Car of the Future
Original Broadcast Date: April 22, 2008
Tom Magliozzi has a problem. The wacky cohost of NPR's Car Talk needs to replace his beloved 1952 MG roadster. But in today's car market, where should he turn? Is new technology about to transform the way we drive? Tom and his brother Ray hit the road in this program for a lighthearted but shrewd take on America's four-wheeled future.
John Lithgow narrates as Tom and Ray mix their trademark slapstick with serious nuts-and-bolts analysis of what it will take to make our autos more energy-efficient. With a quarter of all the oil ever consumed guzzled up in the last decade and oil supplies being drawn down faster every day, the brothers' screwball automotive odyssey doubles as a serious environmental wake-up call. (Hear energy expert David Greene's take on this pressing subject in Beyond Technology.)
Tom and Ray explore everything from the glitzy, high-octane North American International Auto Show in Detroit to the earnest do-it-yourselfers of the AltWheels Festival in Boston, where the brothers squeeze, clown-car style, into a tiny three-wheeler that, even at 100 miles per gallon, isn't quite ready for the rush-hour commute—it can't go in reverse.
A distinguished group of engineers doubles as Tom and Ray's straight men, including Lee Lynd of Mascoma Corporation, who is working to bioengineer microbes that can produce ethanol from plant wastes, and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who is developing an ultralight, full-size "green" car that is efficient and almost indestructible (see Model of Efficiency).
Also appearing are Andy Frank of the University of California at Davis, whose lab has developed a plug-in hybrid vehicle that "fills up" from an ordinary electrical outlet, and Martin Eberhard, founder of Tesla Motors, who wants to prove that battery-powered cars can be fast, stylish, and take you 250 miles on one charge.
Even representatives of the giant automakers make an appearance, despite their penchant for producing 500-horsepower, gas-guzzling road machines that even a couple of car nuts like Tom and Ray find excessive—as the brothers emphatically point out to a cornered Detroit executive. A decade ago, Toyota paved the way to more efficient vehicles with its Prius. But will our current romance with hybrids lead to a breakup between Americans and their big, high-powered automobiles?
Which new technology will take off as the standard for the car of the future? With Tom and Ray, we learn that hydrogen fuel cells are the touchstone of zero emissions, since all the waste they produce is water vapor. But they require a new infrastructure for tanking up with hydrogen gas, which, as Tom and Ray note with a nod to the notorious Hindenburg zeppelin accident, is highly flammable.
Care to tank up on niblets? An ethanol-gasoline blend is already available at many filling stations, but doubts persist about whether ethanol represents much of an energy savings. Energy-dense lithium-ion batteries, like the ones that power computer laptops, could one day replace the gas tank altogether - but, as Ray points out, a pesky few of those batteries have spontaneously burst into flame.
Tom and Ray again turn an expert, comic eye on the promise and pitfalls of tomorrow's auto technology, and their quest inspires cautious optimism that novel green vehicles are about to get roadworthy. But do any of these future cars tempt Tom to give up his '52 MG? Tune in to see how the car guys answer this puzzler.
NARRATOR: Eight hundred million cars. If you put them bumper to bumper, they'd circle the Earth about 100 times. That's how many cars are on the road today. They come in all shapes and colors, but have one thing in common.
DAVID L. GREENE (Oak Ridge National Laboratory): Our transportation system is almost entirely fueled by petroleum, more than 95 percent. A quarter of all the petroleum ever consumed in the history of the world was consumed in the last 10 years. So we're consuming it at an accelerating rate.
JOHN B. HEYWOOD (Sloan Automotive Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): What is scary is that projections suggest that by 2050 there'll be two billion vehicles, two and a half times as many as there are today.
NARRATOR: Many experts agree there's an energy shortage and soaring gas prices looming in the future, not to mention, melting ice caps from global warming and national security threats from dependence on foreign oil.
TOM MAGLIOZZI (Automobile Mechanic/Co-Host, Car Talk): Can I change the station?
RAY MAGLIOZZI (Automobile Mechanic/Co-Host, Car Talk): No, you can't. This is important stuff.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: This is scaring me. I don't like it any more.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Oh, come on. Don't be such a sissy.
NARRATOR: Two brothers have embarked on a quest.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Where are we?
RAY MAGLIOZZI: I don't know. We're not in Kansas any more, I can tell you that.
NARRATOR: They want to find out what's being done right now that will keep our cars moving in the future.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Stand back!
NARRATOR: They're testing new technology and alternative fuels, and they're getting behind the wheels of vehicles that might take us down a new and different road.
Join Click and Clack, the guys from Car Talk, on their search for the Car of the Future, right now on NOVA.
Major funding for NOVA is provided by David H. Koch. And...
Discover new knowledge: HHMI.
And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
DOUG BERMAN (Producer, Car Talk): Okay, let's go. Stand by.
Ready? Open them up.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Hello, and welcome to Car Talk, from National Public Radio with us, Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers. Are you ready to take a call?
TOM MAGLIOZZI: I'm ready.
NARRATOR: For 30 years, Tom and Ray Magliozzi have helped radio listeners solve their automotive problems.
CAR TALK CALLER: I have a Ford Ranger pickup, and I love the truck, but I hate the gas mileage it gets.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Well, see, if you drove less you'd like it better.
NARRATOR: Today, Click and Clack have a car problem of their own.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: I don't think so, man. It's not going to start.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Come on, it'll start.
NARRATOR: Tom's beloved roadster, a ‘52 MG, is back in the shop.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Oh, it sounds like a sick cow. No, you know, this car's done for. It really is time to move on and look for another vehicle. This isn't going to do it anymore.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Well, what could be better than this?
