The environmental and health impacts will be enormous. Some think the solution is at hand with electric cars or other low or zero emission vehicles. The truth is that if you look at the emissions of a car over its total life, you quickly discover that tailpipe emissions are just the tip of the iceberg. An 85 kWh electric SUV may not have a tailpipe, but it has an enormous impact on our environment and health.
A far greater percentage of a car’s total emissions come from the materials and energy required for manufacturing a car—the mining, processing, manufacturing, and disposal of the car itself, not the car’s operation. As leading environmental economist and Vice Chair of the National Academy of Sciences Maureen Cropper notes, “Whether we are talking about a conventional gasoline-powered automobile, an electric vehicle, or a hybrid, most of the damages are actually coming from stages other than just the driving of the vehicle.” If business continues as usual, we stand to increase the total global pollution generated by automobiles by three times or more, as we go from 2 billion to 6 billion vehicles manufactured. The conclusion from this is straightforward: how we make our cars is actually a bigger environmental issue than how we fuel our cars. We need to dematerialize—to dramatically reduce the material and energy required to build cars—and we need to do it now.
These facts are demonstrated in a 2009 report by the National Academy of Science (NAS), Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use. That report considers the total human and environmental damage stemming from the various stages of automotive use: the manufacture of the vehicle, the manufacture of the vehicle’s fuel, and the operation of the vehicle. The NAS report uses two industry-standard models to calculate emissions and health and environmental system damages: Argonne National Lab GREET model and Prof. Nicholas Muller’s APEEP (now called AP2). Using the same methodology used in the NAS report, Divergent has analyzed standard gasoline, gasoline hybrid, and modern electric vehicles. This chart makes clear that tailpipe emissions (in blue) are only a small part of the total emissions picture.
Thus, the prevailing marketing and policy focus on drivetrains (e.g. gasoline vs. electric) has dangerously obscured the debate and drawn our attention from the larger problem: the emissions and other environmental damage stemming from the manufacturing of cars.
We therefore need to focus our innovation not simply on automobile products, but at least as much on the process by which those products are made. Such process innovation needs to accomplish two equally important goals:
Dematerialization is the only effective path by which we reduce the environmental damages stemming from automobiles. Dematerialization will lead to far fewer emissions from both manufacturing and operation, much lower material and energy inputs in manufacture, dramatically better gas mileage, lower wear on roads, and fewer fatalities from car accidents.
The key enabling technology we’ve developed is what we call a Node. A Node is a 3D-printed alloy connector that joins aerospace-grade carbon fiber tubing into standardized building objects. This simple tool can enable a small team to design and build car chassis that range from two-seat sports cars to pick-up trucks. Just like with ARDUINO, the Node hides its underlying complexity behind a simple, easy-to-use interface.
The Node-based chassis solves the bigger problems we set out to address. It drives dematerialization and democratization. A traditional chassis can weigh over 1,000 pounds, whereas we have built a prototype that weighs about 100 (61 pounds of aluminum and 41 pounds of carbon fiber), even as it’s much stronger and more durable. All of the nodes and carbon fiber tubing that make up a car chassis were fit into the backpack in the photo below. The chassis requires dramatically less material and energy to produce.
A dematerialized car is a greener, lighter, and safer car that can be made locally. It will have less wear on our roads and fewer fatalities in accidents. A super-lightweight car built with Divergent’s new technology generates only a third of the total health and environmental damage of an 85 kWh all electric car. Our objective is drive that down to a quarter or less. And it can be made locally and built to last.
Here is the first living example of what we can achieve: the world’s first 3D printed supercar. It has one-third the emissions of an electric car, one-fiftieth the factory capital cost, and twice the power-to-weight of a Bugatti Veyron.
1 Emmott, Stephen, Ten Billion, p. 95, New York, New York: Random House, Second Edition, 2014
2 “Unclean at Any Speed,” Ozzie Zehner, IEEE Spectrum. June 30, 2013. http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/renewables/unclean-at-any-speed
3 Argonne GREET model: https://greet.es.anl.gov
4 AP2 (APEEP) model: https://sites.google.com/site/nickmullershomepage/home/ap2-apeep-model-2