Environment & the World

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Lingering questions about Chp. 2

Filed under: Economics, Reading Group, Transportation — kwolfgan @ 5:51 pm

After all that, I have a few lingering questions (some of them rhetorical, some very serious) about Chapter 2:

1. How will price and availability of hypercars compare to old clunkers like my 1989 Isuzu Trooper?
2. If and when we scrap the old clunkers, what happens to the parts if hypercar materials aren’t remotely related to the old components?
3. Where does carbon fiber come from, anyway?
4. If the transition to hypercars and more integrated communities could happen without new taxes, new standards, or a significant increase in oil prices (26), what exactly is standing in the way of transitioning now? And how can we get around it?



  1. I mainly want to address the 4th question here, since I don’t really know the answers to the others. (Although with question 2, I suspect that steel could be recycled into other industries.)

    On the hypercars end, perhaps the problem is with the economics, or with car company’s perception of the economics. According to researchers from Oak Ridge National Lab, “The problem is that carbon-fiber composites cost at least 20 times as much as steel, and the automobile industry is not interested in using them until the price of carbon fiber drops from $8 to $5 (and preferably $3) a pound. Production of carbon fibers is too expensive and slow. The raw material is typically pitch, or polyacrylonitrile (PAN) precursor. It is converted to carbon fibers using thermal pyrolysis, a slow, energy-consuming process that is combined with stressing to achieve the right properties. The precursor, the energy needed to heat it to make fibers, and the large ovens and other capital equipment required in the process contribute to the high cost. As a result, carbon-fiber composites cannot compete economically with steel in the auto industry.” http://www.ornl.gov/info/ornlreview/v33_3_00/carbon.htm But H&L claim that “cost per pound is the wrong basis for comparison … Only about 15 percent of the cost of a typical steel car part is for the steel itself; the rest pays for pounding, welding, and finishing it. But composites and other molded synthetics emerge from a mold already shaped and finished.” If car companies are only seeing one part of the system economics and not the full system-level optimization, the carbon composites appear too expensive. On the other hand, what H&L don’t address is the fact that the car companies have invested a lot in their steel pounding and welding infrastructure, and there may be a high initial cost of switching over to a carbon fiber-based manufacturing process (this is pure speculation on my part). If that is the case, then perhaps some sort of subsidies would be useful for encouraging the initial investment.

    On the question of transitioning to more integrated communities, I think it is a problem of political will. There certainly are examples of cities that are integrated, excellent places to live, but not very many. It’s a very decentralized problem, since each community is really a separate case. I am not sure if there is any large-scale solution.

    Comment by ckunkel — Monday, January 15, 2007 @ 7:40 pm

  2. It looks like there is evidence to support Cathy’s “pure speculation” over what’s delaying the switch to light-weight car materials. I found this on the Hypercar website:
    “Today’s automakers have vast amounts of capital (including intellectual capital) tied to steel manufacturing, and they could be moving more rapidly to adopt advanced composites. One advantage composites have over steel stamping is that the cost of setting up a production line is much lower, effectively lowering a major barrier to entry. In the near term, advanced composite vehicles are ideal for niche markets where small, specialized production runs can be much more profitable for composite car manufacturers.” (http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid441.php)

    This suggests to me that automakers have a lot of inertia invested in using steel and that the switch over to advanced composites isn’t as simple as it is in theory. A switch to advanced composites would create new problems associated with what to do with the steel manufacturing infrastructure, and what to do with all of the people who were employed in this sector.

    I also want to respond to a point in Karen’s previous post. I certainly appreciate the sentiment behind making “sure that everyone is doing everything they can, on every scale, to make” H&L’s vision a reality. I admire your father’s gumption and persistence, and I agree that we may see faster results if all interested consumers demonstrated their demand for safer, more fuel efficient cars. Indeed, some car companies seem to have a penchant for citing (a fear of) a lack of consumer demand as a reason for sluggish innovation.

    At the same time, I believe that consumer demand already exists for more efficient cars, and I think it is already quite well known. Toyota’s introduction of the hybrid Prius has been a great boon for the company. In its six years on the U.S. market it has attained more than a quarter of a million sales, and the amazing demand for it can be seen in the long wait lists for it: over 6 months as of Feb in Palo Alto, CA, for example. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toyota_Prius) In an industry that’s been faltering, Toyota has been the one shining star, no doubt in part due to its leadership in hybrid technology. In sum, I think there is plenty of consumer demand (and evidence of it) for efficient cars, so I don’t think that is the problem, nor do I think auto companies should be using that as an excuse for their reluctance(?) to innovate…

    That being said, I don’t really understand why most of the Hypercar features still seem relegated to the concept-car stage. Perhaps what we need is more competition, or even, as the quote in the first paragraph suggests, new auto-companies to take the lead and start introducing light-weight, efficient cars to the market on a small scale.

    Comment by Amir — Tuesday, January 16, 2007 @ 1:01 pm

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