
Breakthrough Design & Technology
  • Unique aerospace-inspired, lightweight, highly integrated design
  • Fuel-cell powered hybrid-electric drivesystem
  • Highly aerodynamic with low coefficient of drag
  • Run flat, low profile, low rolling resistance tires
  • Regenerative active-damping suspension
  • Brake- and steer-by-wire systems with sidestick vehicle control
  • Advanced, superior-comfort heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system
  • Fault-tolerant 42V power supply & distribution
  • Powerful onboard information network
  • Customisable, plug-in electronics and seamless software-based upgrades
  • Proprietary composite manufacturing processes with no paint shop (permanent color molded in)
  • Few body parts with self-aligning joints bonded with adhesives

MB: Remember, this vehicle was designed in 2000-styling wise, it looks like a Prius (but is bigger), but was four years ahead of the second-generation Prius launch (we are still not sure whether the styling similarities are a coincidence or whether the Prius 'borrowed' from our styling). Moreover, we nailed the vehicle form and packaging through our research-our vehicle was an early "crossover" type, a 5-passenger, high-riding all-wheel drive wagon/SUV with great acceleration, handling, and safety. Imagine if, in 2006, the year that gas in the US exceeded $3 a gallon and when the Revolution could have hit the market, a Prius-beating 70-mpg crossover SUV, with the specs above, hit the market?

After we finished the design work in England, we set up the physical "pusher" prototype and detailed design models and presentations in an investor's garage in Aspen, and sought the around $10-15 million or so it would take to get the mules built (eventual full-scale production was estimated to cost around $300 million plus). Well, as you mentioned, we had some promising meetings with funders and other luminaries (including President Clinton) visit our garage, and the meetings were very positive and we had some excited guests. However, this was around the 2000-2001 tech-bubble burst, and we were definitely a casualty. Suddenly, good ideas and the "promise" of profitability were not in vogue. It was extremely difficult to get funding in that environment, especially a company that was five to six years from market or getting revenues. With the popularity of crossovers in 2006, the proven success of the Prius, and the high price of gas, we hit the sweet spot with our prototype, but the timing unfortunately wasn't right.

For the second time, we went back to the drawing board, and, in what turned out to be a very tough decision, scaled back the company's plans and focused on the most promising technology areas of the vehicle. After some internal and external assessments of the intellectual property we developed in making the Revolution, it was apparent that the advanced composite design and manufacturing solution that Taggart's team developed for the car showed the most promise, filled the biggest "white space" in the industry, and required significantly less capital to develop. Hypercar than shifted to focus on the advanced composites in the vehicle, and after this last business plan was developed I left the company to go to graduate school (a dual-degree program at MIT called 'Leaders for Manufacturing' where you get a MBA and a MS in Engineering). While studying at MIT I interned for seven months with the Boeing Corp at their Hawker de Havilland facility in Melbourne, Australia.

Hypercar, in the meantime, executed strongly on this last business plan. It changed its branding to Fiberforge (but is the same legal organization), raised another round of funding, and designed and set up a pilot manufacturing facility in Glenwood Springs, CO. Led by David Cramer and Jon Fox-Rubin, two of the co-founders of Hypercar, Fiberforge has made amazing progress in turning this intellectual property into a real, licensable, high volume, low-cost manufacturing process. Essentially, the process involves using a high-tech fiber placement head to lay thermoplastic tape at high speeds into complex parts to make "tailored blanks". These blanks are then heated, compressed in a mold, and rapidly cooled to make the incredibly stiff and strong and lightweight parts. The process promises 90 percent of the performance of an aerospace composite at ten percent of the cost-the type of cost that makes it suitable for automotive use. Fiberforge now makes revenue in licensing this process, selling manufacturing equipment, and doing research and development projects-including some currently for major automakers.

So we've come full circle-from writing papers about the promise of composites to seeing a company now born that is executing them. It is exciting and the tip of the iceberg of what we will see from these materials.

As for me, after MIT I decided to expand my horizons so to speak and enter the world of professional management consulting. After two years with Boston Consulting Group (their Los Angeles office), I had my fill-my passion is environmental technology, and BCG in this office worked mainly in consumer and medical--and excitedly returned to "my roots" at Rocky Mountain Institute to help lead their automotive programs, including RMI's latest research in its Winning the Oil Endgame (WTOE) report (free PDF).

Stay tuned tomorrow for the next installment where I ask Michael if the Hypercar concept has changed over time and what's the best drive-train technology available today to power a Hypercar.

UPDATE: part two is here.

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