5 Impressive Qualities of the HyperCar

The Volkswagen L1 concept car is an example of a hypercar design.
The Volkswagen L1 concept car is an example of a hypercar design.
Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

They said it couldn't be done: No one could make a car capable of traveling 100 miles (160.9 kilometers) or more on a single gallon (3.8 liters) of gasoline -- or achieve the equivalent performance using any other type of fuel.

And if someone did manage to build such a vehicle, certainly it wouldn't be fast, nimble or crashworthy. But even if you gave such automotive fantasies the benefit of the doubt, there was just no way a vehicle that managed to accomplish all that could also be roomy. Comfort would have to be sacrificed at the altar of motoring efficiency. Or so it once seemed.

It just so happens that all those doubts -- held by more than a few automotive "experts" at one time -- turned out to be wrong. In all fairness, given the technology available until recently, those arguments made sense. But efforts to rethink and re-engineer the automobile in the past couple decades are transforming formerly fantastic ideas into feasible ones.

Amory Lovins, founder and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), coined the name "Hypercar" to describe his concept for a spacious, SUV-like vehicle that delivered astonishing fuel economy without making any of the compromises people typically attach to "economy" cars. RMI's Hypercar vision first entered the public arena in the 1990s. A firm, Hypercar Inc., spun off from the RMI research (today Hypercar Inc. is called FiberForge) to run with the concept.

In the years that followed, the "hypercar" definition expanded to mean any extremely efficient motorized ground vehicle. The main, yet somewhat loose, parameter is that the vehicle be able to travel 100 miles (160.9 kilometers) or more on the energy equivalent of a gallon (3.8 liters) of gasoline. For the electric energy wonks, that's the same as 100 miles (160.9 kilometers) for every 33.7 kilowatt hours of energy. To put that in perspective, we're talking about the amount of power it would take to keep a 100-watt light bulb lit 10 hours a day (1-kilowatt, or kWh), for a month. (This article explains in more detail how efficiency comparisons between gasoline and electric motors work.)

So what's not to like about hypercars? We're hard-pressed to think of many reasons, other than they've been such a long time in coming for regular folks. By 2012, it was still nearly impossible for an average-income person to walk into an automotive showroom and drive out with the keys and registration to a street-legal hypercar. Yes, GM's Chevy Volt carries an efficiency rating of just under 100 MPGe, but at $40,000 a copy, one could argue it's still out of reach for most would-be car buyers.

Still, we can drool over...er, extol the virtues of the hypercar as an idea and as an emerging class of vehicles that are available today -- if you have the money (and in some cases, the technical know-how to build one). In this article we'll explore some of the most impressive qualities of the hypercar. Once you've read the article, weigh in with your thoughts -- is hypercar efficiency worth pursuing?

Needs Fewer Fill-ups (or Charge-ups)
Is the Chevy Volt a hypercar? Well, maybe. But it's also still a bit too expensive for most would-be buyers.
Is the Chevy Volt a hypercar? Well, maybe. But it's also still a bit too expensive for most would-be buyers.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

We've got nothing against the filling stations that provide us with gasoline, diesel, biofuels and so forth. Nor against the many fine folks employed by these stations. But let's face it, interrupting our daily routine to get gas is kind of a hassle. And depending on the vehicle, it can get really expensive.

With a hypercar, you could spend less time waiting at the pump...or no time at all. Owning a plug-in electric vehicle that ran solely on batteries would mean that all you'd need is a power outlet. Everyone has one of those at home. The typical automobile sits idle 95 percent of the time, so even charging times of a few hours (like overnight) shouldn't terribly inconvenience owners [source: RenewGrid].

True hypercars are designed with an almost slavish devotion to reducing weight. The less a car weighs, the less energy it requires to move a given distance. The less energy it has to put out, the smaller (and lighter) its different components can be. So, while that big brake kit might look cool sitting beneath a set of 20-inch wheels on a tricked out regular car, on a hypercar you wouldn't need the oversized stoppers. Even on a really fast hypercar, the overall light vehicle weight would render monster brakes overkill.

