The Road To Building Greener Cars The big automakers are retooling their factories to produce greener cars but many of these vehicles won't hit the road for years. Ira Flatow talks with guests about outside-the-box ideas for improving fuel efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions quickly.
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The Road To Building Greener Cars

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The Road To Building Greener Cars

The Road To Building Greener Cars

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to Science Friday on NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. The auto industry has been lobbying successfully for decades against racing fuel economy standards, those miles per gallon, but all that is about to change. Earlier this week, President Obama instructed the Department of Transportation to move forward with developing new standards in hopes that the rules would be able to be in place for the 2011 model year. You see, unlike some of the Japanese carmakers who can retool on the dime, Detroit needs weeks and months to do the same thing, but we're not going to go there now. Some people though are working hard at building new cars that can usually meet and surpass these standards. Even a group of high school kids can do it. So what is the next generation of automotive engineers up to? What advice would they give Detroit? We're going to look at three different approaches and first up, we're going to talk to those high school students. You may have heard about the automotive X PRIZE with $10 million price for the person or group able to design and build and sell super efficient cars that people want to buy. Well, one of the teams involved is not your usual group of automotive engineers. It's a team of high school students in West Philadelphia. Joining me now to talk about the team and their vehicle is Simon Hauger. He's a former teacher at West Philadelphia High School and is the adviser to the West Philly Hybrid X team. Welcome to Science Friday.

Mr. SIMON HAUGER (Adviser, West Philly Hybrid X Team; Former Teacher, West Philadelphia High School): How are you doingb Ira? Thanks a lot for having me on.

FLATOW: Tell us about your car work.

Mr. HAUGER: Well, we've been designing and building hybrid and electric vehicles for the past 10 years. I started it as an after-school program just to try to get more interest around math and science as a math and science teacher. And it's evolved to a point where we're in a position to compete with some of the best companies in the world, designing this hundred-mile-per-gallon vehicle.

FLATOW: And you are able to compete with them?

Mr. HAUGER: Absolutely. The technology is off the shelf. I mean, one of the fascinating things about the automotive X PRIZE is that before it was announced there were many, many startup companies that began to produce these types of vehicles. And in my opinion, the country has reached the tipping point. you know, this technology is available. If the Inner City High School can do it, that says something.

FLATOW: Tell us about that Inner City High School car. What can it do? How does it work?

Mr. HAUGER: Sure. So the first car that we develop got 180 miles per gallon equivalent. It was a Saturn, and we won a national competition beating out top universities. That was back in 2002. That was - that kind of put this on the map. And then we developed a super fast hybrid vehicle that gets over 60 miles to the gallon. So, imagine a Porsche or a Ferrari, the car is very attractive. And we did to kind of break the stereotypes or one that a hybrid car can look like and behave like, and that's been on the Discovery channel and in the national news. And that kind of built our confidence and along the way we built the knowledge of how to create an affordable, safe vehicle that can get over a hundred miles per gallon. So we're what we're doing specifically is, we're building a parallel plug-in hybrid on a Ford Focus chassis. And we use the Ford Focus, it's a light-weight vehicle, it meets safety standards and it's very cost-effective.

FLATOW: What are the parts that make it work so well?

Mr. HAUGER: Sure. We're using as our dynamics an electric drive system. It's a very robust, very well-tested electric drive system. We're using lithium iron phosphate batteries. We have a battery pack that weighs 200 pounds and will take the car on electric power about 60 miles on electric only. So, if you're using it just for daily commuting, the gas engine will never kick on. And then we're using a small two-cylinder diesel engine, and we've got a pretty clever configuration where it can act as a generator or drive the vehicle. So it can recharge the batteries if you're driving on a long trip, and the battery's packaged to a low level at this point. Or if you need extra power you getting on an on-ramp and, you know, you want to be pushed back in the seat it will kick on as well.

FLATOW: So you're doing this with all off-the-shelf parts?

Mr. HAUGER: Yes, sir. Yeah.

FLATOW: And why are we waiting two years for a volt, then?

Mr. HAUGER: (Laughing) Difficult question. I mean, imagine this. In 2004, we develop the car that goes zero to 60 under five seconds and gets over 60 miles to the gallon. That's one of the most attractive cars out there. And we did on a shoestring budget out of West Philadelphia. You know, the technology has been here and I think, you know, just take my word for it, if you look at the companies, the legitimate companies, that are entering vehicles in automotive X PRIZE, these guys are going to build these vehicles if there's an X PRIZE or if Detroit goes under or if it doesn't go under. It's just the time is here, the technology is available. There's no reason that we can't have this.

FLATOW: Why aren't you getting the money we're giving to the car companies then?

