Dematerializing the car

Kevin Czinger ’81, ’87 JD, who used to jump cars—that's jump over cars—as an undergrad, visited the Yale campus in 2010 for a clean energy conference. Here he poses with a CODA electric car.

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Ecol­o­gist Eric Sander­son has writ­ten a care­fully detailed and beau­ti­fully designed book on the need to redesign soci­ety with­out cars. Pro­j­jal Dutta, Direc­tor of Sus­tain­abil­ity for the MTA, keeps a per­sonal Tum­blr titled “Tak­ing the car out of car­bon,” with a sim­i­lar mes­sage (both Sander­son and Dutta are advi­sors to City Atlas). Enrique Penalosa, the vision­ary for­mer mayor of Bogota, advised City Atlas that mak­ing streets bet­ter for pedes­tri­ans is the answer. 

These experts agree that dense cities, mass tran­sit, walk­ing and bik­ing will work much bet­ter for a world of nine bil­lion peo­ple in 2050. New York City accom­mo­dates a low car own­er­ship lifestyle, hav­ing instead what Alex Stef­fen calls “Deep Walk­a­bil­ity.”

But cars – how they are dri­ven, and how they are made – are still very impor­tant to New York, because New York City is depen­dent on the col­lec­tive choices of peo­ple every­where. Across the U.S., almost all com­mu­ni­ties are car-dependent, and car use grows across the world as more economies develop a mid­dle class.

“Ask one bil­lion peo­ple, and 99 per­cent of them are going to say they want a car,” said Jagdish Khat­tar, man­ag­ing direc­tor of Maruti Suzuki, in the NYTimes. The world’s largest car mar­ket is now China, which pro­duced 22 mil­lion cars in 2013. (The US, in sec­ond place, pro­duced 11 million.)

There are over a bil­lion cars on the road now, and even the 2°C path­way – the suc­cess­ful path­way – on the Global Cal­cu­la­tor allows for two bil­lion cars in use by 2050 because pop­u­la­tions and economies will be grow­ing over the next thirty-five years. The “busi­ness as usual” path­way, with emis­sions exceed­ing the planet’s safe zone, would mean four bil­lion cars on the road.

Is there a bet­ter way to make cars? On June 24th, a new com­pany unveiled a car design that uses extremely light­weight mate­ri­als and small scale man­u­fac­tur­ing to change the entire dynamic of this resource-intensive industry.

Kevin Czinger is a Yale College and Yale Law alum and the founder of Diver­gent Micro­fac­to­ries, aims for a break­through in sus­tain­able design by rad­i­cally reduc­ing ‘the mate­ri­als, energy, and cost of car man­u­fac­tur­ing,” as well as improv­ing the energy effi­ciency of the cars them­selves. We asked world-class bicy­clist and envi­ron­men­tal researcher David Kroodsma to cover Kevin Czinger’s talk in San Fran­cisco, part of the O’Reilly Solid con­fer­ence.

[su_box title=”Who is Kevin Czinger?” style=”soft” box_color=”#000000″ radius=”5″]At Yale University, Kevin Czinger was a star defensive player for the football team. At just 185 pounds, Czinger has been described by Hall of Fame coach Carm Cozza as “the toughest kid to play football at Yale” in his three decades of coaching. Rather than shoot for the pros, however, Czinger decided his future was in the business world. He is the founder and CEO of Divergent Microfactories, Inc., a company working to revolutionize car manufacturing. Kevin began his career serving in the United States Marine Corps and then worked as a lawyer trying some of the most prominent securities fraud cases of the late 1980s. Following stints in investment banking, venture, private equity, and education, Kevin brought his passionate sense of social mission to the electric car movement. As CEO of Coda Automotive, he designed, built, and certified one of the first all-electric automobiles. Kevin’s experience at Coda flipped his thinking and taught him that how we make our cars is a much bigger environmental problem than how we fuel our cars. He founded Divergent to radically reduce the materials, energy, and cost of car manufacturing, and to put these new tools of production and innovation into the hands of small teams all around the world. Czinger holds a B.A. from Yale College and a J.D. from Yale Law School.[/su_box]


All the parts for the car’s chas­sis fit into a Patag­o­nia duf­fel bag – a mere 100 pounds of car­bon fiber tub­ing and alu­minum. With this this duf­fel bag slung over his shoul­der, Kevin Czinger, the CEO of Diver­gent Micro­fac­to­ries, stepped onto the stage and made a bold claim: he was car­ry­ing a rev­o­lu­tion in auto­mo­tive technology.