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Almost anything.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: But where would I find another car?
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Take a wild guess.
NARRATOR: To replace a relic from the past, Tom and Ray head for Detroit, searching for the car of the future.
Each year in the Motor City, carmakers shop their latest models in what must be the world's largest showroom. It's a sideshow Vegas would envy.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Pretty damn spectacular show.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Sure is. Let's go find your dream car. Let's go find the car of the future, or maybe the car of your future.
I thought you were interested in these models.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: I am.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: I meant the cars.
How many horsepower is this thing, guys? You must know, right?
CAR SHOW ATTENDEE: What is this, 5...?
CAR SHOW SALESPERSON: Yeah, 500.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: A mere 500.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Looks like my MG.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Yeah, right!
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Not the MG engine, the whole MG!
RAY MAGLIOZZI: This is an absurd amount of horsepower to have in anything, I would think.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Ridiculous.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: But...
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Absolutely ridiculous and stupid.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: But people want to buy them...
TOM MAGLIOZZI: They're whackos!
NARRATOR: To lure buyers, cars and trucks have become bigger and more powerful every year. Since 1985, average vehicle weight has increased 1,000 pounds. Horsepower has almost doubled.
JOSEPH B. WHITE (Wall Street Journal): If you look anywhere in the world, not just the United States, you look anywhere in the world, people will buy the most horsepower they can afford. There's something kind of primal and elemental about having a powerful machine at your beck and call and at your command. The car companies know this; they're selling emotion. If we just needed an appliance to get from A to B, we'd all be driving around in Toyota Corollas.
NARRATOR: As weight and horsepower increase, cars are consuming more gasoline than ever before, despite its growing cost. Even a former Texas oilman seems to get it.
GEORGE W. BUSH (President of the United States, 2003): For too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil, and this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes and to terrorists.
AMORY B. LOVINS (Rocky Mountain Institute): Think about where your money goes when you put your credit card in the pump. Some of your oil money is going directly to arm people who are trying to kill us.
NARRATOR: Burning oil is also changing the chemistry of the atmosphere.
AMORY LOVINS: Coming out of your tailpipe are all those carbon dioxide molecules. Those go up in the air. They'll stay there for about a hundred years, messing up the climate.
NARRATOR: Increased carbon emissions are creating climate changes that scientists warn us are dangerous.
DAVID GREENE: We're going to have to find other sources of energy to power the transportation system. And we're going to have to make it more energy-efficient at the same time.
NARRATOR: The Alt.Wheels Festival, in Boston, is a different kind of car show that celebrates alternative energy and efficient transportation. If the Detroit car show is about primal thrills, Alt.Wheels is about social responsibility and concern for future.
Like the green movement itself, Alt.Wheels is small, but bursting with enthusiasm about every conceivable technology that might curb our dependence on oil, including, perhaps, Tom's dream car.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: I love it!
RAY MAGLIOZZI: This is right up your alley. I can tell, as soon as I saw this, that this is the kind of vehicle...
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Yeah, that's me, man.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: ...that you would love.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: What makes it run?
ALT WHEELS EXHIBITOR: The motor scooter.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: It's got a gas, it's got a gasoline engine that's running, yeah?
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Oh, it's got a gasoline engine.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: So, the only alternative about this is that it's dangerous.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Where's the accelerator?
RAY MAGLIOZZI: This is the accelerator.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Is there a reverse?
RAY MAGLIOZZI: No. Stop!
NARRATOR: Creating the car of the future is no small feat. Whatever their environmental benefit, we expect our cars to be reliable, practical and safe.
The car of the future also needs to store a lot of energy in a small space. And nothing does this better than petroleum, which comes from plants and tiny plankton, like these, that were buried in mud millions of years ago. Over time, these ancient fossils were transformed into energy-rich molecules of hydrogen and carbon, or hydrocarbons, that are refined into gasoline.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: And you're getting a hundred miles a gallon? It doesn't seem like quite enough to justify the danger.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: This is the kind of car you want to leave to your first wife.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: How you doing?
BOB, FORD REPRESENTATIVE: Hi, guys.
NARRATOR: Car companies have great hopes that hydrogen will someday replace carbon and power cars that are emissions free.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: So you fill up the tank. The tank must be in the back.
BOB, FORD REPRESENTATIVE: Yeah.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Right. One tank?
BOB, FORD REPRESENTATIVE: One tank.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Can we see it?
NARRATOR: These companies have invested billions to produce small fleets of prototypes like this one.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Now, if you've got a very narrow suitcase here, you're in good shape.
BOB, FORD REPRESENTATIVE: You're in good shape, right.
NARRATOR: But until more hydrogen cars are on the road, it'll be hard to find places to fill the tank.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: But they're not going to start investing in making the fuel available unless they have a commitment from Ford and the other companies that they're going to.... It's a chicken and the egg kind of thing. I mean, you have to start building the cars and...
BOB, FORD REPRESENTATIVE: Exactly, you've got to get those chickens out there before the, before the eggs, so the...
TOM MAGLIOZZI: So the chickens are first? This is a time honored question. This is an age old question you're about to answer here.
NARRATOR: This chicken and egg question has no clear answer. History shows that cars and gasoline evolved together over many, many years.
BETH LOWERY (General Motors, Vice President, Environment and Energy): There's about 170,000 gas stations in the country now, so we have a very established infrastructure of internal combustion engine that everybody knows and loves in their vehicles today. And they go to the local gas station and they fill up their gas tank. And that's a system we know.