Mr. HAUGER: You know, that's - ask President Obama. We were on another show a couple of weeks ago on NPR, and a caller called in and said, you know, the exact same thing. What would you guys do if they gave you a million dollars or a few of these other top companies in the X PRIZE? And, you know, this vehicle that we're building will achieve over a hundred miles per gallon. And it's going to be priced so an average school teacher can afford it, unlike a lot of these concept cars.

FLATOW: So it's built on a conventional car chassis.

Mr. HAUGER: Yes.

FLATOW: So, it's already passed the safety standards.

Mr. HAUGER: Yeah.

FLATOW: And it's a plug-in hybrid.

Mr. HAUGER: Yes.

FLATOW: And it charges overnight.

Mr. HAUGER: Yeah.

FLATOW: Could it - how long does it take to charge?

Mr. HAUGER: It depends. The way were we had it set up right now there's a lot of these questions, it depends, to get the most life out of the battery pack...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. HAUGER: We put it on a five-hour charge. But one of the interesting things about the lithium iron phosphate technology is that you can charge it very rapidly up to 80-percent capacity, and so some of the competitors and the X PRIZE will be doing that. But, you know, this is a big - this is a huge step forward in terms of battery technology. The lithium batteries that we're use on our cell phones and laptops are not as stable as this newer technology and we've tested out - it's actually well-tested by lots of folks and - so that's one of the exciting innovations in the last year or so.

FLATOW: And why aren't you going into the car business?

Mr. HAUGER: I love teaching.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAUGER: And...

FLATOW: Why aren't you making a kit that we can all make?

Mr. HAUGER: Yes. Well, that's an interesting idea. And one of the really fascinating parts of the X PRIZE is that it requires a business plan to show that 10,000 units a year are viable, that you could turn a profit. And so this is not just an uber-engineering or an academic exercise. And that's a big change for this particular competition. The competitions we were in the past, the cool sports car that I've describing that we built, it would cost over a hundred thousand dollars to make. The car we built back in 2002, they got over 180 miles a gallon, not too many people would've really wanted to drive around in that on a daily commute. But the crux of the X PRIZE is that - is to design a vehicle that people want and can afford. And so to that end, we need a business and Drexel University has partnered with us, the MBA School. We had a few major points and then they develop a business plan around it.

FLATOW: And you said this is a car even school teachers could afford.

Mr. HAUGER: Yes.

FLATOW: How much would it cost?

Mr. HAUGER: We're trying to come in around $20,000. We'll probably end up slightly over that, but definitely no more than $25,000.

FLATOW: That used to be the base price of the Prius when it first came out, somewhere around there.

Mr. HAUGER: Yes, yes. That's correct.

FLATOW: Wow.

M. HAGUER: And hopefully, with the government incentives, not only for this particular vehicle but the other hybrids that are coming off out of these small starter companies, you know, take a little bit of that sting away... I'm sorry.

FLATOW: I'm saying we're coming out there to take a look from the sand of Florida with our cameras and throw little video on this so...

Mr. HAUGER: Absolutely. And we'll take you for a ride in a sports car. That's a lot of fun.

FLATOW: Well, we'll wait for this to happen. Maybe you can get some of that stimulus money and make a car and we don't have to wait for another three years.

Mr. HAUGER: Yes, that would be - we would love it. You know, we have the business plan. Drexel did a fabulous job on the business plan and so it's legitimate.

FLATOW: Wow.

Mr. HAUGER: I mean - and to that end our point is to show that if high school students can do it and give them a voice in this that the time has come, we're not saying that - and there's more than one way to produce cars to get super-fuel economy. And we're demonstrating one of those ways.

FLATOW: Well, Simon, thank you and good luck to you.

Mr. HAUGER: Thank you very much. I appreciate it, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Simon Hauger is a former teacher at West Philadelphia High School and an adviser to the West Philadelphia - West Philly Hybrid X Team.

We're going to move on next to our next auto engineer in Mississippi. Last year, a team from the Mississippi State University came in first in the challenge X competition. That's to develop efficient cars co-sponsored by General Motors and the Department of Energy. And joining me now is Matthew Doude, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Mississippi State. He was a member of last year's winning team and the leader of the team entered in the follow-up competition called Eco Car. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MATTHEW DOUDE (Graduate, Mechanical Engineering, Mississippi State; Member and Leader, Winning Team, Eco Car Competition): Hey, thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: What is eco car?

Mr. DOUDE: Eco car is actually very similar to challenge X that is, university student-led design competition. There are 17 teams, universities of all in the competition from North America, from the U.S. and also from Canada. And the design is - or the goal is to really redesign a stock vehicle as a hybrid to remove the fuel economy and the emissions without sacrificing things like consumer accessibility and drivability of the vehicle.

FLATOW: And have you got a car yet?

