Gordon Murray Races Toward the Plastic Auto Age0

Michael Kanellos | Mon Oct 3 2011 |

A number of technologies—lithium ion batteries, opposed piston engines, hub motors—have been proposed for reducing greenhouse gases. But if you really want to put a significant dent in energy consumption, you have to start with the factory, argues Gordon Murray.

Murray—a famed racecar designer whose cars have won five world championships—has for the last few years been fine-tuning a manufacturing concept called iStream, which employs composites instead of steel for the chassis, body, and other components of a traditional consumer car.

The end result is a cheaper, lighter, and more energy-efficient vehicle. In a 2010 efficiency race in the U.K., a prototype of Gordon Murray Design’s T.25—a three-seater with a gas engine that weighs half as much as a conventional comparable—achieved a mileage rating of 96 miles per imperial gallon, or about 80 miles per U.S. gallon.

“It used less energy than all the diesels and less energy than half of the electrics,” he says. “Its (weight) is by far the most powerful tool we have as a designer.”

But think more broadly, Murray urges. Producing cars with conventional materials doesn’t take a production line. It takes several production lines including facilities for stamping, pressing, painting, and applying anti-corrosion coatings. Automakers might have to spend one to two billion euros ($1.5 to $3 billion) to bring a new car platform to market.

Breaking the mold

To generate a profit, the factory will essentially have to keep humming for nine years. And if a carmaker wants to make changes (i.e. make an electric or fuel cell version of the basic platform) more investment will be required.

A T.27 could go 100 miles on a single charge.

The iStream process, by contrast, revolves around injection molding and software. A factory might only need 11 tool sets that cost a total of $10 million to produce car bodies. A conventional factory might need 1,500 tools that cost 500 million euros. Retooling the factory to accommodate a new engine in the car or expanding the passenger bay mostly involves clicking a mouse.

“80 percent of the tooling is writing software,” he said.

The savings in embedded energy—the reduced demand for mined iron, petroleum-based solvents, shipping, etc.—would be tremendous.

It would be cheap, too. A manufacturer could sell T.25s for $10,000 and still make “a handsome profit,” he says.

A T.27, an electric version of the T.25 that has been funded in part by the U.K. government, could be sold for $23,000. Because it would weigh far less than a conventional EV, a T.27 could come with a 12.5 kilowatt hour battery—about half the size of the battery in a Nissan Leaf or Mitsubishi—and still go 100 miles on a single charge.

As an added bonus, it would charge in half the time, too, eliminating at least some of the nervousness around charging infrastructure and range anxiety.

While you might be skeptical about composite cars, Murray is far from an isolated voice. New mileage regulations—like the U.S. standards that will require automakers to raise the average fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025—are prompting many to examine ways to shed pounds. Bright Automotive, which General Motors has invested in, is working on lightweight delivery trucks. Alcoa says minivans and sedans made from aluminum could start hitting showrooms by 2015.

In Southern California, Aptera CEO Paul Wilbur will give you $100 if you can scratch or dent his three-wheeled car fashioned from composites.

A deal with one of the manufacturers to build a T.25 line could come within six months.

Stuck in traffic

Murray’s move into economy cars came about because of a traffic jam. A professor originally from South Africa, Murray served as both the technical director for the Brabham Formula One team (world champions 1981, 1983) and McLaren (world championships 1988, 1989, 1990). At McLaren in 1978, his team built the first all carbon fiber car.

Mercedes recruited McLaren to produce carbon monocoques for a high-end version of one of its cars. Because of the expense, and the fact that the cars were almost literally built by hand, only 700 got made.

Murray’s team continued to experiment with bonding and materials to the point where the cost premium of a carbon fiber car dropped to around 6,000 British pounds and each chassis took only a day to make. Still, that meant McLaren could only produce 1,500 cars a year.

Then, in 1993, he found himself mired on the road, surrounded by a sea of similarly stuck solo drivers in steel cars burning fuel.

“This can’t be sustainable,” he thought to himself. Carmakers loathe small cars because the profit margins are miniscule, but if the manufacturing costs were dramatically slashed, he reasoned, it could become an attractive business.

Although he worked for years with carbon fiber, it’s not at the center of iStream; it’s too expensive.

“There is a point where you can’t make enough and the airline manufacturers will always have priority over the car manufacturers,” he said. “Steel is incredibly cheap. It is too good really.”

Instead, the first generation of iStream cars will rely on a honeycomb sandwich composite. The next generation will contain some carbon fiber to improve crash resistance on larger models. A third generation of cars will be made from thermoplastics. It might even be possible to produce cars with agricultural resin.

Murray’s team has even designed a truck made from a tubular frame and plywood panels for a charity project in Africa to allow villagers to trade and communicate with each other. It can hold 13 passengers.

The factory footprint, he added, is about as minimal as it can get.

“It is flat packed and shipped,” he said. “You assemble it yourself.”

The future of iStream

Car manufacturers are notoriously conservative when it comes to new ideas, but interest in iStream is growing. Gordon Murray Designs is currently in working with nine manufacturers; the company will not produce cars itself, instead it will license its know-how under royalty agreements.

A deal with one of the manufacturers to build a T.25 line could come within six months, he said.

Once an agreement is signed, a manufacturer can probably start producing cars in two to three years. The cars and materials will be safe, too: computer simulations can predict how materials will behave within plus or minus five percent.

Granted, the first cars off an iStream line will face questions. Are they safe? Will they tip in high winds? The transportation industry has always been full of surprises. Railroads and airplanes went from terrifying novelties to carrying passengers in the space of a few years.

As car salesmen like to say, this thing can turn on a dime.