Dematerializing the car


Ecologist Eric Sanderson has written a carefully detailed and beautifully designed book on the need to redesign society without cars. Projjal Dutta, Director of Sustainability for the MTA, keeps a personal Tumblr titled “Taking the car out of carbon,” with a similar message (both Sanderson and Dutta are advisors to City Atlas). Enrique Penalosa, the visionary former mayor of Bogota, advised City Atlas that making streets better for pedestrians is the answer. 

These experts agree that dense cities, mass transit, walking and biking will work much better for a world of nine billion people in 2050. New York City accommodates a low car ownership lifestyle, having instead what Alex Steffen calls “Deep Walkability.”

But cars – how they are driven, and how they are made – are still very important to New York, because New York City is dependent on the collective choices of people everywhere. Across the U.S., almost all communities are car-dependent, and car use grows across the world as more economies develop a middle class.

“Ask one billion people, and 99 percent of them are going to say they want a car,” said Jagdish Khattar, managing director of Maruti Suzuki, in the NY Times. The world’s largest car market is now China, which produced 22 million cars in 2013. (The US, in second place, produced 11 million.)

There are over a billion cars on the road now, and even the 2°C pathway – the successful pathway – on the Global Calculator allows for two billion cars in use by 2050 because populations and economies will be growing over the next thirty-five years. The “business as usual” pathway, with emissions exceeding the planet’s safe zone, would mean four billion cars on the road.

Is there a better way to make cars? On June 24th, a new company unveiled a car design that uses extremely lightweight materials and small scale manufacturing to change the entire dynamic of this resource-intensive industry.

Kevin Czinger, the founder of Divergent Microfactories, aims for a breakthrough in sustainable design by radically reducing ‘the materials, energy, and cost of car manufacturing,” as well as improving the energy efficiency of the cars themselves. We asked world-class bicyclist and environmental researcher David Kroodsma to cover Kevin Czinger’s talk in San Francisco, part of the O’Reilly Solid conference.


All the parts for the car’s chassis fit into a Patagonia duffel bag – a mere 100 pounds of carbon fiber tubing and aluminum. With this this duffel bag slung over his shoulder, Kevin Czinger, the CEO of Divergent Microfactories, stepped onto the stage and made a bold claim: he was carrying a revolution in automotive technology.

As Czinger explained during his talk, some aspects of car manufacturing are the same today as they were in Henry Ford’s time. To make cars, you have to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in building a factory. Typical car chassis are made of metal, weigh about a thousand pounds, and require big, expensive machines to put together.

Advances in technology, though, are changing the need for such factories or the extensive use of heavy metal. Namely, the spread of 3D printers has meant that people can create almost anything without the need for a traditional factory. [On the same day as the talk, the U.S. Government released a report on 3D printing pointing to a coming transformation in manufacturing methods.]

Divergent Microfactories claims that they are the first company to use 3D technology to print metal for structural purposes. They print aluminum joints, or “nodes” that then can be glued to carbon fiber tubes, assembling a frame for the car like a Tinkertoy.

Carbon fiber frame with aluminum nodes. (Ph: Divergent)

Carbon fiber frame with 3D printed aluminum nodes. (Photo: Divergent Microfactories)

The result is an extremely strong and light chassis, which provides the same strength as a steel chassis but at a tenth the weight. By printing (layering metal to create a design), instead of machining (using machines to cut metal to the correct size), they are able to make more intricate designs that allow an easier and more structurally sound connection between the carbon fiber and the aluminum. These types of connections were, according to Divergent, neither technologically and economically feasible without such printers.

To showcase the method, they built a prototype “super car” around this chassis, the Blade, which has received much press attention. (Although it’s often referred to in the press as a “3D printed car,” in fact, it’s a key part, the structural aluminum nodes, that are 3D printed. The chassis tubes are carbon fiber, and many other parts, body, drivetrain, and wheels, are made with conventional methods.)

It weighs about one third that of the average U.S. sedan, has a 700 horsepower engine, and can go from zero to 60 in about two seconds. But while the car is impressive, and they plan to build a factory to produce their first run of these vehicles, Czinger talked about much higher goals.

One goal is to “democratize” car production. The metal nodes are printed, and thus can be easily redesigned for any type of car. They hope that they can license this technology, and people anywhere in the world can design and build cars. “A design change is now a software change,” Czinger said, emphasizing how this technology makes it easy to build a new car. People will be able to experiment and develop vehicles suited to their city or country. Czinger cited open-source tech company Arduino as an example. One of the founders of Arduino, Tom Igoe, expresses hope that Divergent can find a way to become a truly open-source car company, which could become an ecosystem for continuous improvement – Igoe’s thoughtful response can be read here.

The primary goal of Divergent is to “dematerialize” manufacturing. In his talk, Czinger talked about how incredibly costly, from an environmental perspective, traditional car manufacturing is. The emissions associated with the construction of our multi-ton vehicles are enormous, before they are even purchased. If we are to reduce the entire environmental impact of driving, one way is to simply use less material, thus reducing both the cost of manufacturing and the amount of energy needed to move the cars. Divergent claims that the combined environmental cost of operating and driving these new cars is one-third that of an electric car. While we have not run the numbers, it’s hard to argue that a lighter car, made with far fewer materials, should take less resources to build, and go farther with less energy.

There is often a fear that lighter cars will lead to more automobile deaths. The truth is that lighter cars lead to significantly fewer fatalities. There is the problem of the relative weight of vehicles—the “arms race” of cars. That is, lighter vehicles are more dangerous to be in when they collide with a heavier one. Kevin argues that improvement in sensors and “intelligent” cars that can help avoid accidents, rendering such arguments unimportant. Indeed, Google’s self-driving cars have already reported extremely low accident rates. And the carbon fiber and aluminum chassis is just as strong (they argue stronger) than the traditional steel frame. 

It's the manufacturing method that's revolutionary, but always good to launch with a supercar. (Photo: D. Kroodsma)

It’s the manufacturing method that’s revolutionary, but always good to show it off first with a supercar. (Photo: D. Kroodsma)

Czinger chose to make a supercar to captivate imaginations and to demonstrate his technology, but the really disruptive use will be to use the same methods to replace ordinary cars, and to intercept traditional manufacturing before it scales up to put millions of new steel frame cars onto roads across the developing countries of Asia, Africa and South America.

The Blade supercar has a monster 700 horsepower engine best suited for a track, but a lightweight design based on Divergent’s technology could easily be powered by a 70 horsepower engine for ordinary use, with fuel economy nearing or exceeding the best marks of major manufacturers and a much smaller manufacturing footprint.

Can lightweight local manufacturing intercept the world’s auto market before a billion new cars are built?
For comparison, the first and lightest version of the Honda Insight weighed 1847 pounds, had a 67 hp gasoline engine combined with a 13 hp electric motor (in a hybrid configuration), and achieved 70 mpg on the highway, which is still a mass market record. Consumer vehicles built around carbon fiber frames and small displacement engines might easily match or beat the Insight’s record.

In the past hundred years, humanity has manufactured about two billion cars. Even while the world waits for a climate agreement in Paris this coming December, it’s estimated that in the next four decades we’ll build a few more billion.

And somehow we are hoping to accomplish this while also reducing the total environmental impact of humanity on the planet – in which case, dematerializing factories and the cars they produce will be fundamental steps in building a sustainable world.

Additional material:

Kevin Czinger on the Divergent blog: “Ten principles for sane manufacturing”

Lead photo: David Kroodsma