An Indigo Industrial Ecology Paper
Creating systems solutions for sustainable development through industrial ecology

Levels of Applying industrial Ecology to Transportation

Industrial ecology enables planners and designers to work at different time scales and to integrate their innovations across time. Incremental improvement in the design of automobiles, proposed radical redesign of small vehicles (the Hypercar concept), and plans for an integrated rail-based transportation system (Suntrain) illustrate the broad spectrum of design opportunities for industrial ecology. (The design of transportation systems themselves are only part of the broader design of communities. The New Urbanists and other innovative urban planners are creating human-scale towns where the old technology of two feet on the ground is again fully functional.)

Each of the three cases here is at a different level of system and in a different time frame. In a fully industrialized country with a large investment in highway infrastructure, near-term improvement in the performance of cars and other motor vehicles is obviously an important goal for reducing greenhouse gases, local pollution, and resource consumption. In a developing country the integrated system can enable development to leapfrog over what industrialized  countries are now experiencing as transportation breakdown. In turn, the gridlock, resource consumption, and pollution of highway-based transportation suggests a hopefully inevitable transition to integrated rail-based transportation systems in the US and other developed countries.

Re-design of Conventional Auto

Automobile re-design within the current product concept

An industrial ecologist would use tools such as design for environment to support short-term enhancements in automobile design. The basic question would be: how can we optimize trade-offs to reduce energy use and pollution in the production process as well as in use of the product?

The automobile and its infrastructure, as now designed, is a major environmental threat. The production of cars and their fuel generates pollution to land, sea, and air. Autos are a major contributor to atmospheric ozone pollution, generate eighteen per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and are a significant source of water pollution. Autos use nonrenewable petroleum at an ever increasing rate. Roads, freeways, and parking garages typically use between one third and one half of urban space and a major share of transportation dollars. Interstate highways cover valuable agricultural land while air pollution damages crops and forests. (Renner, Michael. 1988. "Rethinking the Role of the Automobile," Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute, 1988, Worldwatch Paper 84.)

The automobile industry has made serious efforts to prevent pollution in manufacturing processes, decrease materials wastes, and practice internal and external recycling of metals and plastics (process design). Product design seeks improved fuel efficiencies and lower emissions, usually through redesign of the internal combustion engine and specific innovations such as the earlier catalytic converter, electronic fuel injection, and composite materials. Designers are also seeking to greatly enhance recyclability of automobile components. Anticipated European take-back legislation is prompting automakers there to begin design for disassembly and to team together in setting up an infrastructure for realizing value from cars returned to them. (Klimisch 1994)

Change in design in the U.S. is largely driven by Clean Air Act revisions, CAFE mileage standards, zero emissions vehicle legislation in California and the Northeast, and Germany’s proposed take-back legislation (placing responsibility on manufacturers for recycling at the end of a car’s life). But the targets are still generally modest given the magnitude of the automobile’s burden on the environment. The redesign is incremental change in the basic familar product. Even Big Three electric car designs to meet California’s 1998 zero-emissions deadline are retrofitting of existing internal combusion models (The mandated standards call for 2% of fleet sales in the state to be zero-emissions vehicles.)

This incremental level of DFE is necessary to develop improved but still inadequate products in a time of transition. Business constraints on more fundamental innovation include the large investment in traditional production facilities, lack of strong demand for change from markets (in North America  as well as those opening in Asia), and relatively modest performance standards set in public policy. Continuing to apply DFE at this level may give very wise decisions about very wrong long-term choices. Most solutions are likely to be short-lived.

The RMI Hypercar

At another level, an industrial ecologist might ask, how can we transform small vehicle design to capture levels of efficiency and freedom from pollution not possible within the existing internal combustion model.

Amory and Hunter Lovings have challenged the automobile industry to stretch to another level of design with the Rocky Mountain Institute Hypercar proposal. The Lovins challenged a team at RMI to go to the basic physics and engineering of small vehicle design. Forget the common wisdom of the industry. The result is a design with radical implications for fuel and materials efficiency, emissions, manufacturing processes, and the nature of the business itself.

The Hypercar is projected as an ultralight, highly aerodynamic vehicle powered by a small electricity generating engine (gasoline, liquid gas or hydrogen cell). The engine transmits current to drive mechanisms in the wheels, which also recapture energy from braking (~70% of braking energy). Highly energy efficient accessories (lights, heating, a/c, radio) also reduce energy demand. Body and frame design with strong composite materials provide passenger safety higher than in traditional vehicles at almost one third the weight. Selective use of  superstrong carbon fibre and other composites will reduce number of body parts and simplify production and assembly.

The RMI performance models indicate Hypercars will be one hundred times cleaner than present cars (or pure electrics) and operate at 150 mpg in the near term design. (GM’s Ultralite concept car has demonstrated only 62 MPG.) Potential fuel efficiencies could double and triple that high level with more advanced designs. The total energy draw will equal that used for accessories in present autos.

RMI indicates the Hypercar design concept will enable an equally radical transformation of automobile production. “Moulded composite cars need much less and vastly cheaper tooling. The tooling’s short life and very quick fabrication supports fast cycles, short time-to-market, continuous improvement, small production runs, and strong product differentiation - a striking strategic advantage.” Conceivably the US Big Three and other global auto companies could be left in the dust of entrepreneurs who see the parallels with the emergence of a personal computer industry (coming out of garages!), a new industry able to rapidly challenge the mainframe manufacturers in the early 80s.