Smaller, lighter components plus the use of light weight construction materials such as carbon fiber help give hypercars their phenomenal range. The remaining trick is to put all of these techniques and technologies into a system that allows for rapid, profitable mass production.

Helps in the Fight Against Terrorists and other Despots -- No Bullets Required

Since the dawn of humankind, people have gone to war over access to resources. Today one of those most prized resources is oil. The United States is no stranger to oil-stained conflicts, and maintaining access to foreign oil has cost the country trillions of dollars, not to mention many thousands of lives over the past few decades.

The global nature of the oil markets means that any particular country could be forced to make nice with nations it doesn't like -- nations that export lots of oil. All for the sake of maintaining domestic fuel prices at a bearable level. That could mean looking the other way when the oil-rich nations' rulers oppress their own people or provide aid and sanctuary to terrorists.

Energy independence means a country doesn't rely heavily on foreign sources of energy to keep its economy or national defense running smoothly. It's a concept that has many military types eager to get off of the oil standard when it comes to powering their machines [source: U.S. Navy].

By using less gasoline, or no gas at all if it's completely electric, a hypercar could strike a blow for democracy without firing a shot. A nation of hypercars would go a long way toward providing energy independence -- and depriving oppressive and terrorist-friendly states of revenue.

It's an Innovation Incubator

The Cold War was not necessarily a fun time to live through, in geopolitical terms. Whether you served in the military during that era or not, the constant threat of nuclear annihilation hung overhead. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the urgency for the United States to innovate was constant.

Today we benefit from cellular phones, rockets that can reach space, the internet, GPS navigation and countless other advances that took place in the race between Soviet-aligned countries and the West to technologically one-up each other. As philosophers as early as Aesop put it: "Necessity is the mother of invention." During the Cold War, "necessity" was developing as many non-nuclear ways as possible to beat the other side.

Today, there's a growing sense of urgency surrounding both the decline of oil reserves that are easily accessible and climate change. Large companies and plucky inventors alike have risen to meet the many challenges.

Toyota led the charge among major automakers with its ground-breaking Prius way back in 1997. While technically not a hypercar (yet), the Prius draws on many hypercar principles to achieve well-above average fuel efficiency. U.S. automakers got in the game relatively late, but committed to efficiency after their near-death experience in the financial crisis of 2008.

But it's not just the majors doing the innovation. Individuals, college teams and even groups of high school students are crowd-solving the problems of making hypercars, through incentives such as the Progressive Automotive X Prize. The contest is billed as "The $10 Million Competition for the Best 100 MPGe Production-Capable Cars."

If the past is any clue, numerous side benefits could accrue tomorrow from innovations taking place today. Who knows what tremendous boons to business, personal productivity and to society in general will spring from the technologies that emerge from hypercar research?

It's Hyper Green
Aerodynamics play a major role in a vehicle's overall efficiency.
Aerodynamics play a major role in a vehicle's overall efficiency.
Mark Evans/the Agency Collection/Getty Images

When we drive our internal combustion vehicles, we take carbon and other elements that have been removed from beneath the earth and release them into the atmosphere. Like our lungs, the atmosphere has only a limited capacity to filter the excess particles before experiencing unpleasant side effects. The most noticeable of these is a global rise in temperature.

The evidence that accelerated climate change is happening, and that human activity is largely the cause, is now "unequivocal," with even former skeptics coming around to the idea that the planet is heating up [sources: American Meteorological Society and Muller].

Cars are responsible for just over half of the carbon dioxide emissions for a single household, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Blame cars' basic design, for one. Traditional automobiles are notorious for their wastefulness. Only 0.3 percent of the energy produced by a car engine actually goes toward moving the vehicle's driver, according to Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute [source: Nova].

Where's the rest of it go? Lovins says 87 percent is used up in other parts of the car: engine, driveline and accessories...in other words, everywhere else but the wheels. For all its advances, the modern automobile is the moving equivalent of a drafty, leaky house.

