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Chapman's First Lotus, the Mark I

Although my interests lie in sustainability and the ever-expanding world of alternative fuel vehicles (e.g. electric, biodiesel, propane, ethanol, CNG, etc.), I’m a car guy first and foremost.  I’ve always been enamored of Colin Chapman, the innovative design engineer and founder of Lotus Cars.  Chapman was famous for saying “Adding power makes you faster on the straights.  Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.”  This mantra, essentially the anti-muscle car theory, helped Chapman lay the groundwork for his famed Lotus Mark I (built on an Austin Seven chassis and running gear). 

Lotus wasn’t designed with fuel economy or environmental concerns in mind.  However, Chapman’s recipe of low weight and simplicity produced not only the best performing cars, but the most efficient ones as well.  It’s no surprise that Elon Musk, the brainchild behind the all-electric Tesla Roadster, entered into an agreement in 2005 pairing products and services based on the Lotus Elise.  Although only ~6% of parts overlap between the Tesla Roadster and the Elise, Lotus provides Tesla with design and basic chassis development for their electric roadster.

Tesla Roadster

According to the recent New York Times article, M.I.T. Professor: High Weight and Horsepower Nullify Gains in Efficiency, “If weight, horsepower and torque were held to their 1980 levels, and efficiency-boosting technologies continued to be honed — fuel economy for both passenger cars and light trucks would have increased by almost 60 percent from 1980 to 2006.”  It seems like a no-brainer that weight kills fuel economy, but the auto industry must have missed that memo.  Although cars have become more fuel efficient over the years (see chart below), they have also become bloated and overweight.  Although stringent safety standards are to blame for some of the weight, the greatest factor was increased consumer demand for larger vehicles, especially light trucks. 

MIT economist Christopher Knittel stated in his essay Automobiles on Steroids that, “…if Americans today were driving cars of the same size and power that were typical in 1980, the country’s fleet of autos would have jumped from an average of about 23 miles per gallon (mpg) to roughly 37 mpg, well above the current average of around 27 mpg. Instead, Knittel says, ‘Most of that technological progress has gone into [compensating for] weight and horsepower.'”  Perfect examples of cars that this “fast-food” diet has wreaked havoc on are the Honda Accord, Audi A4, and BMW 3 Series.  If we want to make real, tangible fuelefficiency improvements and meet President Obama’s 54.5 mpg Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards by 2025, we need to couple our technological advancements (e.g. cleaner emissions, direct injection, hybrid-electric drive, low-rolling resistance tires) with lighter and leaner vehicles.

If not for ourselves, do it for Colin.