As Czinger explained dur­ing his talk, some aspects of car man­u­fac­tur­ing are the same today as they were in Henry Ford’s time. To make cars, you have to invest hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in build­ing a fac­tory. Typ­i­cal car chas­sis are made of metal, weigh about a thou­sand pounds, and require big, expen­sive machines to put together.

Advances in tech­nol­ogy, though, are chang­ing the need for such fac­to­ries or the exten­sive use of heavy metal. Namely, the spread of 3D print­ers has meant that peo­ple can cre­ate almost any­thing with­out the need for a tra­di­tional fac­tory. [On the same day as the talk, the U.S. Gov­ern­ment released a report on 3D print­ing point­ing to a com­ing trans­for­ma­tion in man­u­fac­tur­ing methods.]

Diver­gent Micro­fac­to­ries claims that they are the first com­pany to use 3D tech­nol­ogy to print metal for struc­tural pur­poses. They print alu­minum joints, or “nodes” that then can be glued to car­bon fiber tubes, assem­bling a frame for the car like a Tinkertoy.

Carbon fiber frame with aluminum nodes. (Ph: Divergent)
Car­bon fiber frame with 3D printed alu­minum nodes. (Photo: Diver­gent Microfactories)

The result is an extremely strong and light chas­sis, which pro­vides the same strength as a steel chas­sis but at a tenth the weight. By print­ing (lay­er­ing metal to cre­ate a design), instead of machin­ing (using machines to cut metal to the cor­rect size), they are able to make more intri­cate designs that allow an eas­ier and more struc­turally sound con­nec­tion between the car­bon fiber and the alu­minum. These types of con­nec­tions were, accord­ing to Diver­gent, nei­ther tech­no­log­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally fea­si­ble with­out such printers.

To show­case the method, they built a pro­to­type “super car” around this chas­sis, the Blade, which has received much press atten­tion. (Although it’s often referred to in the press as a “3D printed car,” in fact, it’s a key part, the struc­tural alu­minum nodes, that are 3D printed. The chas­sis tubes are car­bon fiber, and many other parts, body, dri­ve­train, and wheels, are made with con­ven­tional methods.)

It weighs about one third that of the aver­age U.S. sedan, has a 700 horse­power engine, and can go from zero to 60 in about two sec­onds. But while the car is impres­sive, and they plan to build a fac­tory to pro­duce their first run of these vehi­cles, Czinger talked about much higher goals.

One goal is to “democ­ra­tize” car pro­duc­tion. The metal nodes are printed, and thus can be eas­ily redesigned for any type of car. They hope that they can license this tech­nol­ogy, and peo­ple any­where in the world can design and build cars. “A design change is now a soft­ware change,” Czinger said, empha­siz­ing how this tech­nol­ogy makes it easy to build a new car. Peo­ple will be able to exper­i­ment and develop vehi­cles suited to their city or coun­try. Czinger cited open-source tech com­pany Arduino as an exam­ple. One of the founders of Arduino, Tom Igoe, expresses hope that Diver­gent can find a way to become a truly open-source car com­pany, which could become an ecosys­tem for con­tin­u­ous improve­ment – Igoe’s thought­ful response can be read here.

The pri­mary goal of Diver­gent is to “dema­te­ri­al­ize” man­u­fac­tur­ing. In his talk, Czinger talked about how incred­i­bly costly, from an envi­ron­men­tal per­spec­tive, tra­di­tional car man­u­fac­tur­ing is. The emis­sions asso­ci­ated with the con­struc­tion of our multi-ton vehi­cles are enor­mous, before they are even pur­chased. If we are to reduce the entire envi­ron­men­tal impact of dri­ving, one way is to sim­ply use less mate­r­ial, thus reduc­ing both the cost of man­u­fac­tur­ing and the amount of energy needed to move the cars. Diver­gent claims that the com­bined envi­ron­men­tal cost of oper­at­ing and dri­ving these new cars is one-third that of an elec­tric car. While we have not run the num­bers, it’s hard to argue that a lighter car, made with far fewer mate­ri­als, should take less resources to build, and go far­ther with less energy.