Mr. DOUDE: We have not. This competition is designed to mirror, sort of, and OEM design competition. So to that end, the first - the entire first year, this competition is modeling and simulation, so we do everything on the computer and with our virtual - in our lab before we, you know, actually put it on the vehicle.

FLATOW: So you're taking more of a conventional route that Detroit might take.

Mr. DOUDE: Right, exactly and that's - and the reason for that is we can't afford on and buy all these different components that we have available to try all the different ones. So this gives us the ability to, you know, to test it all before we actually go and buy all the parts for the car.

FLATOW: Yeah. Do you really think it should take three or four years for car companies to wait until 2011 to come out with a higher efficiency automobile?

Mr. DOUDE: Well, it's really hard to say. We have some luxuries here with our teams that we don't have to design the entire vehicle from the ground up. We don't have to worry about edesigning of the safety systems. Those things are already integrated in the car. So we really - our design competition is a three-year competition. But for our end, it's mostly just redesigning the power strength of the vehicle.

FLATOW: So are you working with General Motors on this at all?

Mr. DOUDE: Ah, yes. GM and Department of Energy are the two headline sponsors.

FLATOW: And they do their Volt as being a game changer, don't they?

Mr. DOUDE: Yes, I believe so.

FLATOW: What if they're not around in two years.

Mr. DOUDE: Well, I can't really answer that question. I'm not an industry expert in that sense.

FLATOW: Will someone else take over the - would you take over the Volt?

Mr. DOUDE: Would I take over the Volt?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. DOUDE: Personally?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. DOUDE: I would. I would gladly do it. It's an auto engineer's dream.

FLATOW: Why is that?

Mr. DOUDE: I think that this vehicle - and I can go and tell you that our architecture is - was called an extended range electric vehicle, which is very similar to the Chevy Volt, and we're really excited about it because I think this is the architecture that can really at least be a stepping stone and can provide probably the biggest short-term, you know, impact towards improving our national dependence on oil.

FLATOW: And how soon do you think you'll have your car ready?

Mr. DOUDE: Our vehicle will be - we'll get it this upcoming summer and we have one year to do the implementation of our power train, and we have some internal design objectives. We'd like to get it done sooner than that so we can do a little bit of testing and refinement. But sometime during late 2009, early 2010 is when we hope to have our vehicle running. ..TEXT: FLATOW: Do you have to develop a new battery? Or can you use one that's already around?

Mr. DOUDE: We also - we have a battery sponsor. We have A123, which is one of the industry leaders in that field and A123 is actually donating us the lithium ion battery pack, a very energy-dense, very powerful battery pack.

FLATOW: And when will you get out to test it out?

Mr. DOUDE: As soon as possible. We're all looking forward to - you know, we got a bunch of mechanical engineers on the team and, you know, this computer simulation stuff, it's how the industry works. But we all are more comfortable with the wrench in our hands. So we're looking forward to getting a car and, you know, to put some of these components in there and do some testing on it.

FLATOW: We're talking about new automobiles this hour on Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Matthew Doude. It sounds like you're just frustrated. You want to get out there and do the stuff already, but that, you know, you're waiting and waiting.

Mr. DOUDE: That's right. Burn some rubbers, it's - that's how we recruit people, you know. We tell them, you can build a car. And then they get in and oh, wait.

FLATOW: But isn't that to wrap on Detroit, on the automobile industry that they move too slowly?

Mr. DOUDE: Well, I don't really know about that. A lot of the simulation - a lot of the automotive design is moving in the modeling and the simulation mode, and it really takes time and money away from building so many prototypes and doing so much things in physical, mechanical sense.

FLATOW: Yeah. You just like to go out and build a car.

Mr. DOUDE: Right. That's what we like to do. But this is how the industry works and this is how we're trying to train our engineers.

FLATOW: Uh huh, so that seems to be the way that it's going. Thank you very much. Good luck to you, Matthew.

Mr. DOUDE: Yes, sir. Thank you.

FLATOW: Matthew Doude, who is a Mississippi team - from Mississippi State University, working on something called the EcoCAR.

Finally, a couple years ago, we spoke with a student from an international consortium called the Vehicle Design Summit, which is based at MIT. But now, has housed schools all over the world, and they're working to develop an environmentally-appropriate car for the developing world. And returning to talk with us now is Anna Jaffe. She's one the co-founders of the Vehicle Design Summit and she'll still there with us from MIT. Welcome back.

Ms. ANNA JAFFE (Co-Founder, Vehicle Design Summit: Student, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts): Thank you very much.

FLATOW: How was it? You were very excited and very moving ahead last time we talked to you.

Ms. JAFFE: I think I might be - see, I'm still quite ahead and still moving ahead.

FLATOW: Tells us where - what you're up to.

