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Green monsters at the L.A. Auto Show

Entries for the “environmental sustainability” design challenge at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show will showcase some wild-sounding concepts that carmakers deem appealing to the active Southern California lifestyle. The goal is to be both eco- and SoCal-friendly.
The sporty, two-passenger Honda Extreme has changeable body panels and a chassis that can be recycled after five years of use.
The sporty, two-passenger Honda Extreme has changeable body panels and a chassis that can be recycled after five years of use.Honda
/ Source: Forbes Autos

Entries for the “environmental sustainability” design challenge at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show will showcase some wild-sounding concepts that carmakers deem appealing to the active Southern California lifestyle. The goal is to be both eco- and SoCal-friendly.

While entries vary wildly, many focus on cars built with recyclable materials, which observers attribute to the increased attention being paid to environmental and landfill issues that vehicles create when they become trash.

Some entrants, like Volkswagen and Audi, say they are working under an imagined premise that a proposal by the U.S. Department of Transportation mandates all vehicles be near 100 percent recyclable by 2015. The European Union has such a directive on the books, but there is no such federal proposal in the U.S.

The seemingly far-fetched entries include General Motors’ advanced design studio’s Hummer O2, a tractor-like dune buggy with solar-powered retractable body panels filled with algae, meant to transform carbon dioxide to oxygen.

The California design center of Volkswagen-Audi, meanwhile, offers the Volkswagen Nanospyder — a vehicle capable of being constructed on a microscopic level by nanomachines smaller than a half a millimeter. The point? These microscopic builders could vary the density of the vehicle’s frame, enabling more responsive crumple zones for enhanced safety, Volkswagen says.

BMW Group’s DesignworksUSA offers the Mini Biomoke, the body of which would be composed of biodegradable body panels infused with palm tree seeds. So when the vehicle’s lifespan is up, the buried body panels spring into trees, which help clean the air of toxins.

CALTY Design Research would actually have drivers pedal their cars, in the guise of part-time hybrid entry they call the Toyota RLV. The car’s manual mode is meant to be used in the stop-and-go-traffic for which L.A. is so famously known. The manual mode, CALTY claims, “is also suitable for boardwalk, sidewalk and beach use, producing zero emissions while promoting L.A.’s fitness lifestyle.” It’s a cheeky reference to what the designers say are L.A.’s two driving speeds: 5 mph and 75 mph.

But along with the far-out creations, there were some more plausible concepts, including Hyundai Kia (America) design center’s fashion-friendly 2015 Kia Sandstorm — a biodiesel hybrid plug-in with a solar-powered cooling feature and recyclable Polyethylene Terephthalate panels that can be switched out and recycled at the owner’s fancy.

Sleek designs in new materials seemed to be a common theme. Honda’s research and development team is offering the Honda Extreme, featuring a recyclable “honeycomb” chassis made of polycarbonate, while the Mercedes-Benz RECY would be made of wood, alloys, glass and rubber and powered by a four-cylinder Blu-Tec biodiesel engine. The Mercedes-Benz advanced design studio (North America) calls it “the ultimate recyclable California roadster of the future.”

Volkswagen-Audi’s other entry is the Audi Dynamic Space Frame, which swaps a traditional driveshaft for a fluid-filled body charged with an electric current. Audi did not name nor describe the material out of which the body would be made.

The Acura FCX 2020 Le Mans, from the Acura Design Center, would be powered by a compact fuel cell made possible by molecular nanotechnology. In press materials, Acura claims that it’ll “test its performance in the most grueling endurance race in the world — the 24 Hours of Le Mans.”

But not really. Despite the intriguing name and entry, Acura spokesman Mike Spencer says there are no plans to build such a fuel-cell vehicle that would run in the 2020 Le Mans. “This isn’t real,” Spencer emphasized, comparing the design challenge to a science-fair-like exercise in imagination.

