Join us for a futuristic spin with Hugo Spowers, the Oxford alumnus who claims he has a new roadmap for building the environmentally sustainable car.
Above: Hugo Spowers and the Rasa
By Richard Lofthouse
You know when you’ve been in the company of a visionary, because clever words are uttered that have to be discreetly looked up later. Today’s word is pessimise, its guardian Hugo Spowers (Oriel, 1978). He stops me in my tracks by saying, ‘If you optimise the parts, you risk pessimising the whole…’
The OED classifies the verb pessimise as rare, and says that it means making the worst of something. Nothing could be further from mind in the company of Spowers, however. Originally an engineering graduate from Oxford, he oozes ebullience and energy, with a shock of untidy hair and sparky bright blue eyes. He’s on a mission to change how we get from A to B sustainably, and believes that the entire car industry needs overhauling. As Einstein is reputed to have said, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
I’ve just arrived at Spowers’ company, called Riversimple, in a modern unit on the edge of an industrial park in Llandrindod Wells, Wales. The location reflects a grant from the Welsh government, whose role a grateful Spowers describes in glowing terms. We’ve climbed into a very pretty, very futuristic car called the Rasa (after tabula rasa) and Spowers is talking nineteen to the dozen as he flicks a switch, at which point a compressor whooshes up, sounding like a miniature jet engine. Then we each pull down an exotic gull-wing door, which clicks shut before the Rasa pulls away powerfully with a gentle whirring noise into country lanes and May sunshine.
The Rasa, Spowers claims, is the most eco-friendly car in the world, owing to its tiny weight, remarkable lack of drag and ultra-efficient powertrain — all the components delivering power to the wheels. Avoiding the internal combustion engine and bypassing heavy batteries, the car weighs just 580kg and extracts electricity from hydrogen in a fuel cell, sending it to supercapacitors that deliver the energy directly to four in-wheel electric motors. Behind Spowers is an impressive team of designers and engineers drawn from top car companies, from Formula 1 and from aviation. Chris Reitz, who designed the Rasa, also designed the Fiat 500.
For now, there is just this single working prototype Rasa that we’re driving in, but a crowdfunding campaign is under way and a beta-trial of 20 cars is planned for next year, ahead of a more ambitious manufacturing goal.
The first impression of the car, pure and simple, is not of an eco-statement but of an incredibly nimble, fleet-footed craft reminiscent of a Lotus, whose founder Colin Chapman had one mantra: ‘Simplify, then add lightness.’ The connection turns out to be real – Spowers’ own career began in motorsport, and one of the current team members once worked with Chapman at Lotus. ‘The car is not an eco-car aimed at Greens because it is green,’ enthuses Spowers. ‘The car is aimed at everyone.’ And yet Riversimple’s declared purpose as a company is ‘to pursue, systematically, the elimination of the environmental impact of personal transport’.
Spowers admits to another fundamental influence behind the Rasa – Amory Lovins (Magdalen, 1967) the highly influential American physicist who was a junior research fellow at Merton in 1969 and went on to found the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. Lovins published the 1994 blueprint for what he termed a hypercar. This vehicle would have ultra-light construction with an aerodynamic body using advanced composite materials, low-drag design, and hybrid drive, and it would be three to five times more efficient than a conventional car.
Honda’s 1999 Insight, Volkswagen’s 2013 diesel-hybrid XL1 (both to which the Rasa bears some resemblance) and BMW’s electric i3 all contain elements of the hypercar. Spowers’ Rasa, however, is lighter than both and far more revolutionary, owing to its hydrogen-sipping fuel cell.
Instead of storing electricity in batteries, fuel-cell vehicles generate electricity by converting hydrogen and oxygen into energy at the point of need. This reaction produces no air pollution and no global warming pollution — only water. This absence of emissions at the point of use is one reason why many sages in the car industry think hydrogen is the ultimate destination for cars — though the production of hydrogen is more complex (see sidebar on page 28). Other advantages include fill-ups that are for practical purposes no different from the existing forecourt routine — you roll up at a pump and connect a hose for about three minutes. It has a driving range from one tank comparable to a petrol car today and therefore superior to any electric car.
There are already two fuel-cell vehicles on sale today, the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai ix35, but Spowers points out that they are not hypercars because they are stuck in conventional architecture, the consequence of which is excess weight and inefficiency. This, as it turns out, is the point in our conversation where the vocabulary gets interesting. ‘Above everything else, I’m a believer in whole-system thinking,’ Spowers says, as we get nearer to the lake where photos will be taken of the watery-blue Rasa.
‘If you optimise each part of a car, the result is not necessarily the best car. That incremental approach will pessimise the whole…’
Whole-system thinking starts with the big picture, which is why the stated purpose of Riversimple is to eliminate the environmental impact of personal transport. As such, Riversimple will never sell a car. Instead, it will offer customers a performance contract that takes care of maintenance, insurance and fuel — the latter is crucial, given the general absence of hydrogen filling stations. ‘This aligns the company’s interests with product longevity and efficiency,’ he adds, ‘whereas the car industry as it operates currently rewards obsolescence and resource consumption.’
Riversimple’s corporate governance is also unfamiliar. Shareholders have indirect rather than direct voting rights, while six custodians represent the respective interests of the investors, the environment, the staff, the customers, commercial partners and the community. ‘The company exists to maximise the goodwill from all six groups, turning sustainability into a competitive advantage instead of an inconvenient cost,’ says Spowers.
‘Being less unsustainable is not the same as being sustainable,’ says Spowers more than once — it has become a mantra at Riversimple. The Toyota Mirai boasts thirteen times more power than the Rasa, yet accelerates no faster (although it does have a higher top speed). ‘That’s because they’ve started with the status quo and tried to change it incrementally. That approach will never deliver actual sustainability — it is merely less unsustainable than what we already have.’
I counter that surely, if true sustainability is the goal, we’d be better off with public transport and bicycles. ‘There are far too many cars,’ Spowers responds, ‘but I don’t think the answer is no cars, particularly in rural areas where car dependency is a fact.’ He adds that the Rasa is not a zero-emissions vehicle (except at the point of use) owing to the fact that most industrial hydrogen is currently produced from natural gas, a fossil fuel. The long-term goal is to get away from so-called ‘brown hydrogen’ to ‘green hydrogen’, but that hasn’t yet happened. ‘The goal right now is to recognise that the existing car industry is based on a mid-20th-century premise, where there is no shortage of fossil fuels and no climate change.’ Though it can’t be done overnight, he says, we have to move away from that model.
Right: British sports car maker Morgan, based in Malvern, lends weight to Hugo Spowers’ claim that the British West Midlands and Wales is a concentration of car making know-how. The hydrogen fuel cell prototype pictured here (never produced) was unveiled in 2009 as the Morgan LIFEcar (LIghtweight, Fuel Efficient car). Oxford had input, along with other universities and companies.
Photos © Joby Sessions except the Morgan LIFEcar © Richard Lofthouse.