While Ford and General Motors race to build prototypes for the earth-friendly automobile of tomorrow, a fledgling private company that is designing its own "supercar" with the help of NASA has gone a step further.
The group of former aerospace engineers at Beverly Hills-based XCorp has developed a manufacturing system that may itself become a prototype for future auto makers. Based on a production process that defense contractors use to build cruise missiles, XCorp's "clean manufacturing" system--meaning it produces little or no byproducts that are hazardous to the environment--relies largely on polymers, or complex plastic materials, Chief Executive Chris Catlin said.
In the auto industry's standard manufacturing process, various body parts such as doors and side panels are stamped out of large sheets of reinforced steel. XCorp's process is simpler: The body is molded from heated polymers, and the chassis is a composite of the polymers and 100% recyclable aluminum.
Catlin said the molding process creates a single integrated unit that is literally glued together with a fully recyclable adhesive, rather than the typical assemblage of automobile components that are welded, bolted or screwed together. Because XCorp's system renders obsolete much of the heavy, energy-intensive equipment used in the auto industry, it consumes about half the energy. It also eliminates the messy byproducts that come from drilling, spot welding, metal finishing and painting.
XCorp's production system evolved from a more ambitious goal: to create a cost-competitive car with a fuel efficiency of 90 miles per gallon and superior crashworthiness. The vehicle design had to be lightweight, with about a third fewer parts than the average car. To accomplish this, it was necessary to redesign the manufacturing process itself.
XCorp engineers even found an unusual way to cut down the emissions that usually occur when plastics are heated and molded. By working with lower pressures and maintaining strict control over the heating and cooling of the polymers, they were able to reduce the vapor emissions. Rather than escaping, the emissions are contained within the polymers.
XCorp has formed a consortium of suppliers and defense labs to develop a prototype of the car, with the help of NASA's Far West Regional Technology Center. Harriette Reid, a spokeswoman for the space agency, said the center is seeking both private and public funding for the project.