JOSEPH ROMM (Center for Energy and Climate Solutions): We have a fueling infrastructure of gasoline that was built over the course of many decades. And it has been paid off a long time ago, and it is delivering gasoline very cheaply. So to deliver an alternative fuel other than gasoline is no mean feat.
NARRATOR: Changing an economy based on petroleum is an almost insurmountable task. But a small island nation is hoping to do to do just that.
Iceland has a thousand times fewer people and cars than the U.S. Still, rush hour in Reykjavik is no joke. In a country where gas costs almost eight dollars a gallon, Iceland's dream is to stop importing oil by replacing conventional cars with hydrogen vehicles, if and when they come to market. In the meantime, a small fleet of buses has been warming the population to the new technology.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: This is a nice bus, but it's a bus.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Yes, it is the bus. Yeah, it's just a bus. Oh, yeah. No, there's nothing different about it except that it's a fuel cell bus, which is pretty interesting.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Yeah, but it sounds the same.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: No smell, though; have you noticed that?
TOM MAGLIOZZI: No smell.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: No smell, which is very nice, especially in the city.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: There's a little smell, but I think that's you.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: When we go back to the station, can we see you refuel the bus?
REYKJEVIK BUS DRIVER: Yes.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Is there a brick wall we can stand behind?
REYKJEVIK BUS DRIVER: If you dare.
NARRATOR: Like gasoline, hydrogen is volatile stuff. Remember the Hindenburg? That disaster almost ruined hydrogen's reputation for good. But at the world's first public hydrogen fueling station, it's stored safely in pressurized tanks.
Let's hope so anyway.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Wait, I want to get a look at this.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Okay. Go ahead. We're not afraid.
REYKJEVIK BUS DRIVER: Really? You look like chickens.
NARRATOR: Pressurized hydrogen is pumped into storage tanks on the roof of the bus, where it's combined with oxygen in layers of thin membranes called fuel cells. Hydrogen atoms are broken apart, releasing electrons that flow through a circuit, providing electricity that propels the bus. The only emission is water vapor.
DAVID GREENE: There's been a lot of progress in the technology, but hydrogen vehicles are not anywhere near ready for the market yet. They're too expensive, the fuel cells are not durable enough, and, of course, we have problems with how do you store sufficient amount of hydrogen on board the vehicle.
NARRATOR: Iceland prides itself on helping to improve this technology by testing it every day.
JÓN BJÖRN SKÚLASON (Icelandic New Energy Ltd.): You go to a small society like Iceland where a lot of things are simpler than a big society like the U.S. or Europe, you can actually test things out here. That's actually how we think we can help the world. NARRATOR: While vehicles are tested in Reykjavik, the fueling infrastructure is being developed in the countryside. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but doesn't exist in pure form. It's made by splitting water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, and that takes energy. Iceland gets this energy from water that flows from melting glaciers and from steam that rises from the ground.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Where are we?
RAY MAGLIOZZI: I don't know. We're not in Kansas any more, I can tell you that. But there's steam coming up out of the ground.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: This is so weird.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: How do I look?
TOM MAGLIOZZI: You look marvelous. This is something.
NARRATOR: Iceland itself was created by volcanoes erupting from a crack between two plates on the Earth's surface. Power plants harness this geothermal energy to generate electricity that can be used to make hydrogen.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Why is Iceland engaged in this geothermal power project, so to speak?
ALBERT ALBERTSSON (Svartsengi Power Plant): You know, geothermal and hydro is Iceland's oil, actually. And, you know, Iceland is straddling two tectonic plates, the North American plate and the Eurasian plate. And gentlemen, we are just in the middle of the two plates.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Move over a couple of feet. You might be sitting in a bad spot.
ALBERT ALBERTSSON: There is enough renewable energy sources in Iceland to produce all the hydrogen this nation needs.
NARRATOR: Someday Iceland may harness volcanoes to power cars, but the transition to hydrogen could take 50 years.
JÓN BJÖRN SKÚLASON: A 50-year timeframe is not a long timeframe, actually. When you talk about a full energy paradigm shift in 50 years, that means a lot, a lot of changes for society.
NARRATOR: New technology does not spring full-grown from the womb. And it's too soon to tell if and when hydrogen transportation will come of age. But Iceland's efforts may bring us closer to the answer.
DAVID GREENE: They have vast amounts of renewable energy available to them and a very small population. There's no way, today, we can do what they're doing. But we will learn from their experience. We're going to gain from this effort that they're making. NARRATOR: The future of hydrogen may be shaped here, but for automakers, its greatest potential lies in larger countries where transportation systems are not yet developed. In China, bicycles are vanishing quickly. Experts predict that in two decades China will have the same number of cars as the U.S. and gas stations are racing to keep up.
BETH LOWERY: In China, we don't have a gas station on every corner. And we're looking at opportunities for fuel cells and hydrogen infrastructure in economies, such as China, where you're not taking over an entire infrastructure and trying to start all over again.
NARRATOR: But for developed nations like the U.S., is there some alternative to gasoline that doesn't involve reinventing the wheel?
It could be ethanol, or E85. Like gasoline it's a hydrocarbon, but government studies show it produces 25 percent less greenhouse emissions. Ethanol is made from corn sugar. If Iceland has volcanoes, we've got cornfields, which can be harvested year after year. In Brazil, ethanol produced from sugar cane now provides 40 percent of the nation's motor fuel.
CHEVROLET COMMERCIAL: What if cars and trucks could be fueled by corn?
NARRATOR: Flex fuel vehicles that can burn ethanol and gasoline don't cost much more than conventional cars. So that's all the good news.
Now the bad news:
JOSEPH ROMM: It's not that great for the environment. It's, it's very energy-intensive to grow corn and extract energy from it.
