10/4/2019 | 3 MINUTE READ

Why Recycling Isn’t the Only Answer for Old Vehicles

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Why not transform old vehicles into, well, like-new ones? Or even housing?

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Due to the urgency to make mobility sustainable in the U.S. and respond to our urgent climate challenges, I wonder if any of our 270 million cars (and light trucks) in the U.S. can be reused rather than fully recycled to assist with a timely transition?

While it may not be feasible to convert one of our many millions of ICE vehicles into electric versions, I do wonder if some of our outdated vehicles could be converted to autonomous use, or perhaps used in non-automotive applications? It seems a waste not to consider the possibilities.

This idea would unlikely have any merit at all before 3D printing has come online. I can imagine many types of custom brackets and reconfigured body panels being economically 3D printed, created for any of the many types of vehicles.

To be sure, the automotive recycling business in the U.S. is a big one ($25B), where 85% of an outdated vehicle’s materials can be reused. That’s impressive! But recycling an outdated vehicle and then manufacturing a new one requires energy, on both ends. A Sierra Club document says manufacturing a new 3,000-lb. vehicle requires the equivalent of 260 gallons of gasoline. So if there is a feasible application for not destroying a car and converting it to a new use, it may offer environmental benefits, and potentially allow the coming new autonomous vehicle (AV) industry to scale faster?

Removing the gasoline engine from an outdated vehicle could provide an empty and available compartment for batteries. This obviously would not be an ideal body configuration for an electric powered AV, as that compartment will likely be smaller than desired, and the batteries would be located in a less-ideal higher position than a new AV could offer. But should there be some type of “flash” charging in the coming new road infrastructure, perhaps it could be a viable solution from the driveline side of things.

If there could be a feasible driveline conversion, for starters, I can imagine a new windshield and front roof module being 3D printed for that vehicle type. This would reposition the windshield into more upright attitude, allowing for the front seats in the passenger compartment to swivel to face rearward, now that a human no longer drives the vehicle. There could be many other opportunity areas of body reconfiguration as well. For example, I can also imagine the doors being modified to provide more glass into this new cabin environment.

Beyond this potential mobility application, our hundreds of millions of vehicles that will ultimately head to recycling, all offer a structural passenger compartment that might be of value for other uses. Here my thoughts turn to architecture, although I admit my ideas here border on outlandish.

I can imagine a young, hip architectural firm proposing a new college “dorm” built from hundreds of old car bodies, stacked on top of each other four levels high, perhaps ultimately looking like one of the capsule hotels in Japan. Again, 3D printing would be used to tie these discarded vehicles together, create new needed exterior/interior components resulting in a modern micro-living solution. Perhaps these tiny sleeping spaces would be too small, so I might be describing a possible solution for the homeless.

Another possible application would be to create mobile tiny houses. The tiny house movement is gaining steam, and marrying an older SUV rolling platform to be the basis of this type of micro dwelling may have merit. In this application, I can imagine the SUV is cut in half, height wise, and a new floor structure is welded on, which is a fair amount wider than the SUV’s footprint. While a crazy idea, I could imagine an old golf course converted to a place for movable micro dwellings, where users can huddle their homes next to friends out by the park for an evening.

Lastly, there may be another potential application for a reuse car/SUV that enables mobile AV retail. We are already seeing some proposals for AV retail solutions that bring a micro “store” to one’s location, at different times of the day, when most optimal.

I’m not an engineer, so there may be little feasibility to my thoughts here. Or, there could be meaningful opportunities to reuse our outdated vehicles I’ve not thought of. But should there be a good application, it could be an elegant answer, and allow us to transition to a better world sooner.