LONG MAY IT RUN Neil Young & the LincVolt

With a
high profile new album and tour in place, the artist now ramps up his Heavy
Metal Monster in pursuit of energy efficiency.

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

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 branches out beyond his musical endeavors – a tableau that
includes folk-rock, country-rock, grunge-rock, techno-rock and all points
in-between – and preaches the practicality of an eco-friendly automobile. Not
that he’s reticent about championing his new CD Le Noise; with six of the album’s eight tracks sharing the
spotlight with the classic tracks in his set list, Young hasn’t forsaken his
musical mantra by any means. However, in lieu of bringing along any kind of
back-up band, his accompaniment on this particular sojourn happens to be his
beloved 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible, which he’s had transformed into a
zero emission, electro-turbine hybrid powered by a combination of lithium iron
phosphate batteries and bio-diesel fuel.

 

It’s been approximately three years since Young came to the
conclusion that he had to rethink his love for big cars and cruising the open
road, and opt instead to pursue the possibilities of redirecting those twin
passions into something that would better serve the environment. “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 told a group of  media representatives gathered at the Hard
Rock Hotel in Hollywood Florida prior to a solo concert later that evening. In
the process of changing his mindset, he quickly realized there was an opportunity
to reduce a dependency on foreign oil, and ultimately, the wars that it
provokes. “Nobody expected us to succeed, but we were only doing it to show
what’s possible and what we could do. So we did accomplish something, and we
also had a hell of a good time doing it.”

 

Young’s initial step was to take the car he now refers to as
his “heavy metal monster” to Wichita
Kansas for the first in a series
of conversions that would ultimately turn into the LincVolt, the world’s first
micro-turbine bio-electro cruiser. The initiative involved the participation of
a number of companies – an onboard intelligence and sensor system built by
Perrone Robotics and overseen by Oracle, revamped automotive underpinnings from
Brizio Street Rods, a power generation system developed by Capstone Turbine
Corporation and an electric motor that came courtesy of UQM Technologies.

 

Young and longtime manager Elliot Roberts had
representatives from practically all those companies in tow when he presented
the gleaming white, 2.5 ton, 19.5 foot-long vehicle to the assembled paparazzi.
Reading from a script and nattily dressed in a white fedora, blue pinstripe
seersucker sports jacket, black LincVolt teeshirt, 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, BLURT was fortunate enough to get some face
time for the otherwise unassuming superstar, allowing him to expound on what
may well be the luxury car of the future.

 

***

 

BLURT: 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?

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 brought this car to Wichita,
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 could find an American
battery company that was willing to sponsor us and help us with out 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 up the truck, revealing an array
of batteries that resembles something like the 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 a 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 about 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 micro-turbine. It’s a
30 kilowatt generator. It’s completely silent and the emissions are super low
from this. It’s the cleanest way to burn fuel and that’s where we get our super
clean 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 micro-turbine 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 same 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 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 can 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 be 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 do 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 its fine.
Yet there’s no regulation for bio fuels. Bio diesel needs to be regulated so
it’s something that’s tangible and always the same. Like petro fuels are always
the same, but bio diesel doesn’t have regulations, so companies like Cummings
or Caterpillar or Detroit Diesel, they can’t say that they run bio-diesel in
their engines. The reason I can is that they don’t know what the bio-diesel is.
You know, Joe in Missouri might make different
bio-diesel that 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.

 

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!

 

Yeah?!
Is there a chance this might be more than a onetime occurrence?

Well, we’ll see how it goes…

 

[Ed. note: The Buffalo Springfield
reunion did indeed take place, and you find BLURT’s coverage – along with links
to pristine audio of the Oct. 24 concert – right here.]

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