The future of cars and buildings

The above talk from TED features Larry Burns, the Vice President for Research & Development for General Motors. The future of the car – according to Burns – is based on replacing the internal combustion engine to the hydrogen powered engine. His belief is the automobile industry can keep making small energy improvements in the current cars it makes — or it can take a big leap forward to build a whole new kind of car.

Cars are really great at two things – they get us from point A to point B, and they consume fluids including gasoline, oil, coolants, and lubricants. There are some cars that get better gas mileage than other cars, some cars can haul more adolescent soccer players better than other cars, and some look cooler doing doughnuts in the Dairy Queen parking lot. Despite their specific utility functions and their inherent fashion, cars really just consume energy for transportation.

Larry Burns wants cars to act not only as an energy user but also as an energy producer. He states that if 4% of the current amount of cars in the U.S. were powered by hydrogen, the power produced by these cars could fill the entire power grid of the United States. The idea is that while your hydrogen car sat idle in the garage it could actually produce electricity and send that power back into the grid. (And since the only emission from the hydrogen-fueled engine is water vapor anyone trying to end their life while running the engine inside a closed garage will only be bothered by high humidity.)

Buildings are also good for two things – keep people protected from the elements, and provide a place to keep their stuff. Buildings, like cars, are more geared towards energy usage and not energy creation. Architects and everyone else involved with the design and construction of buildings must also heed Burns’ strategy of completely reinventing and redefining the status quo.

Buildings in the future will not only keep the rain out, or allow you to keep your stuff out of the rain. Nor will it be used as a medium for architects to muse about the theoretical constraints on the human condition. (Sorry for the archi-babble, but truthfully that’s how some architects view the purpose of designing buildings.) Buildings in the future will not only provide the basis of inspirational form and utilitarian function for living, but they will additionally function as a source for creating power and filtering the water we drink and the air we breath. They will become a magic box where the waste leaving the box will be as clean if not cleaner than the resources coming into the box.

The commitment for making the “big leap” requires a faith in knowing that you’ll achieve your goal as well as the rejection of the old ways of doing things. We have the technology and knowledge for creating a sustainable architecture, and the current method for constructing buildings is obviously not the solution for creating a more ecologically balanced environment. We as a society are more than ready for the “big leap.”

In case the above video is not displayed you can view the Larry Burns talk at


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