NARRATOR: Fossil fuels are used to make fertilizer and pesticides to help corn grow and are also needed to ferment corn sugar. Some critics claim it takes more energy to make ethanol than you get out of it, while others caution that we can never grow enough corn to meet demands.
DAVID GREENE: There's simply not enough of it, and we need a lot of it for food. So that's not going to be the solution, but it's going to be part of the solution, I think.
NARRATOR: Still, ethanol does have great potential.
LEE R. LYND (Mascoma Corporation): There's really not much question, this is a good motor fuel. The question is, how inexpensively can we make it, and how much of it can we make?
NARRATOR: For 20 years, Lee Lynd has been trying to answer these questions. And, like many, he believes the solution involves something else besides corn.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Don't go down here. It's dangerous down there. It's this way. Pay attention, will you?
Lee. Hey, how are you?
LEE R. LYND: Great. How are you?
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Hey, did you bring the corn?
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Well, of course I brought the corn.
LEE R. LYND: You guys are armed and dangerous.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Look, we're down to about a quarter of a tank. Will this be enough to get us home? If not, we have a couple of cans of Jolly Green Giant Niblets out there, too. Maybe we can...
LEE R. LYND: We're looking at making ethanol, and we're looking at making it from a different part of the plant. So the actual corn ethanol comes from the seeds, same stuff we would eat, same stuff we'd feed the cattle. And there's a lot of the rest of the corn plant, and there's also a lot of other kinds of plants that can be grown. And what we're interested in is called cellulosic biomass, not a household word, perhaps.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Yet.
LEE R. LYND: Not yet, thank you. And so...
TOM MAGLIOZZI: But right now, what we use is the kernel.
LEE R. LYND: Is the kernel, right there, yep.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Those guys.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Now what's the difference between cellulosic biomass and the kernels here?
LEE R. LYND: Good question. This is cellulosic biomass, the cob, in here, is cellulosic biomass, and the whole stalk that held this up...
RAY MAGLIOZZI: So everything that isn't the niblets is cellulosic biomass.
LEE R. LYND: There you go, exactly.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: It's the stuff that we would ordinarily throw away.
NARRATOR: Cellulosic biomass is the woody structure that props up the plant. It's found in waste products like wood chips, paper sludge, wheat straw and corn stalks, as well as switchgrass, a native plant that grows without fertilizer and pesticides. Like all plants, switchgrass pulls carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to grow. When the grass becomes ethanol that's burned under the hood, the carbon dioxide is released back into the air and reabsorbed by the next crop of grass. If cellulosic ethanol can be manufactured without burning fossil fuel, net carbon emissions are, essentially, zero.
LEE R. LYND: This is nothing but ground-up corn stalks right here.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Oh, it is?
LEE R. LYND: This stuff is less expensive, very cost-effective raw material. So you might say, "Well, why aren't we doing this already?" Answer? Converting this stuff, the cellulosic biomass, into ethanol, is more difficult than converting...
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Ah.
LEE R. LYND: This stuff.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: So how do you make it? Can you take us to the lab and show us?
LEE R. LYND: I'd love to. Come on in.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: You're not going to kill us afterwards, are you? I'm afraid if we learn too much it might be dangerous.
LEE R. LYND: So, the question is, "How do we do this?" And it starts off with microorganisms, very small living things that you can only see with a microscope.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: What's the big thing? It looks like Tom's car.
LEE R. LYND: That is a lump of cellulose. And you'll notice that attached to it there are the same sort of black rods. Those are bacteria that are adhered to the cellulose. In fact, there are some more of them on that little particle there.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: They're doing a job on him.
LEE R. LYND: Yeah, they're kind of ganging up on that little...
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Oh, yeah, he's in trouble.
NARRATOR: These microbes are tearing cellulose apart, releasing sugar compounds locked within. In fermentation tanks, another microbial species turns that sugar into ethanol. Lynd's goal is to combine genetic material from the two species into a single microbe that can make ethanol from cellulose in one efficient step.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Why is that turning two steps into one step such a big deal? I mean, what effect will it have overall on the costs of what we're doing?
LEE R. LYND: This would be revolutionary, from an economic point of view, if you could get this into one rapid, efficient step. And we think we can prove this in a few years, and other people are assuming this is decades away. And time will tell if we're right.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Thanks a lot, Lee. Hey, sounds great.
LEE R. LYND: Thanks for all the questions and all the interest. I really appreciate it.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Great, thanks so much. Bye-bye.
LEE R. LYND: Oh, hey.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Oh. We're going to need these I think. It's a long ride home.
It's a good thing there are smart guys like Lee working on this stuff. If they had to depend on you and me, it'd take centuries.
NARRATOR: Advocates argue that we have the land to grow enough biomass to replace at least a quarter of the gas we now consume with cellulosic ethanol. They also believe it could replace gasoline altogether, if cars were more efficient.
Surprisingly, today's cars aren't very efficient. In fact, less than one percent of the energy in the tank actually moves the driver. Ninety percent is lost between the tank and the wheels, and the rest is used to push the mass of the vehicle.
At the Sloan Automotive Lab at M.I.T., John Heywood and his students are on a mission to save energy by improving engine performance.
For more than a century, gasoline engines have powered cars by turning chemical energy into mechanical work. Vaporized gasoline enters the combustion chamber; a piston compresses the vapor until it's ignited by a spark, creating pressure that forces the piston downward; the spent gas is vented as exhaust. Working together, pistons turn the crankshaft that sends power to the wheels.
