Waste not, want not: This 3D-printed supercar could pave the way to green speed

The world’s automakers are going to build 4 billion cars in the next 30 years. That number is staggering enough on its own, but when we stop to consider what that means in resources, energy and environmental impact, the effort required seem almost incomprehensible.

Enter Divergent Microfactories, and its prototype supercar the Blade. It may have lines from Tron and a 700 horsepower bi-fuel engine, but the real story behind the Blade is how it’s built. The prototype supercar makes use of a revolutionary new type of modular, 3D-printed construction. And it could pave the way for all automotive manufacturing to come.

Tinkertoy, or car?

While Divergent CEO Kevin Czinger, told Digital Trends that his inspiration came from seeing the environmental consequences of building electric cars — more on that later — we could be forgiven for thinking that he took his inspiration from Tinkertoys. That’s because the modular chassis is based on a deceptively simple system of 3D-printed aluminum nodes, and aerospace carbon fiber rods. Like the connectors on Tinkertoys, the aluminum nodes can be arranged in nearly any configuration. The results are impressive. The aluminum and carbon chassis on the Blade tips the scales at just 102 pounds, and according to Divergent Microfactories is as strong and rigid as a conventional chassis.

The same parts can be used to build sports cars, trucks, and minivans.

From there the car gets a 700 hp, 2.4-liter turbocharged Evo motor that can switch seamlessly from compressed natural gas, to regular gasoline. This sounds sci-fi, and indeed to us, it looks optimistic, but the real point of this technology is not to allow for radical high tech powertrains, but rather to keep weight down to a bare minimum.

From a performance standpoint, this technology has obvious benefits. Most notably, keeping the weight down means quicker acceleration and better handling. The Blade has a dry weight of only 1,400 pounds, 300 pounds less than the 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, a car made of largely of good intentions and farfegnugen. If the Blade ever goes into production the chassis could prove a real advantage over other performance machines. Yet, to Kevin Czinger the performance benefits are really just a good way of showing off what he really cares about: environmental impact.

3D printing a brighter future:

Czinger isn’t just concerned with what comes from the tailpipe of a car, he’s concerned with the environmental impact of its entire lifecycle, from manufacture to scrap heap. As Digital Trends has examined before, emissions are only the tip of the melting iceberg that represents this entire process. Everything from the energy needed to mine the metal cars are built with, to the cost of refining fuel, and the work of building factories must be considered. When all these factors are evaluated, the results can be astronomical. An Argonne Labs study cited by Divergent Microfactories suggests that tailpipe emissions account for less than a third of the total environmental cost of a gasoline vehicle, a conclusion backed by the Norwegian study cited in our own article.

The traditional answer to this problem has been to point towards electric vehicles, or more efficient ways to convert fuel to usable energy. But they might actually be worse. Czinger got his automotive start as he says, as “a true believer in EVs,” working on establishing battery and automotive production lines in China. What he discovered in this work, however, is that the environmental cost of EV production is shocking, due in part to processes like mining for rare-earth metals to the energy used to physically produce the cars. Czinger isn’t alone. Some researchers believe that in many cases, the massive industrial cost of EVs actually means a higher carbon footprint than the internal-combustion alternative.

Tailpipe emissions account for less than a third of the total environmental cost of a gasoline vehicle.

Divergent wants to tackle this conundrum in a couple of innovative ways. First, by producing cars that are inherently more efficient thanks to their lightness. But the bigger innovations will come from how they’re produced. Because the nodes and carbon fiber rods used to build the chassis are standardized, they don’t require customized tooling, or the sort of immense manufacturing base of a typical automotive production line. In fact, Czinger estimated that a 10,000 unit a year production line would cost around $10 million, much cheaper than a traditional plant. Because the technology allows for nearly infinite customization, the same parts can be used to build sports cars, trucks, and minivans. This means fewer production lines, fewer costly machines, and lightened environmental impact.

Perhaps the most interesting benefit of modular 3D-printed construction is that it requires fewer resources. Modern car production wastes a great deal of material in tooling, cutting, and shaping. A Tesla Model S weighs 4,700 pounds, as much as a full-size truck. Now think about just how much material is needed to build that car, and the literally billions of other cars that projections show will be built in the next generation. Some quick back-of-the-calculator math shows that we’ll need tens of trillions of tons of material to build that estimated 4 billion vehicles in the next 30 years, a nearly impossible task. 3D printing offers a rosier picture, and not only because the final cars weigh less, but because less is wasted in production; 3D printers use only the material necessary, nothing more.

