Can some out-of-work car-racing engineers save the planet?

News and commentary about environmental issues.
June 29 2010 12:33 PM

On a Different Track

Can some out-of-work car-racing engineers save the planet?

NASCAR racing.
Racing used to drive automotive innovation. What happened?

In 1901, a no-name hick from a farm in Dearborn, Mich., built a race car. He was no speed junkie; he dreamed of making "good cars," not fast cars. But the public in those days judged a car by its top speed, so the young farmer had to play along.   He decided to challenge the most famous racer of his era, an Ohioan named Alexander Winton, to a 10-mile contest on a track in Grosse Pointe, Mich. * In front of a crowd of 6,000, the man from Dearborn wiped the track with him, and earned his first large investment from a Detroit coal baron. In 1903, Henry Ford beat Winton again, with a different car. A week later, he formed the Ford Motor Company.

Beginning with Ford's unlikely triumph at Grosse Pointe, racing drove automotive innovation. The track wasn't just a marketing tool; it was a proving ground, a place where engineers learned new tricks that filtered down to the American consumer. Well into the 1960s, when Ford challenged Ferrari in the European endurance race known as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, automakers lavished money on their racing teams, believing they'd earn it back in expertise and sales.The link between motor racing and the cars in our driveways turned into a mantra for the industry: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.

Through the 1980s and '90s, that connection eroded. The IndyCar and NASCAR circuits were flooded with sponsorship cash from tobacco and beer companies, which didn't care about automotive innovation. They just wanted the races to be entertaining. The circuits responded by requiring all of the cars to conform to increasingly rigid "specs" so that anyone could win and the races would be dramatic. (Today the engine of every IndyCar comes from the same company, and every NASCAR chassis must conform to a set of templates. The "headlights" are actually stickers.) It used to be that the goals of racing and consumer R&D were one and the same—to make better road cars.Now the automakers' consumer divisions are searching for the holy grail of fuel efficiency while the brilliant engineers in their racing divisions make tweaks to the latest gas-guzzling V8s. It's a tragic waste of human capital, as if Silicon Valley's elite programmers had spent the last two decades optimizing video-game code instead of creating search engines.

But thanks to the Great Recession, racing is about to matter again. To understand how, it helps to visit an unlikely place: Lynchburg, Va., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Across the James River, past the old abandoned factories, you park at what looks like an industrial warehouse. Walk through a set of green steel doors and you're inside a sort of Willy Wonka factory for gearheads, a multiroom, 22,000-square-foot prototyping shop crammed with welders and computers. This is Edison2, a start-up car company. In the largest and most interior room of the sprawling facility, resting on pine floors, are the delivered promises of the CAD drawings on the walls: four strange, sleek vehicles, their bodies clad in the dark gray of unpainted carbon fiber, their wheel pods sticking out like legs. They look like giant insects, or helicopters without their rotors.

The company has entered these "Very Light Cars" in the Progressive Automotive X Prize, a $10 million international competition to make a car that gets 100 miles to one gallon of gas (or its electric equivalent). Edison2 was founded by a 48-year-old German real estate developer named Oliver Kuttner. Ever since he was a kid, Kuttner dreamed of running his own car company, and when the major automakers slashed their racing budgets to save costs during the recession, laying off thousands of engineers and mechanics, he saw an opportunity. He hired half a dozen of the most talented castaways, including Ron Mathis, a Brit who had engineered winning Le Mans cars for Audi *, and Bobby Mouzayck, a journeyman mechanic on Corvette, Viper, and Audi race cars. Edison2 laid out and implemented a plan for a new kind of consumer car built on the racers' credo of low aerodynamic drag and low weight.

In his autobiography, Henry Ford preached that weight was the chief enemy of strength and efficiency: "Fat men cannot run as fast as thin men but we build most of our vehicles as though dead-weight fat increased speed!" On a recent visit to the Edison2 shop, Kuttner dashed back and forth between the racks of components that his team had designed from scratch to shave precious ounces, grabbing lug nuts and assemblies and asking me, with a toothy grin, how much I thought they weighed. (The lug nut: two-tenths of an ounce. The radically miniaturized front suspension: 6.5 pounds.) The Very Light Car is not an electric car; it is powered by a motorcycle engine running on E85 fuel, an 85-percent-ethanol, 15-percent-gasoline blend. But since each car weighs 750 pounds or less—they're so light, you can push them across the room with your thumb—they hardly need any gas at all. In official X Prize tests last week, Kuttner's cars were measured at up to 101 miles per gallon on a combined urban, city, and highway cycle.

Creating a highly efficient car is a problem of social engineering as much as of physics. Americans buy big, heavy cars thinking they're safer than lighter, more agile cars; we want a car to have an unlimited range when two-thirds of us commute 15 miles or less each way to work (PDF); we prefer to pay for our cars on the back end, in fuel costs, instead of up front at the car lot. One way for an innovative automaker to overcome these perceptions is to short-circuit them with sex appeal and speed, which are, of course, the very qualities that racers know how to engineer. You see this strategy at work in the swooping curves of the all-electric Tesla Roadster, and in the lesser known Tango, an electric car that looks like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon but drives like a demon. Designed by a former Porsche dealer to solve the world's traffic jams, the Tango takes advantage of the fact that electric motors actually have more low-end torque than gas motors; they don't have to "spin up" before generating power. At a preliminary X Prize event in April, the Tango accelerated from zero to 60 in five seconds.

As odd as some of the X Prize entries look, these cars must have standard consumer-friendly features like air conditioners, windshield wipers, and radios. The idea is to close the distance between the world of the competition and the real world so that the technologies in the winning cars can be transplanted into commercial vehicles with a minimum of alteration. This is also the concept behind an upstart racing league called the American Le Mans Series, which requires every one of its race cars to use one of five alternative energy sources available to eco-geek consumers: biobutanol, E10 ethanol, E85 ethanol, biodiesel, and a mix of E10 gas and electricity. There are American Le Mans races in which the entire field is driving on low-rolling-resistance Japanese tires made of recycled orange peels. (Since the tires debuted at ALMS, slightly altered versions have ended up on some Prius, Camry, Civic, and Accord hybrids sold in the United States.) Even Europe's Formula One circuit has allowed teams to experiment with electric braking systems that capture the energy of a decelerating car instead of wasting it as heat. Consumer hybrid and electric cars use similar "regenerative" brakes to boost efficiency, and now that the regen-enabled F1 cars have squealed through corners at 180 miles per hour, better regen systems for road cars are likely to follow.

Until now, much of the thinking about the future of transportation has been done by people who find cars irritating. For them, fuel efficiency means more people walking around and riding bicycles. They're busy drawing the chalk lines of a post-car America: high-speed rail, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, congestion pricing, bicycle lanes, sentient herds of Urban Smart Vehicles. It's a pretty cool vision. But what are we going to do while we wait for the carless city to arrive—to say nothing of the carless suburb? The car people who are now entering this conversation—the true gearheads—aren't utopian city planners. They're pragmatists who know that you can't transcend the car without building a better car first. And history tells us that a better car often starts with a dopey desire to go ridiculously fast. In 1903, right before Henry Ford invented the assembly line, he let his twin racing engines out at full speed. For once, the great rationalist was struck dumb: "The roar of those cylinders alone was enough to half kill a man. … I cannot quite describe the sensation." It was the rumble of progress.

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Corrections, July 6, 2010: This article originally misspelled Grosse Pointe. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) It also originally stated that Ron Mathis had designed champion F1 cars for Audi. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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