JOHN HEYWOOD: People say, "The internal combustion engine, it's old technology. Why don't we replace it?" It's going to take a really long time to change to something else, even if we got something else there, developed and ready. And we don't yet.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Hey, John. Hi. Long time no see.
NARRATOR: Lured by smell of engine fumes, Tom and Ray return to the lab where they once spent time as M.I.T. students.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Well, you know, the last time I was here, I was with a classmate and Professor Keck, and I blew the cylinder head off an engine. I hope they won't hold that against me.
JOHN HEYWOOD: Some of those things still happen.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: I'm sure they do.
You folks have been working for a while on improving engines, and this is what you do here. And we want to know what you're doing, what the future holds, where the frontier is. Enlighten us, please. We need all the help we can get.
JOHN HEYWOOD: Okay. Well, we're trying to help move the technology forward. Some things we don't understand very well. You know that.
This is where we're working on engine lubrication and friction.
NARRATOR: One of the ways Heywood is improving engines is by reducing friction. Almost half the energy in the combustion chamber is lost to friction, as pistons rub against the walls of the cylinder. Using a laser to observe the process, Heywood tests different lubricants and piston geometries to find small ways to save energy.
MIT LAB WORKER: Anywhere you see white, like here, is oil.
JOHN HEYWOOD: And what we want is where the rings are, it's dark, you want a little oil to lubricate the rings, keep friction low, but just enough. If it's too much, it'll go into the cylinder and we'll lose some oil. So that's what we're learning about. And it really feeds back into designing all of this better and improving fuel consumption.
NARRATOR: Over several decades, automotive engineers at Sloan and other labs around the world have increased engine efficiency by 30 percent.
JOHN HEYWOOD: Engines and transmissions have got steadily more efficient, year by year by year by year by year. So it's better technology. Then the question is: "What do we do with these more powerful and more efficient engines?" We've put them into increasing vehicle performance so our vehicles accelerate faster, more aggressively, and we've put them into larger vehicles, heavier vehicles. We're better off because these vehicles are more efficient. Had they not been more efficient, we'd be even worse off. But we haven't gained. We've sort of stood still.
JOSEPH ROMM: Technology, by itself, does not increase fuel economy. The role of technology is to enable smart regulations, is to enable reductions in oil consumption and greenhouse gases through federal action, not in place of federal action.
NARRATOR: History shows regulation does increase fuel economy. After the 1973 oil shortage, Congress created mileage standards, forcing automakers to build more efficient vehicles. By 1987, average mileage had increased dramatically. But that caused oil prices to fall, which in turn led to public indifference.
JOSEPH ROMM: In the 1970s to early 1980s, we doubled the fuel economy of cars. And then starting in the mid-80s, we stopped.
NARRATOR: Mileage standards remained unchanged from 1985 to 2007, and truck and S.U.V. sales almost doubled. Because these vehicles have lower standards than cars, average fuel economy today is actually a bit less than it was 20 years ago, despite hard-won gains in engine efficiency.
Many people buy heavy, inefficient vehicles because they feel safer. Amory Lovins is a champion of a revolutionary approach to making cars that are efficient and safe.
AMORY LOVINS: I'm a recovering experimental physicist. And I'd been thinking about the physics of cars and why are they so inefficient that you know, your car's using a hundred times its weight in ancient plants every day, and yet only 0.3 percent of that energy ends up moving the driver. This didn't seem very good.
NARRATOR: In 1982, Lovins founded the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado think tank. Among the 50 fulltime staff are a handful of automotive engineers who have helped Lovins rethink the physics of the car.
MIKE, AUTOMOTIVE ENGINEER: One would argue, if you had half the car, you would need half the battery and half the motor to push it around.
AMORY LOVINS: And half the money to pay for it.
MIKE, AUTOMOTIVE ENGINEER: And half the money to pay for it, exactly.
NARRATOR: Lovins realized that cars could be more efficient if he could find ways to make the engine move less weight.
AMORY LOVINS: We started digging into how to make the car lighter, with better aerodynamics, with lower rolling resistance. We ended up concluding it was quite straightforward to triple the efficiency of a car, at roughly the same cost.
NARRATOR: Lovins's group replaced the conventional auto body with 14 light-weight components that lock together to form a reinforced shell with half the weight of steel. From the tapered roofline to the smooth underbody, every surface is streamlined to reduce drag.
AMORY LOVINS: If you directly save a pound in a car, then you actually save more like a pound and a half, from needing less engine to accelerate it, less brake to stop it, less suspension to hold it up and so on.
NARRATOR: The "Hypercar" reduces weight without reducing size, by making parts from tiny carbon fibers that are heated with nylon to form a composite stronger than steel. The wings and much of the fuselage of Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner are made with carbon composites, which will save 20 percent in fuel.
Race cars are also made with carbon composites. After hitting a wall at 160 miles an hour, the driver in this car walked away.
NEWS REPORTER: How are you feeling?
KATHERINE LEGGE, DRIVER: A bit shaken, but I'm okay, as you can see. Oops, sorry. All my bits are intact, so it's good. Goes to show how strong the cars are.
AMORY LOVINS: With such light but strong materials, you can make cars that are big, which is protective and comfortable, without also making them heavy, which is hostile and inefficient. Therefore you can save oil and lives and, indeed, money, all at the same time.
NARRATOR: Today the Hypercar is still just an idea embodied by this one-of-a-kind prototype sitting in the corner of Lovins's shop. Carmakers have spent a hundred years perfecting ways to mass-produce cars from steel, and Lovins has failed to convince them to make a radical change in materials. Carbon fiber is expensive, and molding it into parts is labor-intensive. Undaunted, Lovins is now developing machinery that can mass produce parts at an affordable price.