There is often a fear that lighter cars will lead to more auto­mo­bile deaths. The truth is that lighter cars lead to sig­nif­i­cantly fewer fatal­i­ties. There is the prob­lem of the rel­a­tive weight of vehicles—the “arms race” of cars. That is, lighter vehi­cles are more dangerous to be in when they col­lide with a heav­ier one. Kevin argues that improve­ment in sen­sors and “intel­li­gent” cars that can help avoid acci­dents, ren­der­ing such argu­ments unim­por­tant. Indeed, Google’s self-driving cars have already reported extremely low acci­dent rates. And the car­bon fiber and alu­minum chas­sis is just as strong (they argue stronger) than the tra­di­tional steel frame.

It's the manufacturing method that's revolutionary, but always good to launch with a supercar. (Photo: D. Kroodsma)
It’s the man­u­fac­tur­ing method that’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary, but always good to show it off first with a super­car. (Photo: D. Kroodsma)

Czinger chose to make a super­car to cap­ti­vate imag­i­na­tions and to demon­strate his tech­nol­ogy, but the really dis­rup­tive use will be to use the same meth­ods to replace ordi­nary cars, and to inter­cept tra­di­tional man­u­fac­tur­ing before it scales up to put mil­lions of new steel frame cars onto roads across the devel­op­ing coun­tries of Asia, Africa and South America.

The Blade super­car has a mon­ster 700 horse­power engine best suited for a track, but a light­weight design based on Divergent’s tech­nol­ogy could eas­ily be pow­ered by a 70 horse­power engine for ordi­nary use, with fuel econ­omy near­ing or exceed­ing the best marks of major man­u­fac­tur­ers and a much smaller man­u­fac­tur­ing footprint.

Can light­weight local man­u­fac­tur­ing inter­cept the world’s auto mar­ket before a bil­lion new cars are built?

For com­par­i­son, the first and light­est ver­sion of the Honda Insight weighed 1847 pounds, had a 67 hp gaso­line engine com­bined with a 13 hp elec­tric motor (in a hybrid con­fig­u­ra­tion), and achieved 70 mpg on the high­way, which is still a mass mar­ket record. Con­sumer vehi­cles built around car­bon fiber frames and small dis­place­ment engines might eas­ily match or beat the Insight’s record.

In the past hun­dred years, human­ity has man­u­fac­tured about two bil­lion cars. Even while the world waits for a cli­mate agree­ment in Paris this com­ing Decem­ber, it’s esti­mated that in the next four decades we’ll build a few more billion.

And some­how we are hop­ing to accom­plish this while also reduc­ing the total envi­ron­men­tal impact of human­ity on the planet – in which case, dema­te­ri­al­iz­ing fac­to­ries and the cars they pro­duce will be fun­da­men­tal steps in build­ing a sus­tain­able world.

Addi­tional material:

Kevin Czinger on the Diver­gent blog: “Ten prin­ci­ples for sane manufacturing”

Kevin Czinger Q&A with Yale Alumni Magazine: Small step or giant leap?(2010)

Forbes: Kevin Czinger’s Ideal Sports Car Just Emerged From A 3-D Printer” (6/24/15)

Video: The First 3D-Printed Supercar

Video: Lessons from Two Decades of New Business Creation—From Satellite Television to Electric Cars. Kevin R. Czinger ’87, co-founder and strategic advisor to CODA Automotive has extensive experience operating start-up and growth companies. The following lecture, titled “Lessons from Two Decades of New Business Creation—From Satellite Television to Electric Cars” was delivered on January 31, 2011 as part of the Yale Symposium on Law and Management, which was co-sponsored by Yale Law School and the Yale School of Management. (2011)

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Lead photo: David Kroodsma

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Originally posted by David Kroodsma on July 5, 2015 on City Atlas: New York