The hypercar, on the other hand, aggressively seeks to remedy these shortcomings. Efficiency is the whole point of a hypercar. The Toyota Prius, widely regarded as a highly efficient car, has an EPA mileage rating of 42 miles per gallon (17.9 kilometers per liter). The stingiest of hypercars, by contrast, can achieve endurance of more than 200 MPGe! (The Rocky Mountain Institute has now taken to calling this class of autos "ultra-light, low-drag" vehicles. Not as melodious or sexy as "hypercar," but we can see how they might want to avoid confusion with the original Hypercar [source: Rocky Mountain Institute].

"Clean" and "green" are often subjective labels since it can be difficult to trace the sources of one's electricity. But clearly it's conceivable that an all-electric hypercar could receive all its power from non-polluting renewable sources -- and therefore be completely non-polluting, or carbon neutral.

It's the Future…Today

For just about every new technology invented, we've come to expect improvements over time. Whether it's powered flight or personal computers, we consider radical change over a few decades to be, well, normal.

Example: one of Thomas Edison's better-performing early light bulbs could last 1,200 hours before burning out. A compact fluorescent bulb of today can provide light for 10,000 hours. The next-generation technology, LED bulbs, can last a purported 25,000 hours.

Cars, on the other hand, have barely moved, at least not by one important measure. The Ford Model T, introduced in 1908, delivered a respectable 21 miles to the gallon (8.9 kilometers per liter). The average car's mileage in 2012 (in the United States) was 24 miles per gallon (10.2 kilometers per liter) [sources: Ford Motor Company and Eisenstein].

Have internal combustion engines reached their peak efficiency as some claim? Not completely, but pretty close. Plus, in all fairness, autos have made major strides in other areas. But it's clear that in order to boost fuel mileage and still hold on to the gains made safety, comfort, and performance, automakers will have to embrace different methods than the ones dominant today. Methods like those used to make the hypercar.

We're not talking about dreamy, theoretical science either. But real hypercar development could require a clean break with much of car-building orthodoxy. Take, for instance, the Wikispeed SGT01, an entrant in the Progressive Automotive X Prize competition. Team Wikispeed, led by software consultant Joe Justice, used management practices (collectively called Agile) from the software development world to lop years off of the auto industry standard time to build its SGT01 roadster. The resulting carbon fiber-bodied car costs $25,000, goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour (0 to 96.6 kilometers per hour) in 5 seconds and delivers 108 miles per gallon (45.9 kilometers per liter) in combined city and highway driving. (The tradeoff at present is a harsh, noisy ride.)

For a more bespoke, but still sporty ride, there is the Rimac Concept One from Croatia. This sculpted beauty places an independently controllable electric motor at each wheel for the ultimate in speed (0 to 60 miles per hour in just 2 seconds) and efficiency (114 MPGe). They call it "All Wheel Torque Vectoring." We call it a pretty clever solution to the problem of drivetrain energy losses.

And many more examples abound of hypercar techniques being put to use. Hypercar-level mileage almost defies belief, but remarkably, the know-how to achieve it is within reach today. So the next time you hear people complaining about the price of gasoline or bragging about their 42-mile per gallon (17.9-kilometer per liter) car, feel free to drop some science on them: The hypercar leaves our fossil-fueled automotive legacy in the dust.


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Author's Note: 5 Impressive Qualities of the HyperCar

This is an amazing time to be a car builder not affiliated with one of the big, established auto companies. In the past, the field was mined with obstacles to inventors and small auto-building teams. Budget-busting research and development costs. Hard to source parts and components. Non-existent access to manufacturing at a profitable scale. And just forget about distribution. Today though, with the reach of the internet and global collaboration, those restrictions are tumbling down.

I'm excited to see such a diversity of size and nationalities in the groups attempting to build production-capable hypercars. Their work is expanding the body of knowledge we have to help re-imagine the automobile and its role in society. After decades of stagnation from major automakers, a bevy of unconventional thinkers are helping to shake up and expand our concept of what a car can and should be.

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