3 Disruptive Lessons Automakers Should Learn for Greater Efficiency

Editor's note: This is the second in a Rocky Mountain Institute series on the steps business leaders can take to seize the economic and competitive opportunities outlined in Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era.

Automakers facing unprecedented market conditions, including higher fuel economy standards and consumer demand for efficiency in response to high fuel prices, can look to human evolution for design solutions that promise breakthrough efficiency.

Recent evidence suggests that lightweight design enabled by the best available technology allowed humans to develop large brains. Early in our evolution, cooking food allowed fire to perform much of the work otherwise done by the digestive system, making more calories available per pound of ingested food and allowing us to develop lighter digestive machinery -- about 35 percent smaller than a typical mammal of our body weight -- and heavier brains.

Eventually, harnessing the energy of fire also led to today's combustion-based transportation system. But that system has not benefitted from millions of design cycles, as our species has, to produce optimal, lightweight systems that maximize utility per pound.

Recent advances in lightweight, ultrastrong materials have nevertheless enabled leading manufacturers to dramatically reduce vehicle weight -- increasing utility per pound -- with no compromise to safety or performance, achieving up to 240 miles per gallon equivalent.

Reinventing Fire recognizes the fundamental business opportunity that will come with transitioning the U.S. transportation system off oil, eliminating external costs paid in blood, health care, and environmental degradation and instead capturing a $3.8 trillion net prize for not using oil.

While incremental vehicle efficiency gains are possible with current design paradigms primarily based on steel and aluminum, lending up to 30 percent weight reduction, the truly transformative opportunity lies in moving to a new paradigm.

The human body hints at where this paradigm might be found. Our skeletal structure is composed of bone, a composite material consisting of highly elastic mineral fibers embedded in a stiff organic matrix. Composite materials made of carbon fiber, lending among the highest strength and stiffness per pound of any known material, are beginning to find their way into vehicle structures produced by technological leaders including Boeing, BMW and Volkswagen.

Producing a new vehicle around carbon fiber composites is a disruptive business model, requiring restructured supply chains and redesigned, retooled factories. But manufacturers can begin with immediate steps outlined below, to smooth the transition and apply the benefits to any vehicle, whether built with advanced materials or not.

1. Examine your culture and take lessons from other industries.

An institutional culture conducive to transformative, lightweight design is among the most important variables in determining who will reap the competitive spoils of efficient vehicle design. It is also among the lowest-risk components of the transformation, requiring only careful hiring; clear, decisive leadership; and intelligent institutional structuring.

Without this foundational element established, any move to a new design paradigm will yield much less than its potential. What does this institutional culture look like? The aerospace industry, whose products are more severely impacted by weight than perhaps any other transportation mode, can offer insight.