Drawn by curiosity and skepticism, Ray has come to the Rockies, leaving Tom in bed with a cold.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Yeah, my brother didn't want to come out here. I knew it. Too cold. He saw the weather forecast, figured he'd call in sick. He had that phony little sniffle. Hah.
AMORY LOVINS: Ray. Hey, welcome.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Thanks for inviting me.
AMORY LOVINS: Oh, my pleasure. We've got such cool stuff to show you.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Jeez, I'm really impressed because I thought this was going to be like a carnival car, you know, some little tiny little thing that you'd have to get shoehorned into. This is a real car.
AMORY LOVINS: This will carry five modern-size adults in comfort...
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Super-sized adults.
AMORY LOVINS: ...and up to 69 cubic feet of cargo. In fact, we figured this could cruise on the highway at 55 miles an hour on the same power to the wheels that today's SUVs use on a hot day to run the air conditioner.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Really? That'd be pretty neat.
AMORY LOVINS: This is the most complex and heavily loaded part of this car. It's the whole side assembly.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Oh, it's where the doors would go.
AMORY LOVINS: Yeah, exactly right.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Oh, sure.
AMORY LOVINS: Yeah, and I'll bet you can lift that with one hand.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: You think?
AMORY LOVINS: Yeah.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: I don't know. I'm a weakling. Oh, it's pretty light.
AMORY LOVINS: Yeah.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: It's a few pounds, it's...
AMORY LOVINS: Isn't that amazing?
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Yeah, it is amazing.
AMORY LOVINS: Which means any part, any of the 14 body parts can be lifted by one worker with no hoist, so you don't need jigs and robots and welders. It just snaps together and you glue it. Then it's stronger than the original material. So you just got rid of the body shop. That's why this is so revolutionary for manufacturing.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Neat. Well, I did bring a piece of test equipment from my lab. Can I use it?
AMORY LOVINS: You wicked fellow!
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Stand back!
AMORY LOVINS: It's strong.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: It's strong. But jeez, and you know, there are a couple of tiny little scuffs, and then nothing got telegraphed to the back. The back is completely unscathed.
NARRATOR: The case for carbon fiber is very strong. But until costs are reduced, ultra-light cars will not be on the sales lot any time soon. For those who want efficient cars now, one answer is to buy a hybrid.
The Prius was the first commercial success, and now other companies are getting in the act.
A hybrid is a gas-powered car that also has an electric motor and a battery pack. When the car idles, it uses electricity instead of wasting gas and spewing fumes. The gas engine is used at speeds when it's most efficient, and it charges the batteries at the same time. Batteries are also charged through braking wheels when the car slows to a stop. The result is a car that gets the same pickup as a regular car but burns less gas.
Because hybrids have batteries and a motor, it takes a bit more energy to manufacture them, but over their entire lifespan, hybrids still consume 30 percent less energy and produce 30 percent less carbon than non-hybrids of the same size.
But hybrids still burn gas. At his shop at U.C. Davis, Andy Frank is changing that. Andy and his students are building a hybrid that can charge its batteries through a wall socket. This connects the car to the electric grid so it can get energy from distant power plants.
Andy is the inventor of the plug-in hybrid, and for 20 years he's been developing and improving his concept. Compared to standard hybrids, the plug-in has more batteries and a larger motor but needs less space for the engine and the gas tank. Like many, Andy hopes this evolutionary design will cause an energy revolution.
ANDREW FRANK (University of California, Davis): This kind of a car can transition us off of oil and onto electricity.
DAVID GREENE: It's a major change, in that, now, you can get electricity from the grid. You can take it from your home. You can take it from almost anywhere. So this is a huge difference, in terms of the energy source for transportation.
NARRATOR: With an overnight charge, the batteries hold enough juice to go 60 miles, more than the average daily commute. And for longer trips, it's got an engine that extends its range to 600 miles.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: If, when we stop at Motel 5, for example, we plug the thing in overnight...
ANDY FRANK: That's right. We borrow a little energy from Motel 5.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: They won't even notice a 50-foot—I love it—a 50-foot extension cord.
ANDY FRANK: Well, or you would be a long ways and they'd be...
RAY MAGLIOZZI: You want your room on the second floor? No, no, we'd prefer to be on the first floor.
ANDY FRANK: Got to be on the first floor. But that's the whole point. Whatever available 110- volt socket is all you need to charge this car.
NARRATOR: Skeptics say that all plug-ins do is shift the pollution source from the tailpipe to the smokestack, but studies show that powering cars with electricity from today's mix of power plants could reduce greenhouse emissions by about 40 percent. Further reductions are possible if electric power gets cleaner.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Even if you have to build power plants, you're not using any gasoline.
ANDY FRANK: That's right. That's the whole point.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: The whole point.
ANDY FRANK: You're shifting off of gasoline onto an electric society, and that, once you walk into the electric society window, you open the door to the possibility of direct renewable energy. Electricity can be generated in a lot of different forms. And in particular, it can be generated with solar cells on top of your roof, it could be generated from wind. In other words, today's sunshine would give you tomorrow's driving. And you put that energy...store it in the batteries. I think one of the things that this kind of car motivates is the possibility of personal wind and personal solar.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: My brother's been responsible for a lot of personal wind.
ANDY FRANK: So now we're cruising on electricity alone.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: It's great! It's great. And people don't care as long as it does what they want it to do.
TERRENCE WILLIAMS (Ph.D. Candidate, University of California, Davis): But you know what it does do that's better than your car? It's faster.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: It's faster, yeah, yeah. And it gets better mileage?
