Reinventing the Wheels

New ways to design, manufacture, and sell cars can make them ten times more fuel-efficient, and at the same time safer, sportier, more beautiful and comfortable, far more durable, and probably cheaper. Here comes the biggest change in industrial structure since the microchip

On September 29, 1993, the unthinkable happened. After decades of adversarial posturing, and months of intensive negotiations with Vice President Al Gore, the heads of the Big Three auto makers accepted President Bill Clinton's challenge to collaborate. They committed their best efforts, with the help of government technologies and funding, to developing a tripled-efficiency "clean car" within a decade, and a year later they reported encouraging progress. Like President John F. Kennedy's goal of putting people on the moon, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) aims to create a leapfrog mentality—this time in Detroit. However, the PNGV's goal is both easier to attain and more important than that of the Apollo program. It could even become the core of a green industrial renaissance—instigating a profound change not only in what and how much we drive but in how our whole economy works.

The fuel efficiency of cars has been stagnant for the past decade. Yet the seemingly ambitious goal of tripling it in the next decade can be far surpassed. Well before 2003 competition, not government mandates, may bring to market cars efficient enough to carry a family coast to coast on one tank of fuel, more safely and comfortably than they can travel now, and more cleanly than they would with a battery-electric car plus the power plants needed to recharge it.

To understand what a profound shift in thinking this represents, imagine that one seventh of America's gross national product is derived from the Big Three typewriter makers (and their suppliers, distributors, dealers, and other attendant businesses). Over decades they've progressed from manual to electric to type-ball designs. Now they're developing tiny refinements for the forthcoming Selectric XVII. They profitably sell around 10 million excellent typewriters a year. But a problem emerges: the competition is developing wireless subnotebook computers.

That's the Big Three auto makers today. With more skill than vision, they've been painstakingly pursuing incremental refinements on the way to an America where foreign cars fueled with foreign oil cross crumbling bridges. Modern cars are an extraordinarily sophisticated engineering achievement—the highest expression of the Iron Age. But they are obsolete, and the time for incrementalism is over. Striking innovations have occurred in advanced materials, software, motors, power electronics, microelectronics, electricity-storage devices, small engines, fuel cells, and computer-aided design and manufacturing. Artfully integrated, they can yield safe, affordable, and otherwise superior family cars getting hundreds of miles per gallon- roughly ten times the 30 mpg of new cars today and several times the 80-odd mpg sought by the PNGV.

Achieving this will require a completely new car design— the ultralight hybrid, or "hypercar" (a term we now prefer to our earlier term "supercar," because that also refers to ultrapowerful cars that get a couple of hundred miles per hour rather than per gallon). The hypercar's key technologies already exist. Many firms around the world are starting to build prototypes. The United States is best positioned to bring the concept to market—and had better do so, before others do. Hypercars, not imported luxury sedans, are the biggest threat to Detroit. But they are also its hope of salvation.

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