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Lighter vehicles may win 'Oil Endgame,' author says

Even the quintessential gas-guzzling SUV could become energy-efficient if it weighed a lot less and was run by a hybrid engine or a fuel cell, according to noted author and environmentalist Amory Lovins, who spoke Monday, Feb. 27, to a packed crowd in Wong Auditorium.

Lovins is the founder and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit organization that "fosters the efficient and restorative use of resources to make the world secure, just, prosperous and life-sustaining."

By increasing efficiency and substituting fuels such as biodiesel and natural gas saved through increased efficiency, the United States can be oil-free by 2040, said Lovins, featured speaker at the third colloquium sponsored by the Energy Research Council (ERC) and the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment (LFEE).

In a talk that shared the title "Winning the Oil Endgame" with his 29th book, Lovins presented a picture of an energy future in which more American cars will be manufactured that are competitive in the world marketplace, emissions will be drastically reduced, the economy will improve and the United States will be freed from its dependence on Middle East oil -- all with no radical shifts in government policy, taxes or regulations.

The catch? Cars, trucks and planes, which consume 70 percent of the U.S. oil supply, will virtually all have to be made of lightweight carbon composites or new ultralight steel.

This is not such a big hurdle, Lovins said, noting that aerodynamic, low-drag, crashworthy hybrid cars can be manufactured by retooled and retrained automakers. While Lovins acknowledged that the automobile industry is "risk-averse," he said, "Car companies are starting to recognize that their only salvation is in radical innovation. I've heard things in Detroit lately you would not have heard six months ago. You can make cars big, protective and comfortable without also making them heavy."

In fact, oil is already going away as a fuel source, Lovins argued. Just as the whaling industry ran out of customers before it ran out of whales, oil should become less profitable as new technologies make it less necessary and desirable, he said.

"We have choices to make," Lovins said. "Our security and competitiveness are at risk from oil insecurity, geopolitical rivalry, price volatility, perhaps depletion and climatic stability." Other countries are already working toward the same goals. "China plans to produce cars that don't use much oil, then no oil, and plans to be the world leader in fuel cells," he said. "Europe in 2003 made 17 times as much biodiesel as the U.S."

Even after a $180 billion investment in the transportation industry to facilitate the conversion to ultralight vehicles -- and an additional investment in the biofuels industry to establish cellulosic ethanol as a viable alternative fuel -- the million-plus new jobs created, the jobs saved and the substantial reduction in carbon dioxide emissions make this a win-win proposition.

"This is an endgame we should all be playing together to win, whatever your political persuasion," Lovins said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 8, 2006 (download PDF).

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