Interview with Michael Brylawski of RMI part four - Hypercar conspiracy theories and the future

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This is the fourth and final part in an interview with Michael Brylawski of the Rocky Mountain Institute where he talks about the history of the Hypercar and where this exciting concept is up to today. In the third part of the interview, Michael shared his thoughts on 'vehicle to grid' theory, biofuels and the dot com crash. Click here to go to part one of the interview.

If you haven't already, I recommend that you read the Hypercar history article first as background to this wide-ranging and insightful interview.

ABG: Do you feel that the steel industry is in anyway undermining efforts to change automotive vehicle production away from steel frames and panels towards lightweight carbon fibre composite parts?

MB: Other than the normal competitive industrial dynamics, there are no conspiracies in the automotive world. It's just too large and complex, with too many stakeholders with disparate agendas. Maybe in the old days with the Big Three, GM having half the U.S. Market, and big steel, etc., companies could engage in outright collusive and anti-competitive behavior in the industry, but in today's hypercompetitive environment, it's just not possible.

Interview continues after the jump.

Take steel. That industry is not homogenous; it's a combination of foreign and domestic producers, integrated mills and minimills, each with their own agendas. As you may have seen with the tariff battle, it's hard to argue that the foreign and domestic steel producers are on the same page. Domestically, the remaining integrated producers are fighting tooth-and-nail with the minimills for a shrinking domestic market. And its outside competitors - aluminum companies like Alcoa and Alcan, and polymer companies like Dow, Dupont, and GE-are large, hungry, and have their own market muscle.

That said, the steel industry did come together a few years' back in a positive way, sponsoring the Ultralight Steel Autobody Project (ULSAB). Their advanced vehicle concept (ULSAB-ABC) was a lightweight steel midsized passenger sedan that was around 40 percent lighter than a conventional steel design, without any compromises in cost or safety. If anything, the automakers have not been taking the cue from the steel industry's collaborative element to try and develop this design in a meaningful way. If it would lead to vehicles like the ULSAB-AVC, I'd like to see more conspiratorial behavior!

Steel is the dominant material because it is cheap (without tariffs), has a century of design experience (and as such is relatively predictable in design and crash), and has a huge infrastructure in the automotive world that knows how to take cold-rolled steel and turn it into automotive bodies and structures. The automaking culture right now is a steel-stamping culture, and as a former management consultant I can tell you that cultural change is by far the hardest to achieve. Thus, it's the culture that is undermining efforts to change vehicle production, not the steel companies.

What may be needed, either within or without the industry, is a carbon-fiber automotive design and production effort that borrows from the design knowledge of the automotive industry, but establishes its own polymer-friendly culture - which in many ways may look more like an aerospace or software company than an automotive one. Tesla Motors, in developing their electric powertrain in silicon valley, is doing this with EVs: they are saying "we know electrons better than Detroit, so why not do it here?" It's possible that a composite car may need to be done initially in Delaware, Utah, or Washington State - the composite hot spots. And as well it needs to engage its own large entities in supporting this process-arguably the polymer and fiber companies are larger and in better financial health than the steel companies.

I wrote about this actually in a 1997 paper, "The Car is at the Crossroads," imploring for a polymer and composite industry showcase. It's still on the table, and I think it'd still be a good idea.

ABG: Are carbon fibre composite panels, frames or bodywork being used in any of the new 2007 models being unveiled by the major automotive manufacturers?

MB: For volume applications, it's still really in the R&D phases for most automakers, and only on niche vehicles such as the Audi RS8, Mercedes SLR, and Tesla roadster. It's of interest to note that on the RS8 the carbon fiber panels are unpainted to showcase the "performance" of the vehicle and its high technology. Carbon fiber has not made it on any high volume, mainstream vehicle except as fake decorative trim on the interior. Carbon-fiber patterns, in fact, are becoming highly popular as interior trim, in some models replacing fake-wood. I guess that is a start.

But carbon-fiber as decorative trim pattern does say that, from the consumers' end, the perception of carbon fiber is positive, looked at as high-quality and sporty, and that a mainstream carbon composite vehicle would likely be viewed favorably by consumers.

My take is that the first automaker to successfully build a mass-market carbon fiber car will have a Prius-like hit on its hands. You'll be able to overcome the traditional tradeoff of efficiency versus performance, and people will love to showcase this novel and efficiency-boosting technology. Like the Prius, it will be perceived as "cool." But also like the Prius, we won't see a lot of traction with carbon-fiber in the automotive space until someone does an uncompromised whole-vehicle showcasing the technology. Substituting a few panels here and there doesn't unlock the real benefits of the materials, from the technology or market side.

Boeing showed by flipping its business model and culture around composites with its 787 that it can create real competitive advantage. Look at what it did to Airbus and its proposed 350 (the 787's enhanced economics and capabilities due to its composites sent the 350 back to the drawing board and delayed its introduction several years as it as well shifted to composites).

Also note that the new CEO of Ford led the transition to composites at Boeing. He's fighting a lot of fires right now as he tries to right the Ford ship and keep it from Chapter 11, but if and when he succeeds and starts to change the culture in Dearborn, I would not be surprised if Ford doesn't look at a materials shift with some level of gravity.

ABG: Beyond the automotive industry, have the high volume, low-cost manufacturing processes developed by FibreForge been embraced by any other industry?

MB: Fiberforge has licensed its technologies in two non-automotive industries: one emphasizing high performance (aerospace), and one more commodity (sporting goods). Those applications showcase the versatility of the technology. I can't comment on the company's automotive work (as I'm not an employee--I left the company in 2002), other than to say that there is definite interest from several global OEMs.