Frank Saucedo, director of GM’s L.A.-based advanced design studio, and Steve Anderson, the team’s concept development and design strategy manager, agreed with Spencer’s description.

“The reason these entries are so far-reaching, or in some cases maybe even absurd, is the design challenge committee really wants the teams to leverage their creativity,” Saucedo said.

But algae? Anderson explained: “Our approach to this particular assignment, because it was a blue sky concept, was to look at what would move beyond efficiency, whether it’s a hybrid or a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, to the next realm — a car that actually presents a net gain to the environment. The idea is that not only could such a car emit no harmful chemical byproducts, it could actually work to reduce area carbon levels during use.”

Using algae byproducts in cars is not so outlandish. While GM’s concept does not involve using the green microbial mass for energy or propulsion, researchers at University of California Berkeley have developed a strain of algae with the potential to create vast amounts of hydrogen for use in fuel cells or in biodiesel engines, according to a report by Wired filed earlier this year.

Extracting hydrogen produced from microbes offers a clean method of capturing the element, which is otherwise an energy-intensive process involving electricity, most of which is produced by coal in the U.S. The Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Lab and other universities have been studying algae-based hydrogen production for years.

But why did GM choose the Hummer for a “sustainability challenge,” particularly when those in the eco-lobby deride it as the antithesis of green manufacturing, or emblematic of conspicuous consumption?

“I think that’s exactly why,” Saucedo said. “There is a movement in the company I think to change the perception of this vehicle. We saw the original SUV off-road vehicle was for people who were really into the environment — somewhere along the line we kind of took a misstep, I would say. So the opportunity with this design challenge is to have another thought on what the possibilities are for a brand like Hummer.”

Claudia Duranceau, senior research scientist for emissions and recycling at Ford Motor Co., is not surprised that many of the design challenge entrants focused this year on recyclable car parts. She says it stems from a raised awareness of the materials used in carmaking and other manufacturing, like electronics. Governments, industry and environmental groups have promoted recycling as a means to prevent potentially harmful substances from entering landfills and leaching into nearby communities.

According to Ward’s 2005 “Motor Vehicle Facts & Figures” and the U.S. Department of Energy, at least 84 percent of the material content of each U.S. car is recycled. Also, more than 75 percent of each end-of-life vehicle (ELV) is recycled by weight, and about 95 percent of vehicles driven in the U.S. enter the recycling infrastructure at end of life — a high rate compared to other industries.

While car-recycling programs in the U.S. are voluntary, Japan and Europe run mandated benchmarks. Japanese regulations and the European Union’s ELV directive require that carmakers recycle 95 percent of each automobile by 2015. The EU’s current ELV requirement is that firms recover 85 percent of each vehicle on the continent, with automakers taking on “all or a significant part” of the costs of doing so by 2007.

U.S. automakers set “preferred practices” via the Vehicle Recycling Partnership, which is run by the United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR). Three years ago the group developed its third Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA). In partnership with the Argonne National Laboratory and the American Plastics Council, the group is aiming to better sift through auto-shredder residue to recover potentially hazardous substances for recycling or containment prior to crushing. According to USCAR, the CRADA team is working to raise the U.S. automotive recycling percentage “to as close to 100 percent as conceivably possible.”

For all the flash of new materials and new production proposals on display at the L.A. design challenge, one environmental concern can’t be overlooked: the car’s impact during its use. “If you look at the energies and the resources that go into the vehicle, certainly the biggest demand on the environment is during the use phase,” said Duranceau, who is Ford’s engineering representative to the United States Council for Automotive Research, a consortium that includes DaimlerChrysler, Ford and GM.

“It makes sense then to go into some of the lighter-weight materials to use renewable resources and to look at hybrid-type batteries that would conserve the demand for the natural resources. So certainly we would need to recycle those new materials and new components [at end of the cars' lives]. So we’re taking a much broader look at a vehicle, making it sustainable and environmentally friendly throughout its whole lifecycle.”