Ideas 2012 July/August 2012

Make Cars Super Light

If you think modern cars burn too much gas, well, you’re right—but don’t blame automotive engineers. For years, they’ve made cars more efficient in ways obvious and subtle: tweaking transmissions, futzing with camshafts, and refining engine architectures. In a recent paper, the MIT economist Christopher Knittel reported that from 1980 to 2006, the fuel economy of the U.S. fleet should have gone up by 60 percent.

Instead, fuel economy increased by only 15 percent. The reason is simple: cars got more efficient, but they also got bigger. Much of the technological progress of the past three decades has been squandered. Electric cars aren’t necessarily the answer, either. The Nissan Leaf, laden with a 660-pound battery, weighs 3,385 pounds. (The Toyota Prius weighs 3,042 pounds.)

Lighter cars are a no-brainer solution—and new materials suddenly make it possible to shave weight without sacrificing safety. (One reason consumers like big cars is that they perceive them, often erroneously, to be safer.) Most cars are made of steel and aluminum, but several companies have released concept cars built with a carbon fiber–reinforced polymer, which is extremely light and stiff.

Taking a different tack is a company called Edison2. Its Very Light Car seats four adults and weighs just over 800 pounds, thanks to a composite body, while its chassis is made of less expensive, easy-to-recycle chromoly steel. The car is optimized for lightness—the aluminum shifter knob, for example, is two-tenths of an ounce, barely heavier than a cough drop. An electric version of the car has garnered an official EPA rating of 245 mpg equivalent.

Next idea: The End of the Checkbook

Presented by

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In