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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jan/Feb 2003 : Cover Story

Cover Story

A New Way Of Thinking About Cars


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What I think is so exciting about the Model U is that it opens the door to a whole new way of looking at things, just like the Model T did,” says William McDonough, co-founder, with Dr. Michael Braungart, of product and process design firm MBDC. “The vision behind Model U is entirely positive. Instead of focusing on minimizing environmental harm, which is what most approaches to sustainable mobility do, Model U starts to find ways to be recreational and regenerative—to have fun and create environmental benefits at the same time. That’s a totally new vision for the auto industry.”

MBDC and William McDonough + Partners, McDonough’s architecture and community design firm, have been working with Ford Motor Co. since 1999. William McDonough + Partners led the master planning for the redesign of Ford’s historic Rouge manufacturing facility in Dearborn, MI. MBDC has worked with various Ford groups, researching materials recycling, potential eco-effective materials for production vehicles, and supply chain sustainability. The concepts McDonough and Braungart have been developing together—such as eco-leasing, intelligent materials pooling, biological and technical nutrients and metabolisms—are the kinds of insights that led Ford Motor Co. chairman William Clay Ford, Jr., to tell green@work three years ago (“What’s In a Name?,” January/February 2000) that McDonough was “one of the most profound environmental thinkers in the world.”

With this experience working together, when Ford asked McDonough and Braungart to be part of the team designing the Model U, “we were thrilled,” says McDonough. “The opportunity to apply MBDC’s ideas to a concept car after working in research programs and at facilities at Ford is very exciting.”

The Model U was built around design concepts from Ford’s Brand Imaging Group in Irvine, CA, and technologies and environmental materials developed in Ford’s Research Laboratory. MBDC’s addition to the design team gave the impetus for a reevaluation of the aspirations for the car, especially its environmental vision. The positive, hopeful vision that McDonough and Braungart have been spreading for years found fertile ground in the Model U.

At the core of MBDC’s vision for sustainable design is a fundamental shift from the ‘eco-efficient’ strategy of merely reducing industry’s environmental harm, to pursuing positive
environmental effects through intelligent design—an ‘eco-effective’ strategy. Eco-effective design pursues these positive aspirations by selecting the safest chemicals and materials available, and treating them as nutrients in healthy metabolisms—the biological metabolism of ecosystems, and the technical metabolism of industry—circulating in cradle-to-cradle life cycles. Within this framework, a vehicle—its production, use, and recycling—can be designed to support nature’s living systems, rather than being an environmental burden.

MBDC helped place the Model U’s environmental features and materials into an eco-effective framework, identifying a positive, regenerative vision of what they wanted to accomplish in the long run, and then articulating the ways the Model U begins to move in that direction. In much the same way McDonough and Braungart have helped shape the conversation surrounding sustainable development, MBDC brought that frame of reference to the vision for the Model U.

With this new perspective, the design team looked at the environmentally minded materials on the concept car with the cradle-to-cradle lens, identifying materials that were designed to reduce environmental impact, and considering them in the context of transitions to eco-effective materials. Other materials on the car had the potential to circulate in regenerative, cradle-to-cradle life cycles. The identification of two key example materials highlighted the potential to design cars for healthy, cradle-to-cradle life cycles.

Model U’s upholstery is made from a polyester “technical nutrient” fabric from Milliken Automotive that is market-ready. This material, which Milliken and Co. and MBDC developed together, was designed from ingredients selected for their positive human and environmental health characteristics, as well as top performance requirements. In addition to the Milliken fabric, the Model U included textile made from a corn-derived biopolymer called PLA (polylactide), developed by Cargill Dow. PLA is a potential “biological nutrient” that can be returned safely to the soil after use, to feed the agricultural
processes from which it’s derived.

By identifying a potential “biological nutrient” and a “technical nutrient” among the materials on the Model U, the team had an anchor for a wholly positive environmental vision. Instead of aiming only to minimize the environmental harm of the car’s materials (an important and necessary goal), the Model U begins to use materials that are positive—safe for the environment and perpetually recyclable or compostable, never becoming waste. “Waste equals food is such a key principle for environmentally intelligent materials,” says Braungart. “The Model U is just a first step toward identifying palettes of positive materials for designing and manufacturing cars, and eliminating the concept of waste.”

The possibilities the Model U signals are what get McDonough and Braungart most excited.

“From this start, a clear, long-term vision can emerge as
these ideas are more thoroughly developed across the automotive industry,” says McDonough. “It’s a vision for cars that are made entirely of materials with positive human and environmental impacts; biological and technical nutrients made and assembled so they can be separated when the car is disassembled, and returned to the soil or to industry; polymers and metals recovered and recycled at the same level of quality or better, for reuse in generation after generation of vehicles; engines running on energy that’s derived from the sun, and producing no pollution. Driving your car can be a positive event on all counts.”

THE SUPPLY-SIDE PLAYERS
Suppliers contributing to the development of the Model U included:
Ashland ...........................................Soy resin for body panels
Azko Nobel..................................... UV-cure Clearcoat
BP................................................... Hydrogen fuel
Brilliant Technologies...................... Headlight concepts
Cargill Dow .....................................Polylactide (corn-derive polymer)
Dynatek ...........................................Hydrogen fuel tanks
Goodyear .........................................Corn-based tires
Harman Becker................................ Sound system
Interface ...........................................PLA textile
Makel Engineering ...........................Hydrogen sensors and controller
McLaren ...........................................Hydrogen fuel rails and supercharger
Milliken Automotive .........................Polyester upholstery
Motorola ..........................................Wireless technologies
Pi Technology ..................................Hands-free phone
Quantum........................................... Hydrogen fuel injectors
Roush ...............................................Engine support and build
Sarnoff .............................................Collision avoidance systems
Shell Global Solutions .....................Bio-based lubricant
Sun Microsystems ...........................Vehicle electronics programming
SpeechWorks ...................................Conversational speech voice interface
TRW................................................ Four-point safety belts
USSC............................................... Soy-based foam for seats
Visteon............... ..............................Exterior lighting
MIT Medialab .................................Wireless switches
University of Northern Iowa ...........Soy-based grease
-ABIL

 

 

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