Building a sustainable-car market with 8 horses

Jim Kor could design great heavy machinery and standard automobiles.

But he wanted something more, something sustainable.

What he came up with is an 8 horsepower car he calls the Urbee. His crew designed it by taking what he calls the "long view," looking for ways to reduce impact while providing people a way to continue their car-centric pursuits. He said that now there are about 1 billion vehicles on the road.

"By mid-century, there could be almost 2 billion," Kor said in a presentation at the State of Green Business Forum in Chicago early in 2011. "This could lead to global ecological catastrophe."

Reducing smog

Perhaps. Two times the number of internal-combustion engines burning fossil fuels could smoke the skies, adding dangerously to the already high carbon content of the atmosphere. But many besides Kor are engineering concerted efforts to subvert that scenario. A number of those projects found their way to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Sturgis (for you biker fans) of U.S. car shows.

As never before, designers and innovators are looking to engineer the automobile to run on something more than a gallon of fuel every 10 to 12 miles. Not that there's anything wrong with awful mileage, within reason. There are quite a few cars far beyond my reach that I'd love to have in my stable.

Mercedes joins the game

Mercedes-Benz, which is hardly known for its fuel-sipping ways, came out with several models of interest. The most obvious and different looking is the Smart pickup, which runs on a 55 kilowatt magneto-electric motor, powered by a 17.6 kWh-capacity lithium-ion battery pack, according to Ben Coxworth, a reporter for gizmag.com.

"The Subaru Brat-like mini rear cargo bed definitely gave it a unique car-truck-combo appeal ... or repulsion, depending on the observer," Coxworth writes.

Mercedes also debuted its E300 diesel hybrid, which writes Sebastian Blanco of autoblog.com, is expected to get 45 miles per gallon, while the gas-electric E400 Hybrid is expected to get 27 mpg.

Sailing the autobahn

Blanco says the E-Class hybrids use a combination of lithium-ion batteries, regenerative brakes and the ability to "sail" to save fuel. "Sailing here means that, at speeds of up to 100 mph, the combustion engine can switch off while the electric motor keeps the car moving," he says.

Mercedes maintains its traditional horsepower with 231 for the E300 and 333 for the E400.

That's not super green but far better than most luxury performance sedans I occasionally dream of owning. Here's a post I wrote while still business editor of the Fresno Bee about perhaps my ultimate ride, the Audi A8, driven by Jason Statham in "Transporter 3." Fuel economy: 16 mpg, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's fueleconomy.gov. The car is amazing, and I can just imagine shortening the ride from my sister's house in Hermosa Beach from four hours to two plus, screaming down 99 in the pitch black sharing the road with nobody but truckers.

Building a better Urbee

Kor's venture is not yet ready for prime time. His base is in a Winnipeg, Manitoba shop, and he could use some investors. The Urbee is a hybrid that's engineered to slip through the wind with the least amount of resistance and expended power. He says he wants to make it simple and patterned it after the easy-to-build-and-repair Ford Model T and Volkswagen Beetle.

Kor says the majority of what's produced today is unsustainable, and he'd like to help change that. "The solution resides within all of us," he says.

Cars are an obvious entry point to sustainability. They're full of fantasy and style, as Kor says. Make the next Aston Martin DB5 ("Goldfinger" version) in green and watch the industry evolve overnight, or something like that.

Ford electrifies Fusion

Even Ford is getting into the alternative transportation game. Globalenergywatch.com reports that the automaker's Fusion is the first sedan to offer gasoline, hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions this year.

"Derrick Kuzak, Ford's group vice president of global product development tells the site: "We brought our global teams together around a blank slate with the charge to develop a mid-size car with ground-breaking design and jaw-dropping fuel economy."

Ford's entry continues to crowd the field, adding to Chevy's Volt, Nissan's Leaf, Tesla's Roadster and upcoming Model S and various other makes.

EVs stalk commercial market

It's hard to say how the segment will fare with consumers, who fret about range and recharge speeds. But energy costs, especially with continued uncertainty of supply from the Middle East, drive development of electric and hybrid vehicles. And don't expect any sustained declines in fuel prices.

Ulicia Wang of earth2tech.com reports another trend that could sneak up and grab a bunch of market share: commercial trucks. VIA Motors, headed by former General Motors Chairman Bob Lutz, retrofits new trucks with electric/gas drive-train capable of 402 horsepower. The first 40 miles is electric with a range of 400 miles using the gas engine.

Wang says the company plans target corporate clients and later consumers.

Green car rental

And there's the Venice Beach, Calif.-based outfit MPG Car Rental, which rents a fleet of high-mpg vehicles like the Honda Insight and Chevy Volt to people in Los Angeles. "MPG is helping reduce our carbon footprint and bring an affordable green alternative to car rental," the company says.

More like-minded companies will spring up. Their success or failure will help chart the course of the electric-vehicle segment. I'm betting such entrepreneurship, high gas prices and an expanded EV and hybrid lineup will pull in significantly more believers.

And that's not even counting the electric motorcycle market.

Photo: gizmowatch.com