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Christopher Hallowell/Snowmass

Amory Lovins wants the world to run right. He wants everyone to use resources more wisely and live in real communities rather than subdivisions. Above all, he wants us to drive plastic cars that he calls “computers on wheels.” Car companies are not laughing.

Co-founder of a think tank called the Rocky Mountain Institute, Lovins, 52, makes his home amid the alpine splendor of Snowmass, Colorado, but his influence can be seen in Detroit, Tokyo, Stuttgart–wherever cars are made. In 1991, before the industry got serious about greener cars, Lovins used a speech before the U.S. National Research Council to call for a transportation revolution. Though the title–“Advanced Light Vehicle Concepts”–could have used more pizazz, the response was immediate. More than two dozen car companies have enlisted his expertise from time to time.

Lovins praises experiments with hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars, but he thinks they are only the pace cars for even more advanced models just up the road. As important as the type of power used will be the materials and the overall design. By 2010, he predicts, steel will be largely replaced by tough carbon fibers embedded in resin, called composites–the same stuff used in skis and racing cars. Weighing less than half as much as today’s models–and more aerodynamically designed–advanced cars will be much more fuel efficient. Current models expend about one-third of their power just cutting through the air. In the future, underbodies will be smooth. Headlights and windshield wipers will fit seamlessly into the body. Tiny video cameras and interior TV monitors will replace side-view mirrors. Better onboard computers will improve everything from engine performance to braking.

Most of these concepts didn’t originate with Lovins, but few people do a better job of combining them into a clear vision. He calls that vision the Hypercar, and last year he spun off Hypercars, Inc., from RMI to advise the industry on how to make one. “Lovins’ imagination is boundless,” says Donald Runkle, executive vice president of Delphi Automotive Systems. He warns, though, that Lovins “tends to discount the cost factor.” Composites, for example, are now much more expensive than steel. Lovins argues that when built in volume, Hypercars will cost about the same as today’s cars.

A child prodigy from Massachusetts, Lovins went to Harvard to study physics but decided he was beyond his professors. So he became “a 17th century thing–a general experimentalist,” a fuzzy notion that, he says, Harvard found hard to accept. He transferred to Oxford, where he studied everything from climatology to biophysics, but when he wanted to write a thesis on energy-resource strategy, he was told to pick “a real subject.” In frustration, he quit with a master’s degree and began consulting, lecturing and writing.

Not until 1976 did he make a real splash. With the U.S. still smarting from the Arab oil embargo, the journal Foreign Affairs published his call for more efficient use of renewable resources rather than more power generation. Common sense today, it was blasphemous then and helped spur the U.S. Congress to hold energy hearings.

One thrilled Foreign Affairs reader was L. Hunter Sheldon, then a young lawyer in California. The article prompted Hunter to seek out Amory, and a year and a half later she married “the most amazing man I have ever met–an expert in essentially everything.”

Last year the two decided to divorce, but she kept his name and remained a friend and partner. Amory calls Hunter, 50, his “strategist.” RMI was her idea. It was 1980; they were driving from California to New Hampshire for a teaching gig. Finances were not good. “I asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up,” Hunter recalls. To make the world better through “design mentality,” Amory replied. That credo–shorthand for high efficiency, no waste–has made RMI a global consulting and research firm with an annual budget close to $5 million.

Design mentality permeates Natural Capitalism, the new book co-authored by Amory, Hunter and Paul Hawken. It also energizes the Lovinses’ headquarters in the Rockies. Made of thick stone slabs, it is so airtight that the sun’s rays entering big windows during the day keep the temperature cozy even on the coldest winter nights. The abundant sunlight almost eliminates the need for daytime artificial lighting, stimulates solar panels to make electricity, keeps the house supplied with hot water and shines on a sort of tropical forest in an atrium with a waterfall and fishponds. Getting the most out of the sun and all other resources is the essence of the Lovinses’ philosophy–and Amory and Hunter won’t rest until the whole world buys into it.

–By Christopher Hallowell/Snowmass

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