A Race-Car Designer's Shift to Greener Rides

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Gordon Murray Design

Gordon Murray Design reveals its T.25 City Car

To aficionados of auto-racing and high-performance sports cars, Gordon Murray is a legend. He's designed championship-winning Formula One cars, as well as two iconic, drop-dead-beautiful sports cars: the McLaren F1, one of the fastest road cars ever made, and the Mercedes SLR McLaren. These cars were, of course, built for speed and power; fuel economy wasn't even an afterthought. So it's somewhat surprising that the 63-year-old South African engineer is now more interested in cleaning up the planet by reducing carbon emissions than cleaning up at a Grand Prix finish line.

Murray's latest project is an environmentally friendly, compact commuter car — a change of focus he insists isn't as dramatic as it sounds. "Philosophically, they're quite similar," he says. "It's all about designing cars that are lightweight," which makes them highly efficient as well. The major difference between the two types of cars, however, is cost. Creating a lightweight, highly efficient car that is also affordable — not to mention cool and fun — is "the most challenging thing I've ever done," Murray says.

But done it he has. His team in suburban London recently unveiled the T.25 car — a three-seater made of flyweight composite materials that is smaller than a Smart car but has more interior room and gets 80 miles to the gallon. He's also started work on a $14.9 million project — partially funded by the British government — to develop four prototypes of an electric car, to be called the T.27, by February 2011. He promises the T.27 will be 27% more efficient than any other electric vehicle (EV), yet still capable of a top speed of 60 m.p.h. and a driving range of 100 miles. His partner, battery manufacturer Zytek Automotive, is developing an electric drivetrain especially geared to small urban cars, and he's working with Michelin to devise an EV-friendly tire that reduces friction.

While Murray fully expects to license the designs of the T.25 and T.27 to manufacturers, they're essentially proof-of-concept cars. His main goal is to license the revolutionary manufacturing process he's invented to build the cars, which he says expends far less energy than more traditional auto-making factories. He claims that his iStream system, as he's dubbed it, requires a fifth of the capital investment that a standard, high-volume car plant needs, and only 20% of the space. "But you can't sell an idea, especially one this disruptive and radical. You must have a physical entity," he says.

It's a big challenge, because car-manufacturing hasn't changed much in 100 years. Body parts are still stamped out of sheets of steel and then shaped, welded together and painted — a process that is expensive and sucks up an awful lot of energy. Murray says his iStream system involves using composite plastic panels made by injection molding which are screwed or bolted onto a frame made of tubular steel. In the U.S., he says, the frames and molded panels could be made at one central plant, while the assembly could be done at smaller plants near distributors, which means fewer cars being trucked long distances.

Murray says the manufacturing process would work for a wide range of vehicle styles, including even small buses. It can also handle high volumes: up to 300,000 cars a year. He's already working closely with two large carmakers that are interested in the system — he won't divulge any details — and expects to begin a project with a third in January. He's also been in contact with engineering firms that want to get into auto-making. Murray sees no reason why other major brands, say Apple or Sony, couldn't license the technology to start making their own versions of fuel-efficient or electric cars.

But Jay Nagley, an analyst at the London-based consultancy Spyder Automotive, says that's easier said than done. New entrants to the automotive industry "could easily lose their shirts," Nagley says, because setting up a distribution network is difficult and expensive. But Murray expects there will be fewer big automakers in the future, opening the door to niche players. He also says that distribution will become less of an issue if manufacturing centers are eventually moved closer to sales points.

Murray's F1-honed competitiveness clearly remains intact. But in this race — to be the first to manufacture and market eco-friendly cars on a mass scale — he's betting that the upstart lightweights, not the big-name players, will have the winning edge.