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Could Future Cars Be Made Locally, From Local Materials?

Forget the whole domestic versus foreign car debate. A designer imagines a radically different vision: growing materials to build cars, right in your hometown.

Although the technology inside cars is beginning to radically change for an electric, self-driven future, car exteriors look pretty much the way they always have. In a new project, a U.K.-based designer imagines how the shell of a car might shift too–from steel and plastic to locally-grown biological materials, changing the way that cars are manufactured, repaired, and recycled.

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The project, part of an exhibit up now at the London Design Festival on the future of mobility, considers the idea that the final parts of a car might eventually be made locally, using local materials and adapting to local climates. A company would ship out a chassis, rather than the whole car, and then a local workshop would modify a simple design for the exterior.


In part, the design builds on current attempts to use 3-D printers and other technologies to manufacture locally with nothing but a digital file. “This vision of being able to ship information rather than things is talked about a lot, but is it better? Perhaps,” says designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, a PhD student at the Royal College of Art. “I think it makes it much more interesting if we’re not just shipping globally uniform data to reduce our carbon footprint, but inspiring people to design and make and build and repair locally.”

As people build and repair the cars, the appearance would keep changing, mimicking natural evolution. “I was imagining as you begin to repair a car not to try to take it back to a state production-line perfection, but to make fixes, improve its original design, take on board what the neighbors have done…then you’d start to see diversity expanding as time goes on,” Ginsberg says.


Over the summer, she mocked up a “design taxonomy” of 112 different model cars–it’s all very playful rather than grounded in practicality. “Some of the abstracted ideas I came up with included raincoats, sunshades, hairy insulation, temperature adaptive materials for continental climates and simply drilling holes in your car if you know it’s not going to rain but you want to keep cool,” she says. “The project is not intended as a literal prediction of a desirable future, it’s meant to be a provocation about what we might imagine an ideal system to be.”

She plans to further research materials to see whether natural options could be more sustainable than what car manufacturers use now (arguably a hard task, since steel is both durable and 100% recyclable).

Laminated wood, for example, might be used in some regions, taking advantage of the material’s natural strength and ability to suck in carbon while it grows. “The material might not last as long as steel–which does rust–but it can also be recycled,” she says. “This engineered timber may not be as durable or malleable as steel, but it has other advantages including a far smaller carbon footprint.”

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Others are already taking small steps towards alternative materials–in one example, researchers in Brazil are developing a super-strong, lightweight plastic made from pineapples and bananas that could eventually replace parts like bumpers and body panels.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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