What comes next?

The potential implications of this technology are as big as the automotive industry itself. Czinger told us he envisions a business in which entrepreneurs around the world are able to license the 3D-printed node technology and set up their own “microfactories” building cars of their own design.

But that’s a long way off. 3D printing still a confusing new technology to some automotive engineers, and the idea of building featherweight cars with it could be scary for consumers used to doors that thunk shut like tank hatches. In the meantime, Divergent Microfactories hopes to put the Blade into limited production to demonstrate just what the combination of 3D printing and modular construction can achieve.

Cars

Rivian CEO R.J. Scaringe wants his startup to be the Patagonia of electric cars

Rivian is the latest startup hyping new electric cars. But unlike most other startups, Rivian is focusing on off-road vehicles. It launched an electric pickup truck and SUV at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show. CEO R.J. Scaringe explains the…
Cars

This external airbag turns your entire car into a crumple zone to save lives

German components manufacturer ZF will test an external side airbag in 2019. It's essentially the same technology as the airbag mounted inside every new car but it deploys over the side of the vehicle to reduce the severity of injuries.
Cars

Uber is about to restart self-driving car tests but on a reduced scale

Uber is reported to be on the verge of restarting its autonomous-car test program. The company halted it in March 2018 following a fatal accident involving one of its vehicles, but its cars could be back on the road within weeks.
Cars

Bosch is developing a Rosetta Stone for autonomous and connected cars

Bosch and start-up Veniam want to create a common language that autonomous and connected cars can use. The two firms have developed a connectivity unit that transcends the national boundaries of technology.
Cars

Aston Martin bets classic car owners will choose volts over carburetors

Aston Martin has converted one of its most sought-after classic models to run on electricity instead of gasoline. The roadster uses electric components sourced from the upcoming Rapide E sedan.
Cars

Volkswagen may be planning a tougher challenge for its all-electric I.D. R

The Volkswagen I.D. R electric race car may head to the Nürburgring in 2019 for a lap-record attempt, according to a new report. Volkswagen will reportedly aim to set the quickest lap time ever by an electric car.
Mobile

Car-branded phones need to make a U-turn if they ever want to impress

Your car and your smartphone are becoming one, yet smartphones branded or co-created by car companies are a problem. We look at the history, some examples of the best and worst, then share hopes for the future.
Cars

600-hp, $155K Polestar 1 is the alluring Volvo coupe you’ve been waiting for

Volvo's return to the coupe segment just took an interesting turn: the model will join the Polestar lineup, and it will get a 600-hp plug-in hybrid powertrain. The Polestar 1 will be built in China starting in 2019.
Cars

The Aston Martin Vanquish Zagato Shooting Brake is the sexiest wagon ever

Aston Martin has revealed new photos of the limited-production Vanquish Zagato Shooting Brake. The Vanquish Zagato line now includes the Shooting Brake, Coupe, Volante, and Speedster, each with bespoke styling.
Cars

Nissan and Italdesign’s GT-R50 concept will become a $1.1 million reality

The Nissan GT-R50 is a customized sports car built to celebrate the 50th anniversaries of both the GT-R and design firm Italdesign. Underneath the sleek bodywork sits a 710-horsepower engine fortified with race car components.
Cars

Ford’s new Shelby GT500 Mustang will have 3D-printed brake parts

Ford's new $45 million Advanced Manufacturing Center will focus on emerging technologies, including 3D printing. One of the staff's first jobs is to print parts for the 700-horsepower Shelby GT500 Mustang.
Product Review

Audi built an electric SUV for buyers who want gasoline-free to mean stress-free

We finally got to spend time behind the wheel of the electric 2019 Audi E-Tron bustling cities and arid desert of the United Arab Emirates to see how it compares with Jaguar and Tesla's competitors.
News

World’s fastest electric race car to display at Petersen Museum

The Volkswagen I.D. R Pikes Peak race car smashed the all-time record at the hill climb for which it was named. The all-electric VW record-holder will be on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles until February 1, 2019.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Folding canoes and ultra-fast water filters

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!