The roll call of automobile innovators includes any number of familiar
names -- Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler, John and Horace Dodge, David Buick,
Neil Young... Neil Young? Well, yes, actually. On his current tour, the
venerable rocker has branched out beyond his musical endeavors to preach the practicality of an eco-friendly
automobile. Not that he's reticent about championing his new CD,
Noise; with six of the album's eight tracks sharing the spotlight with
the classic tracks during his performance at Hard Rock Live last week. His accompaniment on this solo sojourn happens to be
his beloved "heavy metal monster," AKA a 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible, which he had
transformed into a zero-emission, electro-turbine hybrid powered by a
combination of lithium iron phosphate batteries and biodiesel fuel about three years ago. Read more about the car's technical specs here. "I felt
increasingly guilty about driving a car that only got eight miles to
the gallon, but I didn't want to give it up," Young said during his South Florida visit.
Nattily dressed in a white fedora, blue
pinstripe seersucker sports jacket, black LincVolt T-shirt, jeans, and
hiking boots, Young spent the better part of 45 minutes spinning out
stats that attested to the LincVolt's energy efficiency and touting the
accomplishments of its engineering team. After the formal presentation
ended, New Times was fortunate enough to get some face time with the
otherwise unassuming superstar, allowing him to expound on what may well
be the luxury car of the future.
New Times: Neil, you mentioned in your presentation that you loved big cars and you loved cruising the highway but that you suddenly realized that your enjoyment came with a cost to the environment. Did you suddenly have an epiphany that made you rethink your MO?
Neil Young: First I thought it was using too much fuel, and that was a problem. Then I realized that it really wasn't the amount of fuel. That it was how dirty the fuel is. And the way of burning the fuel is wrong and there are many cleaner ways to do things, and the energy produced by this car is so much cleaner because of the things we've done. Rather than try to get 100 miles to the gallon, we tried to make it so it was cleaner than a car that gets 100 miles to the gallon. But we're not there. It's cleaner than a gasoline-powered car that gets 80 miles to the gallon, but it's still really clean.
When you initially brought this car to Wichita, Kansas, did you have any idea how it could be modified to accomplish those goals?
We wanted to change this car over to bio fuel because I knew that was a clean fuel. So it was there that they conceptualized the serious hybrid plan that we have here -- the bio-electric turbine, the whole thing -- and then we built the proof of concept of the car, with the generator, the battery pack, the electric motor, and we made it work, and we could charge it while we were running. And then we decided we better build it so that it's like a production car. So then I took it to a builder, Brizio, in San Francisco, and they built what we have here. It's basically the same car, but it's more refined in the details. But they built it and conceived it so that it would work. We did that down and dirty with our own money just to make it happen. So then we found people that could help us. We have an American electric motor company, American capstone generator, and we have Chinese batteries. We couldn't find an American battery company that was willing to sponsor us and help us with our batteries or that would even sell us batteries. They were worried that we were not going to get it together and we'd do something wrong and it would reflect badly on their product. So we couldn't get a U.S. battery manufacturer to back us. We used Chinese high-powered batteries, and we purchased them ourselves. [Young opens the truck, revealing an array of batteries that resembles something like a jet engine that one might imagine in a futuristic rocket ship as pictured in a sci-fi novel.] Here it is. There's the battery pack. There's 108 batteries in there, and it makes enough power to run the car very, very fast and very quietly.
How long can it run on the batteries alone?
Well, it will run on batteries for abut 55 miles, and then we can turn the generator on at any time, and the range is somewhere between 400 and 440 miles before you need to put more fuel in the tank.
Does it take some time to start the car?
No. It's immediate. Three seconds to boot up. The capstone generator will take four or five minutes to come on, but that's not something that needs to come on right away. That's a jet engine, and it needs to get up to speed, 96,000 RPM. It sounds like the Batmobile. It's a very sexy-sounding car. It looks like this and sounds like the Batmobile. Women love it. What can I say? [Young then walks around to the front of the car and opens the hood.]
