Page last updated at 23:23 GMT, Monday, 9 June 2008 00:23 UK

Racing principles' role in cutting emissions

Theo Leggett
Business reporter, BBC World Service

Gordon Murray drawing
Professor Murray says we must start from scratch

The motor car has been with us for a little over a century - ushering in an era of personal mobility that would have been inconceivable to our ancestors.

Yet now the car as we know it is under threat as never before. Rising fuel costs and mounting environmental pressures mean its long-term prospects are increasingly uncertain.

One man who thinks the motor industry faces a very bleak future indeed is the renowned engineer, Professor Gordon Murray.

"If we don't do anything, we're going to have restricted use of our cars very soon, within the next ten to fifteen years," he says.

Weight equals profit

Professor Murray designed some of the most successful Formula One cars ever built - as well as the McLaren F1, for years the world's fastest road going car.

But now, he has left the high-octane world behind and turned his attention to making the motor car more environmentally friendly.

For the past year, he has been working on a radical design that he claims will shake up the entire industry.

The problem, he says, is that while manufacturers are investing billions of dollars in making cars more efficient, the progress they are making is far too slow.

The reason is simple: Weight.

"Every single new model in a particular market segment is bigger and heavier than the one before," he explains.

"The excuse is always that higher safety standards mean heavier cars.

"But the real reason is that carmakers want to go upmarket and sell bigger, more luxurious cars and make more profit. And heavy cars use more fuel."

Well to wheel

Of course, there are alternatives to conventional cars already on the market - electric vehicles, for example, or petrol-electric hybrids.

Gordon Murray
A racing car is ultimately the most efficient vehicle on the planet
Professor Gordon Murray

But Professor Murray thinks a much more fundamental approach is needed; focusing not on how a car is powered, but on how it is actually made.

"If you could take 10% off the weight of every car on the planet overnight, it would make so much more difference than all the new engine technologies and fuel technologies that people are talking about," he says.

So getting rid of weight is a key part of his vision, though there is more to it than that.

"We're starting with a clean sheet of paper and re-thinking the car as we know it," he says.

"And that doesn't just mean the basic architecture and concept of the car. It means every single detail."

Professor Murray's team is looking at all aspects of car production, from how the wheels are attached to the car, to the energy needed to make all the components, to the energy to build the factory in the first place.

"So we're not just dealing with the emissions from the exhaust pipe," he says.

"It's from the moment you dig the ore out of the ground until you have to recycle the bits at the end of the car's life, and everything in between.

"If you think about all the steel and aluminium and heavy stuff that goes into a car, the energy needed to build it, the fuel needed to ship it around the world. That's where the real damage comes from."

Racing principles

In practical terms, Professor Murray says his company will use revolutionary design and advanced materials to create a car that is both practical and extremely efficient.

"We're looking at a vehicle that's less than half the weight of a normal family hatchback, but more importantly, we'll be reducing the CO2 damage by up to two thirds," he says.

It all sounds a world away from his past career in motor racing, where to the casual onlooker fuel is burned like it is running out of fashion and pungent exhaust fumes are all part of the atmosphere.

But Professor Murray believes the two approaches are closely connected.

"A racing car is ultimately the most efficient vehicle on the planet," he explains.

"You're trying to squeeze every last drop of energy out of the fuel, and make the lightest, stiffest structure out of the most advanced materials you can find. The principle is exactly the same."

Consumer appeal

Paul Niewenhuis, an automotive expert at Cardiff University, agrees with Professor Murray's view that the car industry has to change.

"We must abandon the automotive excess that has led to many modern cars being more akin to mobile boudoirs or mobile offices than true driving machines or even basic means of getting from A to B," he says.

And he thinks that consumers could benefit, because a new generation of basic cars will be "more involving, more likeable and more fun to drive than the often over-specified, over-weight devices of today".

But whether the car industry is ready to embrace such radical change is an altogether different question.

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