TERRENCE WILLIAMS: That's correct.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: And it doesn't pollute as much?
TERRENCE WILLIAMS: That's right.
ANDY FRANK: The most important thing is the ability to use a renewable energy directly from the sun.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Right. And if I can ever get my home nuclear reactor kit to start working, I've got it made.
NARRATOR: It costs four times less to power Frank's plug-in from the grid than it does to run it on gasoline. But if plug-ins become the car of the future, will there be enough electricity to keep them all running?
DAVID GREENE: Our existing electric utility system could handle tens of millions of plug-in hybrid vehicles if they would be recharged during off-peak times, such as at night.
NARRATOR: With today's batteries, plug-ins can only go so far on electricity, but Frank believes they're a viable step toward more efficient transportation.
ANDY FRANK: I'm hoping that the car companies really get serious and start building these things, because the sooner they get it out in the hands of the public, the sooner we can begin to transition ourselves off of oil.
NARRATOR: Martin Eberhard is convinced that cars can be powered by batteries alone. He's the founder of Tesla Motors, and his electric sports car is built to prove electrons are a hands-down winner over gasoline.
MARTIN EBERHARD (Founder, Tesla Motors): A gasoline engine is terribly inefficient. It's below 20 percent efficient, typically. But an electric car like ours is, you know, in the neighborhood of 85 percent efficient. It's that kind of difference. So it would be like 135 miles to the gallon equivalent: big difference in a car that does zero to 60 in four seconds.
NARRATOR: The Tesla Roadster can go 250 miles on a single charge. But it takes a lot of batteries to go even that far, and they come at a price.
MARTIN EBERHARD: The Tesla Roadster costs $92,000, right now. You can buy options and spend more if you like.
The great big hairy goal we have is to create the next great American car company. It's insane, right? We are up against some big guys out there.
NARRATOR: The first 600 roadsters are being handmade overseas. At Tesla headquarters in Silicon Valley, engineers are refining hardware and software for the next, more affordable model.
MARTIN EBERHARD: A lot of the complexity that you find in a typical car has moved out of mechanical things and into electrical things and software.
NARRATOR: The mechanics of the Tesla are stunningly simple. The electronics module is the brain that controls the battery pack, which accounts for at about a third the cost of the vehicle and powers a 75-pound motor that drives the rear wheels.
MARTIN EBERHARD: If you look in our motor, there's one moving part. And that drives a very, very simple transmission. But to make that motor do its thing requires a fairly large box of fairly sophisticated silicon and a lot of software behind it to make it do what it needs to do. So a large amount of the drive train development was pretty natural to do right here in Silicon Valley.
NARRATOR: The power supply is filled with lithium ion batteries that have revolutionized portable computers and electronics.
MARTIN EBERHARD: Well, first of all, lithium ion batteries are just the best battery technology today. Lithium is readily available and fully recyclable. The significant advantage of lithium ion is it's not a heavy metal, so, in the handling process, you don't have a health hazard.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: It's already broken. They have it on the lift.
MARTIN EBERHARD: Practically the first thing they put in this building was the lift.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: You know, we have the same lifts in our shop, except ours are all covered with grease. Where's the grease, Martin? Where is the grease? This is a grease-free shop.
MARTIN EBERHARD: So this is all carbon fiber body, and even the structure behind, you can see, is carbon fiber.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: So this is the battery pack, and it's got little batteries in it?
MARTIN EBERHARD: Yeah, quite a few little batteries. I might have one here, hold on. There you go, yeah. Like that.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Just like that.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: And how many of these are in there?
MARTIN EBERHARD: Six thousand eight-hundred and thirty-one, approximately.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: How do you write that number? Couldn't you round it off to seven thousand?
RAY MAGLIOZZI: I don't mean to throw a wet blanket on the whole issue here, but I know there was some talk about some laptops that were catching fire and...
MARTIN EBERHARD: Yep. We were actually quite concerned about what would happen if one of these batteries were to catch fire, early on. And we set about designing the battery packs so that if one battery catches fire, it doesn't set the neighbors on fire.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: What is it about lithium ions that makes them so special and makes them so different from other batteries?
MARTIN EBERHARD: Energy density—how much energy can fit into a small package. Lithium ion batteries are about four times the energy density of previous car batteries. And that's a phenomenal difference. That's like a four-times bigger gas tank. So, that's where the driving range comes from. It comes at a price, today, but I think that the driving range is one of the most important things to make electric cars become acceptable.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: I'm in. Put your seatbelt on. Say your prayers.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: You don't mind if I don't look?
NARRATOR: Perhaps foolishly, Martin lets his multimillion dollar baby out of sight without a chaperone.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: See you!
MARTIN EBERHARD: First time driving?
NARRATOR: Tom's next car might be a two-seater with no tailpipe, if he's got the money.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: We could be in Mexico in about two hours with this car.
NARRATOR: Pushing the envelope of technology always brings a cost. But if alternative vehicles are going to curb our oil addiction, they must be sold not by the hundreds but by the millions, at a competitive price.
This is a challenge for large automakers, but to meet it, they must make big changes in what they sell.
JOSEPH WHITE: The question is whether the car companies can shift from selling horsepower and start selling high fuel economy. We're starting to see that.
CHEVROLET VOLT COMMERCIAL: Ladies and gentlemen, the 2007 Chevrolet Volt concept.
NARRATOR: Meet the Chevy Volt, a hot new contender in the green car sweepstakes, a car that's designed for a world without oil.
