Fast Company

In The Future, Your Car Will Be More Plant Than Machine

Ford is using organically derived materials all over their cars. Why? Because oil is too expensive.

plant car

Car companies haven't come up with a plant-like replacement for vehicle engines, but they are using more bio-based materials in their vehicles--because the automakers of the world are more aware than anyone that the world is running out of oil.

This week, Ford--the auto industry's plant cheerleader--announced that it is researching the use of dandelion root in parts of its cars' interiors. That's just one biological element you might start seeing in Ford's cars.

"In theory, anytime you can grow something as opposed to paying for it to be shipped, the better the economic cost," explains Angela Harris, Ford's lead research engineer, in an email to Fast Company.

The dandelions will be used as a rubber replacement in the car company's cupholders, interior trim, and floor mats. The key to the research is a species of Russian dandelion, Taraxacum kok-saghyz, that contains a milky-white substance which could could be an ideal replacement for synthetic rubber.

"This variety of dandelion is much hardier than the kind typically found in our backyards,” Harris says in a press release. "It’s strange to see weeds being grown in perfectly manicured rows in a greenhouse, but these dandelions could be the next sustainable material in our vehicles."

Ford has already replaced petroleum-based foam with soy foam in many of its vehicles. The feature has helped the company reduce its annual petroleum oil usage by over 3 million pounds.

The company is also experimenting with wheat straw--a byproduct of growing and processing wheat--as a plastic reinforcement in the storage bins of the Ford Flex. The odorless wheat straw plastic has demonstrated better integrity than non-reinforced plastic,and it weighs up to 10% less than talc or glass-reinforced plastic.

So why is Ford so gung ho about plants? "Oil prices are extremely volatile," Harris says. "Suppliers may be able to lock in lower costs of plant-based products as those sources would be more stable in cost--ideally it would be a win-win from a business and an environmental standpoint."

There is no small irony in the fact that Ford is trying to eliminate oil from its production process while selling us cars that run on it. Then again, Ford doesn't have to pay for our gas.

[Image: Flickr user KarinDalziel]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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2 Comments

  • Tse-Sung Wu

    The irony? A little research will remind people that Henry Ford had built a car entirely out of plant-based materials released in 1941. Let's just go beyond transcribing press releases, shall we?

  • Ariel Schwartz

    And now that plant-based materials make more economic sense, Ford is trying to scale up and smooth over that early work.