BASALT, Colorado — Jonathan Fox-Rubin wants to start a revolution in car manufacturing. In his sunlit office in western Colorado he explains his approach to the weighty question of how to make cars easier on the environment: He goes straight to the body of the car.
If the skeletal system of
automobiles can be made lighter, he says, environmental benefits
will follow. "Saving weight translates directly into saved fuel,
and to reduced materials used by the car throughout its lifetime,"
His company, Fiberforge, owns the patent for
carbon fiber thermoplastic, a lightweight, strong material that can
replace steel car frames. The change, like sleek plastic surgery,
would be invisible to consumers — but it would take a
significant load off the bodies of their cars.
average steel car weighs 4,000 pounds," Fox-Rubin says. "Say you
take a car and pull out 500 pounds in the structure. Then your
tires don’t need to be as big, your brakes don’t need
to be as big, your engine doesn’t need to be as big."
Different carbon fiber composites have been in the
marketplace for years, but have been used only in Formula One
racing cars and luxury automobiles with price tags in the hundreds
of thousands of dollars. Fox-Rubin wants to get his material into
mass-produced cars from Detroit to Tokyo.
miles from Detroit, the small mountain town of Basalt may seem an
unlikely place to transform automobile design. Then again, at one
point, Fox-Rubin seemed an unlikely candidate for the job. "I was a
problem child, not doing my homework, having fun, working on
motorized things," he explains.
He grew up in Woody
Creek, Colo., just up the Roaring Fork Valley from where he now
works. In high school, he was considered the perfect candidate for
vocational school. "I wasn’t much of a college-bound kid," he
says. "The non-college kids were encouraged to go to the auto
shop." When Fox-Rubin was a junior, he won a statewide competition
for auto mechanics.
Fox-Rubin became a certified
mechanic. But after spending four years under the hood, he realized
cars were poorly designed. Environmental controls usually failed
early in a vehicle’s life.
In hopes of rectifying
the flaws he saw, he enrolled in the mechanical engineering program
at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In college, his
environmental awareness grew, and he began to consider cars’
impact on the environment from the perspective of an engineer
rather than a mechanic. He eventually earned a Ph.D. from the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan Automotive
Laboratory, focusing his studies on reducing car emissions and air
He assumed he would stay in academia, but a
message from home changed his career path. Amory Lovins of the
Rocky Mountain Institute in Old Snowmass, Colo., recruited him to
come back to the Roaring Fork Valley and work on creating the
Hypercar, a lightweight, hybrid aerodynamic vehicle.
After working on several permutations of the Hypercar concept,
Fox-Rubin separated the project from the Rocky Mountain Institute.
Hypercar then became Fiberforge, because Fox-Rubin decided that
focusing on carbon fiber thermoplastic technology was the most
viable way for his company to remain competitive in the market.
Since carbon fiber doesn’t rust, the lifetime of
the car could be much longer. Even as the rest of the car
deteriorates, the frame could be used again. "You could put on new
body panels and refurbish the drive train and sell it on the
secondary market," he explains. "It’s recyclable." Since
carbon fiber thermoplastic absorbs energy five to ten times better
than steel and aluminum, he says, the material can also make cars
Fiberforge is at least several years
away from becoming an applied technology. It’s still in the
testing phase; investors have agreed to fund Fox-Rubin and his team
of 20 employees until the product is ready for production. The
primary obstacle remains the high cost of manufacture. Steel varies
from sixty cents to several dollars a pound, while carbon fiber
costs around 10 dollars a pound.
Professionals in the
auto industry have struggled with the cost of the technology as
well, and they’re skeptical that Fox-Rubin can make his
product inexpensive enough for assembly-line manufactured vehicles.
"We’ve been working for years on the use of carbon
fiber reinforced composites. It’s too expensive," says Mike
Vaughn, technology and public affairs manager for Ford Motor
Company. "We applaud Fox-Rubin and wish him well — if he can
come up with a way to do it affordably, the industry would bust a
path to his door," he says.
Fox-Rubin is confidently
preparing for the onslaught. "We have our special recipe," he says.
Despite the uncertainties, Fox-Rubin has been traveling
the globe, meeting with automakers in hopes of selling them his
Ultimately, he hopes his technology will become
part of gas-electric hybrids or renewable-fuels cars. "My vision is
that Fiberforge is a key that will unlock the future of auto
mobility," he says. "That future is when all cars are