Less Bad is not the same as Good – the Sustainable Cars of the Future

“The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation” – Albert Einstein

Green – The New Religion

There’s no escaping the continuing environmental and consumer messages about reducing energy use, producing less waste, recycling more, driving less. Green has become our shared mantra and underpins the new 21st century morality in the West. Thou shalt not fly. Thou shalt separate metal tins from glass bottles. And as many companies are beginning to get on board, we should be happy. Green products nowadays line the supermarket shelves touting ‘less packaging’, ‘natural’ and ‘good for the planet’. Even our toilet paper has become ‘green’ – declaring that the paper is FSC certified, or that ‘three new trees were planted for every one cut down’ to make your toilet tissue.

My background is in transport, so when I look at car manufacturers, it seems every car company is producing a ‘green’ car and touting it’s credentials as an innovator driving down the long road to the future. Every small change is a Big Deal for the car makers. It takes them on average 5 years to introduce a new product. Nissan have finally produced the new electric Leaf (even the name evokes green!) while Chevrolet prepare the new Volt (extended range electric + petrol). We should really celebrate, because the makers of large trucks and SUVs are starting to get on board (only ten years ago the trend was in the opposite direction, until new CO2 regulations and fiscal catastrophe started to bite). But once we’ve had our cake and the musicians have left, wouldn’t it be good to question, are smaller, greener, more fuel-efficient cars really innovative, and are hybrids really the sustainable trajectory we want to support, or is there an alternative path we can be taking?

Less Bad is not the same as Good

Cradle to Cradle [C2C] authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart boldly announced at the beginning of the 21st century that being ‘less bad was not the same as being good’. With their intelligent design perspective in mind, they argue that being more efficient and using less is a management problem, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with redesigning something to be GOOD. Are we being led to accept more and more of Less Bad while we should be shouting for Good? When we look at the state of the world right now, do we really think that slow steps forward, using 10% less fuel, or emitting 10% less hazardous fumes, is really the way forward? The problem we face is that most products are being tweaked and modified to ensure they meet green CSR requirements and provide at least the illusion of progress while continuing to harm the planet and our lives.

Instead, the C2C authors argue for effectiveness. Not efficiency. They want to start a revolution designing products that are effectively positive for the planet and our health, instead of less dangerous, less toxic, less hormone disrupting. Fortunately, the C2C movement is slowly taking root and some companies are proving that products and services can in fact be completely redesigned with Good in mind.

Facing Complexity

The sign of an evolving, more effective company would, I think, be one that can hold a greater deal of complexity within it’s view and do it’s best to explore and answer several design questions simultaneously. Historically, most companies, when they tackle a problem, consider only one facet, or maybe two, of the actual spectrum of complexity inherently involved, thus leaving a big gap between what’s possible and what’s actually produced. Perhaps their new plan is simply to drive down the cost of a product, or to use less packaging. Change is a big deal for a company, and involves a lot of departments, money and time.

When we start talking about designing a new product to be good rather than less bad, we introduce a whole spectrum of challenging and complex issues that have to be considered head on – toxicity, de-materialization, technology constraints, social impacts, air quality, governance, peak oil, human rights, transparency, longevity of product, resource depletion, service models, and finally carbon emissions, to name a few. An evolutionary company, I believe, would show an interest in facing into a whole range of these complex issues simultaneously as they design a new product or service.

What does a revolutionary car design look like?

At a talk in 2009, Patrick Andrews from Riversimple suggested that the cars of the future would be vastly different than what we have built to date. In their new urban concept car, ultra capacitors allow for very fast acceleration, while a new hydrogen fuel cell allows for a range of 200miles+. Replacing the old heavy internal combustion engine, cars will be much lighter, and with a carbon composite body and environmentally friendly resins and epoxies the car can be recycled again and again.

Most importantly, then, the car of the future requires a new design. Most EV’s and hybrids being introduced today are using an old design that was built around the internal combustion engine. They have simply slotted in a different energy source. In a similar manner, most car companies have old style management systems and processes that weren’t created to respond quickly to the challenges we face today. The existing auto industry is financially weak and is not really prepared for the redesign of it’s cars, it’s processes or it’s business model.

When you design freshly from the ground up around a new energy source, you get a very different car, and a very different company. UK’s Riversimple has designed a car around a hydrogen fuel cell, and has discovered huge gains in what it can achieve. According to the UK Technology Roadmap, the major car companies, government and suppliers have all agreed that hydrogen fuel cars won’t come online until 2020 at the earliest. Riversimple, thinking outside the box, believes it can get their cars on the road by 2013 in a new and novel way.

What are the design features that Riversimple are embracing?

Lightweight: A Smart Car weighs around 750kg; the new Riversimple car will weigh 350kg. It will be made of a lightweight composite material. A lighter car will also be more fuel efficient (as it doesn’t need to spend so much energy lugging it’s fat heavy weight around), cause less harm to pedestrians, create less wear on roads, and emit less heavy metals and air pollutants.
Electric transmission: An internal combustion engine (ICE) is at the most 25% efficient. An efficient electric car can get 55% efficiency. Then there’s the Big Question: Battery or hydrogen? It’s not an either/or question. For short journeys – battery EVs are better suited. For long journeys, hydrogen is the answer but both have their own infrastructure challenges.
Ultracapacitors: When the vehicle accelerates, the fuel cell only needs to provide 20% of the power; the remaining power comes from the ultracapacitors. This reduces the fuel cell power required, its complexity and its cost, simultaneously, reducing fuel consumption fourfold.
Regenerative braking system: A Toyota Prius regenerates 10% energy through it’s braking system; the new Riversimple car will regenerate 50%. The regenerated energy recharges the ultracapacitors.
Built to last: Cars generally last 5 years before they start breaking down. The new Riversimple car will be made to last over 10 years.
Designed for recycling: At the moment, many car parts are made to be down-cycled. Using environmentally friendly resins and epoxies the car body can be recycled again and again.
Open-source: In the current paradigm, car companies keep new design ideas secret and patent new ideas in order to dominate the market. Riversimple will collaborate with a worldwide web of designers, engineers and manufacturers using a ‘creative commons’ style licensing agreement and peer to peer review.
Sale-of-service model: Riversimple will sell mobility, with a fixed monthly and per mile charge. There is no penalty for upgrading. Likewise, parts from suppliers will be sold as a service. Overall this model maximises the use of materials and encourages the longevity of interests between supplier, consumer and Riversimple.
Seeding rather than distributing: Riversimple will build local cars that can be ‘seeded’ in medium sized cities around one hydrogen refueling facility.
Decentralised manufacturing facilities: Riversimple want to transform the economies of scale of vehicle manufacturing using decentralised and smaller manufacturing facilities, which will allow for true customisation to suit the needs of different regions and cultures.

Invest in the Car of the Future

For a few years now, as a transport consultant and managing director of WRFP, I have been promoting Riversimple with a passion, much like John the Baptist, because I believe they are the start of something quite new and revolutionary, and because we have no time to waste. Backed by the Porsche family, they have designed a new hydrogen fuel cell car from the ground up, which, with investment now, they hope to start piloting in 2012-13. Let’s wish them godspeed!

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