Apple Inc., we are confident, will not be selling cars anytime soon. But the auto industry -- like music, film or, dare we say, publishing -- could use a little bit of old-fashioned disruptive innovation, and maybe Gordon Murray can provide it.
Murray, the famed London-based automotive designer and entrepreneur responsible for some of the most successful Formula 1 race cars, has lately turned his attention to a less expensive, less speedy pursuit: He wants to provide a small, light, efficient car to the masses. As Bloomberg Markets reports, Gordon Murray Design has spent about $50 million over the last five years on just such a vehicle.
The highways are jammed, to paraphrase a famous automotive poet, with broken entrepreneurs who tried to take on Detroit. Nonetheless, Murray’s effort is notable on a few counts.
First, he does not intend to build the car itself; instead, Murray plans to license its manufacturing process, called “iStream.” (The prefix has worked well for Apple, which Murray quixotically hopes will build his car.) Murray has reduced the process of car assembly from the usual five steps to two, and the vehicle -- why not, let’s call it the iCar -- is made mostly of fiberglass-based composites. There is almost no steel in it.
The drive for greater automotive efficiency, from both outside the industry and within it, is longstanding. Federal standards for fuel economy are scheduled to climb from 25.2 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks to 54.5 mpg by 2025.
Since their establishment 37 years ago, these rules have undoubtedly helped reduce oil consumption, made the U.S. cleaner and saved drivers billions. Yet they are dauntingly complex, administered by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation, and have proved difficult to modernize, though the Obama administration gets credit for trying.
The next frontier in automotive efficiency may well be automotive weight. Which is to say: That crazy dreamer Gordon Murray may be on to something. His gasoline-powered prototype is only 550 kilograms (1,200 pounds), about half the weight of a BMW Mini Cooper. In part because of its weight, it gets 96 mpg. If strong, lightweight materials become more popular, they may also become cheaper to produce.
The standard hesitation with smaller cars, as any parent who’s ever handed over the keys to a newly minted teenage driver can attest, is the worry that they are less safe. But these concerns aren’t entirely founded on fact. A new small car may not fare so well in a head-on crash with a new big car. But today’s small cars are safer than yesterday’s big cars, and many are just as safe as larger models.
Another benefit of smaller, lighter cars -- at least to taxpayers -- is that they are far easier on the roads. One (admittedly small) study found that overweight trucks cost Arizona between $12 million and $53 million a year in road damage. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Washington should issue weight standards the way it issues fuel standards. But maybe automakers -- like jockeys, certain Northeastern governors or, say, race-car designers -- should think even more about their weight.
As should the rest of us: Slimmer cars, after all, may require slimmer drivers.
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