A more likely scenario is that advanced design concepts such as the RMI Hypercar will be developed and tested through a partnership between startups and major automakers. Already many entrepreneurial companies are growing in the market niche created by California’s zero-emissions standards, and some are collaborating with the majors.

Lovins claims that the technological foundation for realizing the Hypercar concept has been laid. The design challenge is in breaking out of the conventional wisdom of how we conceive and build cars and integrating the breakthroughs already made.

With the Hypercar we move from incremental to transformative change, the realm of industrial ecology. At this level we start designing on a clean slate, asking what do we really need to do to provide the customer utility we’re here for. We open to fundamental redesign of product, production processes, and the very nature of our business.

Suntrain: an integrated transportation system

At a still broader level, an industrial ecologist  would ask, how can we design integrated transportation systems to move people with highest resource efficiency and lowest possible pollution? How can telecommunications, urban planning, and work design reduce the number of trips and distance traveled.

Amory Lovins also recognizes that even transformative design at the level of individual vehicles gives no more than a partial, necessary solution. A necessary and sufficient solution will only be found at a higher level of design, one that addresses the system in which automobiles function. Hypercars and smart highways alone will still leave us with an overall system design burdening the environment via materials and land use. One need only look at the implications of deploying an automobile infrastructure in China to grasp the dimensions of this issue. Agricultural land is already being paved over for industrial development. It is degrading heavily from desertification, pollution and reliance on chemical fertilizers.

Suntrain, an entrepreneurial start-up company in Califonria has moved design for the environment to the level of system needed for an adequate response to the environmental challenge: intermodal, rail-based transportation. Christopher Swan has designed the technical, business, financial, and political infrastructure for transforming urban and inter-urban transportation.

Imagine being able to make one phone call to route, schedule and pay for a trip via public transit that would get you from here to there faster than in your car. Perhaps you start via a van that picks you up at your door, connect without waiting to a subway, transfer to an electric or gas powered rail car for the main trip, and pick up a rental Hypercar to make business calls at the other end. No grid lock. Time to read, tap into the Internet, or work on that unfinished spread sheet.

Total cost to the individual for using this integrated system for business and recreational uses: 50% of the cost for operating and maintaining a personal vehicle to cover those miles.

Environmental benefits: An integrated transportation system such as Suntrain projects would dramatically reduce fuel use, emissions, and resource use. One railway passenger car worth two million dollars lasts 20 yrs, and replaces the mileage consumed by six thousand automobiles worth ninety million. Less urban and rural land would be consumed by the system and pavement could be removed in some areas.,

Is this pie-in-the-sky fantasy? Even without the one call information system and tight connections, passenger rail transport has increased significantly on selected U.S. routes in the last decade. As with the Hypercar, the technologies are fully available now, including self-propelled passenger cars, power plants using alternative fuels, distributed information systems for system management and customer ‘travel efficiency’. Geo-positioning satellites are now used by railways in tighter, more efficient scheduling of trains. Swan says 250,000 miles of rail track are used at roughly 15% of capacity (a sunk infrastructure worth one trillion dollars).

With Suntrain we move to the design of institutions and infrastructure grounded in the customers’ need to move effectively in the short-haul ranges (up to 400 miles) that constitute the majority of passenger trips. Rather than focus on a specific mode of transportation, the concept addresses the need for an integrated system, linking all modes. The concept also unfies meeting the customer’s business, commuting, recreational, and personal needs. Link this integrated approach to transportation with regional and town planning in the New Urbanism mode and you increase the opportunities for actually walking or bicycling to many of your most important destinations.

The Suntrain vision reflects a higher level of design for environment: design at the level of business concept and social system that integrates already present technological innovations into a new solution.

Critics often raise the question, ”How will we ever get people out of their cars?” If the built-in incentives don’t achieve this, then we move to a level of design vital to the transformation in personal lifestyles sustainability demands. This is creation of the social incentives, communications channels and means of learning through which people can freely adopt new patterns of behavior.

This case offers a good illustration of the service economy concepts of Walter Stahel.  Historically, the railroad industry has demonstrated many product-life extension strategies.

Dynamic input-output analysis is an IE framework with particular promise for evaluating alternative transportation scenarios. See transportation examples on the IE Methods and Tools page.


Rocky Mountain Institute
1739 Snowmass Creek Rd.
Old Snowmass, CO. 81654-9199
Phone 303-927-3851 fax 303-927-4178

Lovins, Amory B., Barnett, John W, and Lovins, L. Hunter. 1993. Supercars: The Coming Light-Vehicle Revolution, Rocky Mountain Inst., Snowmass, CO.

Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. 1995. "Reinventing the Wheels," Atlantic Monthly, January. NY.

Klimisch, Richard L. 1994. Designing the Modern Automobile for Recycling, in Allenby, Braden R., Richards, Deanna, ed. Greening Industrial Ecosystems, National Academy Press. Washington DC.

Renner, Michael. 1988. "Rethinking the Role of the Automobile," Worldwatch Institute, Worldwatch Paper 84, Washington, D.C.

Swan, Christopher. 1998. Suntrain Inc Business Plan. San Francisco.

Congress for the New Urbanism. 2000. Charter of the New Urbanism. McGraw-Hill, New York, New York.

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