The iCar Cometh



Apple Inc., we are confident, will not be selling cars anytime soon. But the auto industry — like music, film or publishing — could use a little bit of old-fashioned disruptive innovation, and maybe Gordon Murray can provide it. Murray, the famed U.K.-based automotive designer responsible for some of the most successful Formula One race cars, has turned his attention to a less speedy pursuit: He wants to provide a small, light, efficient car to the masses. As Edward Robinson reports in this issue (“Reinventing Wheels,” page 78), Gordon Murray Design Ltd. has spent about $51 million during the past five years on designing 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 doesn’t intend to build the car itself; instead, he plans to license its manufacturing process, called iStream. The prefix has worked well for Apple, which Murray quixotically hopes will build his car. He 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 lightweight plasticlike composites. He keeps the use of metal to a minimum.

The drive for greater automotive efficiency is longstanding. Federal standards for fuel economy are scheduled to climb from 25.2 miles per gallon (9.33 liters per 100 kilometers) 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, cut down on air pollution in the U.S. and saved drivers billions of dollars.

The next frontier in automotive efficiency may well be weight — which is to say that crazy dreamer Gordon Murray may be on to something. His gasoline-powered prototype tips the scales at only 550 kilograms (1,200 pounds), about half the heft of a BMW Mini Cooper. In part because of its low weight, it gets 96 mpg.

The standard hesitation with smaller cars is that they’re less safe. This concern isn’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 is that they’re far easier on the roads. One (admittedly small) study found that overweight trucks cost Arizona $12 million to $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, should think even more about weight.

As should the rest of us: Slimmer cars, after all, may require slimmer drivers.

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