ROBERT A. LUTZ (Global Product Development, General Motors): So if your daily driving, whether to work or running errands or recreational use, is 40 miles a day or less, and you charge the vehicle every night when you get home, you will never need to buy gasoline during the entire life of the vehicle.
NARRATOR: Under the hood of the Chevy Volt is an electric motor that can be powered in several different ways. Lithium ion batteries charged from the grid give it a driving range of 40 miles. Batteries can also be charged by a generator that burns ethanol or gasoline, extending the range another 600 miles. The motor can also be powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
The Volt is a prototype built to promote the idea that affordable, practical cars can be powered from diverse energy sources. But it's not for sale yet. The problem is batteries are not included.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: So tell us, when's this going to happen? Or is it going to happen?
JOSEPH WHITE: Both are good questions. I think General Motors would seriously like for a car like this to happen. The question is...
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Well, of course.
JOSEPH WHITE: The question is they don't have the battery technology yet to make it work. And, because they don't have the battery technology, this is, essentially, an imaginary car. It's a very nice imaginary car, but it's an imaginary car.
NARRATOR: How long the Volt will remain an imaginary car is unclear. GM says batteries must get cheaper, safer and more reliable before the Volt becomes a reality.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: If you can tell us without killing us, when can we expect this car?
ANTHONY POSAWATZ (Vehicle Line Director, General Motors): We will be ready when that battery is ready, there's no question in my mind.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: So, five to seven years?
ANTHONY POSAWATZ: But, most importantly, when General Motors brings a product out like the Chevrolet Volt, it has to be a product that the battery will last 10 years, that'll be safe for the customers, and will meet all their needs. They don't want any compromises.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Alright, Tony, tell us. When is it coming out?
JOSEPH ROMM: I think General Motors should be taken seriously. I think that if they build it, people will buy it, plus, the competition—Toyota, Honda—will introduce plug-in hybrids, I have no doubt. So I think that there is much more reason to be optimistic now than in a very long time.
NARRATOR: G.M. hopes to start producing the Volt by the end of the decade, but today it stands alone in a sea of beefy trucks and high-powered road machines. Will cars like the Volt ever replace them? Tom and Ray aren't so sure.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: It's right next to the Ford Mustang with 550 horsepower.
BETH LOWERY: Yes. And the Camaro convertible. Isn't that great?
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Yeah.
BETH LOWERY: America is all about choice. If you want a Camaro, buy a Camaro.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: But if we're about hugging trees...
TOM MAGLIOZZI: With 500 horsepower? Who the hell needs 500 horsepower?
BETH LOWERY: Obviously not you.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Why do you make such sh-t? I mean it's ridiculous!
BETH LOWERY: You mean these popular vehicles that are on the floor?
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Yeah, these popular vehicles. Five hundred horsepower...jeez!
BETH LOWERY: It creates a little excitement, doesn't it?
RAY MAGLIOZZI: You're good, Beth.
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Thanks a million.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Thanks for your time.
BETH LOWERY: Thanks.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Sorry for giving you a hard time.
BETH LOWERY: That's okay. I'm used to it.
NARRATOR: After a century of making cars fueled by gasoline, how quickly can carmakers change their course?
ANDY FRANK: We've got to get alternative vehicles into our society as quickly as possible. Because when shortages start to occur, we will have economic disruption like you cannot believe.
JOSEPH ROMM: We can't wait. We have to reduce our emissions starting in the next few years. If we don't we're going to find it virtually impossible to avoid catastrophic warming.
NARRATOR: But is there too much at stake to be left in the hands of carmakers and consumers?
DAVID GREENE: We're not able to rely on individual decisions in the marketplace to solve the problem of climate change, to solve the problem of oil-dependence. It takes collective action. It takes government action.
JOSEPH WHITE: It's asking a lot of the auto industry to force the change all on its own. It's not really their job.
BETH LOWERY: If we decide we really want to reduce dependence on petroleum as a society, then we have to have the collective will to do so. And that includes making sure we have the right government policies in place, that we have the right vehicles in place, the right fuels, and the customers understand that that's really a priority.
NARRATOR: But will customers buy these new kinds of cars if carmakers build them? How willing are we to embrace change in something so fundamental to our lives?
AMORY LOVINS: Ultimately, as citizens and as consumers, we're responsible for the world we create. If we don't like the way it's turning out, let's change it.
JOHN HEYWOOD: Individual choices and actions matter. They really do. And it all adds up.
NARRATOR: If we do embrace change, future generations may look back fondly on today's cars as dinosaurs from a bygone era, relics from the age of oil.
DAVID GREENE: This is an achievable goal. It'll take time. We can't do it tomorrow. We can't do it even in five years. But every year that we work on it, the situation will get better.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: So let me know, are you ready to move on and get something new? I mean, are you...
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Well, I've seen a lot of very interesting technology, and I know what I want.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Really, what's that?
TOM MAGLIOZZI: I want you to turn that into a plug-in hybrid.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Really?
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Yeah.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Oh, let me see, we'll throw in some fuel cells, maybe. We'll throw some carbon fiber panels on it. Let's get out of here, will you? Ethanol tank, fuel cells, so what else do you want?
TOM MAGLIOZZI: That'll do.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: When do you want it?
TOM MAGLIOZZI: How about tomorrow?
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Sure. Five o'clock?
TOM MAGLIOZZI: Five o'clock is fine.
RAY MAGLIOZZI: Works for me.
NARRATOR: On NOVA's Car of the Future Web site, examine extensive interviews with the experts, see a wide range of alternative vehicles and share your own ideas. Find it at PBS.org.
Major funding for NOVA is provided by David H. Koch. And...
Discover new knowledge: HHMI.
And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
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NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.