So what have we here?
This is the capstone generator, and this is the capstone microturbine. It's a 30-kilowatt generator. It's completely silent, and the emissions are superlow from this. It's the cleanest way to burn fuel, and that's where we get our superclean emission from. It's also vibration-free, running at 96,000 RPM. There's no change in vibration with the vehicle at all from 30 miles an hour to 90 miles an hour. The only difference is the sound of the wind going by. And it is smooth. There's no shifting. You can go up and down hills, and there's no shifting, none of that sound of gears going up and down, no noise, no tailpipe emissions to speak of. It's very clean... and very large and very heavy.
Detroit must not like you very much.
Oh, they should. They like me. They just don't know me.
So how much did this car cost to reconfigure? Would the price make it practical for the average consumer?
First of all, I'm not an automobile company. I'm just trying to help with the technology and create a concept. This could be made economically in a smaller scale. This is a microturbine that is designed to run 24/7, 365, at 130-degrees Fahrenheit in the desert. This thing could run through anything. Capstone could dummy this down for an automobile application so it would be cost-efficient if it was to be put in cars. Batteries are coming down in price all the time, and this is a lithium-ion battery pack, and it's the cleanest and safest battery pack available in the world today. It can be recycled, and the materials in the battery pack can be reconstituted and used again, so it can be used over and over again. The batteries in this car can still be used in cars 20 years from now. After this car is finished, the whole battery pack can be broken down and the pieces can be recycled and build new batteries.
So will this car take the place of the hybrids we know today?
Hybrids are better than ordinary gas-powered cars, but this is a serious hybrid. The best way to explain it is like a train. A train has a generator and an electric motor. The only difference with this is that it has a storage system for the power which is a bladder for the power that is built in here. We build the power here, build it up, and then put it in the batteries, and then we run on the batteries. You can turn this off, and when the batteries get low, we turn it on again and charge them up again. We keep on going for a range of 400, 440 miles, and we can run silent when we run into town, just turn it off outside of town and not make any noise.
This would seem to have a lot of ramifications beyond merely a new kind of automobile and the energy impact. It would seem to have economic ramifications, political ramifications... Have you or any members of your team been willing to testify before Congress about the advantages this car offers?
We're going to do something. We're going to try to explain what we're doing, maybe take the car to Washington and show them. The thing we want to do is to get an energy bill passed that has regulations for bio fuel. Bio fuels are not regulated. Petro fuels are regulated... It's all backed up by the government, and everybody says it's fine. Yet there's no regulation for bio fuels. Biodiesel needs to be regulated so it's something that's tangible and always the same. Like petro fuels are always the same, but biodiesel doesn't have regulations, so companies like Cummings or Caterpillar or Detroit Diesel, they can't say that they run biodiesel in their engines. The reason I can is that they don't know what the biodiesel is. You know, Joe in Missouri might make different biodiesel than Ralph in California. The reason is because it's not regulated. In the energy bill that's up there now, there's regulation of bio fuel. It needs to go through or this technology will never get off the ground. You have to have a fuel that engine manufacturers can believe in.
So there definitely are political aspects to this?
There are several political ramifications to it, and it has to be approached, and I'll do what I can, but we're not trying to make a bunch of money off of this. It's an open technology, and if somebody wants to use this technology... we're just demonstrating that this is possible to run a 6,200-pound, 19.5-foot-long Lincoln Continental and have it be cleaner than a Prius.
How long have you owned this car?
I've had it for about 25 years.
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We'd be remiss if we didn't ask you if the rumored Buffalo Springfield reunion involving you, Steve Stills, and Richie Furay is going to take place this year in conjunction with your annual Bridge School Benefit concerts.
Yeah?! Is there a chance this might be more than a one-time occurrence?
Well, we'll see how it goes...