Ms. JAFFE: So, let's see. The last time we spoke was the middle of the summer of 2007. And we had just picked India as our initial target launch location and a little bit like the last speaker on the program, we're pretty excite to get building things. And so we just got back from Torino in Italy with our first vehicle prototype. It's a six-passenger series hybrid. So we have an electric motor, we have similarly an onboard generator APU, and we're in Italy for about three months with about 40 students. So internationally, we have about 20 teams all working on this vehicle, and we had about two representatives from each of these groups. We're super lucky. We worked with some design firms in Torino, a company called Wandra(ph) that does testing. So after you have one, you figure out how to make 40 and do crash tests, and also a groups called FS that makes super shiny, sleek first prototypes. So that's pretty excellent.

FLATOW: So do you have something ready for mass assembly?

Ms. JAFFE: (Laughing) So the first prototype we were working on was primarily there to do testing of the chassis of the power train, and also of our international consortium and see what happens, you know, if you have 200 people and they're all distributed and you brought them together for the first time to see how all the pieces are fitting. The goal by the end of the next summer is to have something that is designed and built as if we had just pulled it off an assembly line. But obviously, without...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. JAFFE: The billions and billions of dollars that you actually having to go ahead and build that assembly line.

FLATOW: And how many miles per gallon will this one get?

Ms. JAFFE: The goal is to hit 200 miles per gallon, but we also think that while miles per gallon is an interesting and useful indicator of how efficient a vehicle platform is, we're also very, very interested in the overall life-cycle cost of the car. So if you imagined a mountain of all the stuff..

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. JAFFE: That is sort of dislodged or disrupted when you're making the body or the chassis or the fuel, we're interested in seeing that mountain size decreased by 95 percent from that first mining when you're digging out the iron ore to the point where the vehicle is recycled. And so that miles per gallon number is just a little piece of the overall goal and objective of our project.

FLATOW: All right. Stay with us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk a little bit more about your car with Anna Jaffe. Also, take your calls. 1-800-989-8255, talking about why people with no Detroit experience can build cars faster than Detroit can. So stay with us. We'll be right back after the short break.

We're talking this hour about greener cars. My guest is Anna Jaffe. She's one of the co-founders of the Vehicle Design Summit based in MIT. Anna, are there any hints you can give Detroit?

Ms. JAFFE: (Laughing) Well, you know, I think there's sort of a near-term and long-term planning and, well, one of the things we found working on this project is that the vehicle is obviously really, really, really important. But also how the vehicle is used, how it service is perhaps even more important. I think Oakridge projected that the average person spends, you know, $7.5 thousand a year on their average car. And that's a huge, huge, huge amount of money. And so one of the areas we've been - we've split our work sort of evenly between both the vehicle platform and also new business models. So if I were to sit down with GM or Ford or Chrysler, I don't think I'd be giving them a technology lecture. I think they have fairly extraordinary knowledge and capacity when it comes to that. But thinking really differently about how they sell cars, how they maybe lease elements in the vehicles and how maybe they become not necessarily car sharing companies, but certainly, service providers of mobility as opposed to just platform sellers.

FLATOW: What do you mean by that last comment?

Ms. JAFFE: So we - if you think about how a vehicle is used, you know, one challenge for Detroit is as they spend money to make vehicles more and more efficient, they don't necessarily gain from that financially. It might be good for the world, which you know, you certainly would hope that something was of value to them. But if a vehicle were to save $2,000 or $3,000 or $4,000 in a year because it gets 200 miles per gallon, it would be great if GM or Ford were to get, you know, maybe a thousand dollars of that savings, which would help them then to invest in ever better platforms. One way to do this is to - there's a company in Boston called Zipcar, for example, that has a car share service, and in our context in India, the group who are most likely to buy vehicles like ours are usually employed fairly centrally in industrial zones. And so one model we've been looking at is having major industries buy large fleets. In this case, they could provide buy them directly from OEM, and couple, then, that OEM with an energy provider.

FLATOW: So you wouldn't be - have to worry about owning the car any more?

Ms. JAFFE: No. All the service will be done for you. So you know, you'd wake in the morning, your car would be clean. Be exciting, right?

FLATOW: On concept.

Ms. JAFFE: Neatly arranged right on the dash board, waiting for you. You'd get to work. You could go to work with your colleagues. You know, you probably get paid to do that and you know, your car would never be out of fuel. If you're - while you're in your work, the vehicle will be serviced for you. Maybe a secondary driver would use and you get a little bit of money back. The OEM would get a little bit of money back for whatever work that car did during the day and ideally, everyone ends up happy.

FLATOW: Well, that's how we like to end up, isn't it?

Ms. JAFFE: Yeah, exactly.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much for taking time to talk with us, Ann.

Ms. JAFFE: Sure. Thank you.

FLATOW: Anna Jaffe is one of the co-founders of the Vehicle Design Summit based at MIT and working along, making new cars and I guess finding a new way to use them.

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