Fiberforge (and presumedly a few other composite manufacturing technologies) shows a clear path to the volume production of ultralight autobodies. However, to be fair, we are several years away from that reality. Fiberforge's licenses are for niche applications, and the company is pretty modest in terms of capacity and employees. However, the company - and technology - are highly scalable. What it will take is a solid automotive contract or license, and significant production-scale-up funding (significant in the context of a small company; a drop in the bucket, however, to the typical cost of tooling up a steel-stamping and assembly facility).

Whether it's Fiberforge or another technology, I feel the volume production of a composite-intensive vehicle is inevitable - and by intensive I mean a vehicle that has a significant (but not exclusive) share of structural, ultralight composite materials. The question is not if, but when.

ABG: Do you see the first real Hypercars being manufactured in the U.S., Europe, Japan, Korea, India or China? Which country is most likely to bring all the pieces together first?

MB: Great question. Right now it is an open competition. Each area you mention could easily win it, but I loosely rank based on my current state of the industry understanding:

Japan, with its coordinated R&D and superior manufacturing knowledge and processes, may be an early favorite. They do have composites experience, particularly the 'Heavies' (Fuji, Mitsubishi, Kawasaki) are building a third of the composite 787 airframe. And Toyota and Honda are both investigating these materials seriously, again more at an R&D phase. Plus they have great leadership now in hybrids. Interestingly, Honda and Toyota both are building small, all-composite you think it is just about planes? Again, a lot of indicators point to Japan.

Europe has a long history with composite materials, particularly its niche producers like Lotus, which has used resin-transfer-molding in its sports cars since the late 1950s. Plus efficiency is a given in Europe with the higher fuel prices. Bigger producers, in particular the German big three (VW, DCX, and BMW) all are producing or have serious composite prototypes, and also have volume produced aluminum cars (e.g., Audi's A8 and A2); but they've had issues in scaling these technologies and tend to favor more labor intensive processes. In powertrain, the Europeans with their focus on diesels I'd say lag the Americans and Japanese in hybrids and other electric-intensive solutions. With its experience, Europe could be considered the favorite, but its history of limited commercialization success presents a big (perceived) barrier. They are my number two.

Emerging markets such as China or India (Korea really doesn't fall here anymore) in some ways are theoretically the best candidates, as they have fledgling industries and haven't developed "bad habits" so to speak, but on the downside they seem to be rapidly following the path of the developed world; a reliance on heavy, mechanically-based vehicles, either with joint-ventures or in 'reverse engineered' vehicles by domestic producers. The Prius, interestingly, has been a failure in China, and many branded "hybrids" are simply just that: stickers on the back of the car (with no hybrid powertrain). However, from our conversations the will and interest of leapfrogging is there, the manufacturing base is rapidly shifting to these countries, and we see some interesting R&D projects emerging in that sector. I'd put this group collectively at three.

The U.S., like with many advanced technologies, has been the innovator and pioneer, but has not done a heck of a lot to commercialize these materials in automotive in a meaningful way. We have a few government programs working on automotive composites, and some R&D through DARPA (our leading military R&D program that helped develop GPS and the internet, among other technologies), but right now the US industry is in crisis and is focusing on protecting share first, and focusing on advanced drivesystems second. On the upside, there is the potential for Mulally at Ford to investigate a materials transition, as I mentioned, but he has to get the company through rough waters first. And some automotive startups emerging also may be looking at these materials, but even these may outsource their production overseas. Unfortunately, I put the home team right now at four, but I have great hopes we can help change this.

I should mention that Australia could be a dark horse - I worked during my internship at MIT at Hawker de Havilland, a Boeing subsidiary that manufactures carbon-fiber composites. Australia has had some leading capabilities in composites, and a history of creating some very innovative (and thrifty) domestic platforms (e.g., the Commodore, which serves at the basis of GM's global large RWD platform). Plus, the engineers in Australia from my experience are classically trained in integration and whole-systems thinking (from the British tradition), and "get" the concept of designing a car in a whole-systems manner. Maybe you blokes could have a go? [Ed: interviewer is an Aussie]

ABG: Where is the Hypercar? Why do you think, 15 years on, we are still driving heavy, steel vehicles that are massively inefficient at converting fuel energy into passenger transportation?

MB: If you look at any 'automobile of the future' competition (like the one just at the LA autoshow and featured on AutoblogGreen), you'll see almost all the concepts are lightweight, composite intensive, with a green-focused design and advanced powertrain. I think from that end, Hypercars are still the template of where experts see automotive design evolving over time.

Specifically, and more conventional analysts are now saying this, on the powertrain side hybrids and advanced-propulsion vehicles will definitely be dominant in fifteen years. An AllianceBernstein report is predicting over an 85 percent penetration rate for hybrids in the 2020 timeframe. I think this is about right - almost every global powertrain is going to have some sort of electrical component, and many of these will be alternatively fueled.

As for the platform - will vehicles get lighter and more efficient? It's a question that hinges on one or more of several things happening: 1) whether the "Prius" of lightweight vehicles is going to come out over the next five years and catalyze the industry, 2) whether the culture within the major automakers and suppliers can shift to a new electric, polymer, software paradigm from their current mechnanical, metal, hardware mindset, and 3) will climate change or other factors force governments to add teeth to their regulatory and incentive schemes. These are at their core unknowns. Market and technical logic may dictate that Hypercars are a superior, and theoretically more profitable approach, but human and organizational factors can muck up the logic, and the study of technology shows many cases where "inferior" approaches win over technically superior ones. We're still typing on QWERTY keyboards, for instance.

But with vehicles out of the showroom averaging over two tons in the US each - cars are gaining weight faster than Americans themselves - it's clear that the current trajectory needs to change.

I'd like to thank Michael Brylawski for his time in preparing such wonderful and thorough responses to my questions. I hope, and I'm sure Michael would agree, that we will see a mass market Hypercar in some form by 2010.

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