3D-Printed Car, Urbee 2, To Make Cross-Country Road Trip: Will The Energy-Efficient Vehicle Hold Up?

By Ben Wolford on November 7, 2013 8:35 AM EST

A pair of brothers plan to drive their 3D-printed Urbee 2 from San Francisco to New York.
A pair of brothers plan to drive their 3D-printed Urbee 2 from San Francisco to New York.

In two years, a pair of brothers in a 3D-printed car plan to drive across the country and back on little more than two tanks of gas. 

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Is any of that really possible? Kor Ecologic, the compay that designed the little vehicle, said yes at a manufacturing conference in Minnesota last week, Popular Mechanics reported. From the 3D printer that cranked out the parts of the bean-shaped frame to the hybrid engine, the whole thing is a posterchild for efficiency. And its creators are hoping it becomes the prototype for a new era of road travel.

"3D printing makes Urbee more sustainable. ... And designing for sustainability can arguably be stated to be humanity's biggest and most important challenge of the coming century," Jim Kor, president of the company and father of the road trip duo, told Popular Mechanics. "It's something we absolutely need to get right."

So here's how it all came about, according to Kor's interview with Popular Mechanics and the company's websiteAround 2010, Kor was trying to design a highly aerodynamic, highly fuel efficient street vehicle. He had all the designs ready to go. It was going to be powered by a combination of batteries and ethanol, which is where it gets its name: the words urban, electric, and ethanol. With only three wheels for minimal road friction, it was to be super light. There's be just two seats inside.

And it was sleek. So sleek that it looked silly. At least a few designers voiced their concerns, saying they shouldn't build a jelly bean. But Kor insisted drag should be the first enemy and ugliness only a second concern. Ultimately, the Urbee is more aerodynamic than this Mercedes-Benz B-Class.

The problem was they didn't have a good, quick way to get the body constructed — until, that is, one of the partners discovered a manufacturing company with a 3D printer that could knock out parts three feet long. 3D printing works by reading a computer-assisted design file and then excreting layer upon layer of material until the object is done. In Urbee 2's case, the material was acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, which is a fancy term for the kind of plastic LEGOs are made from.

Each part, depending on its size, was printed in several hours or days and then assembled. The entire car wasn't made that way — just the plastic parts on the exterior and interior. "This process could revolutionize how we make things," Kor says on its website. "Scaling parts is a matter of pointing and clicking."

3D printing is definitely the wave of the future in both industrial and personal manufacturing: one dad in Massachusetts has even used the technique to make his son a prosthetic hand.

As the company makes final adjustments on the car, Jim Kor's two boys, Cody, 20, and Tyler, 22, are making preparations for the road trip. They plan to drive from New York City to San Francisco on a single tank, traveling 70 mph and burning gas at a rate of 290 miles per gallon. Then they'll turn around and go back to New York following the same route that Horatio Nelson Jackson did in 1903 when he completed the first trans-atlantic trip in a car. Like Jackson, they'll be taking their dog with them, too.

"The Google time estimate is 44 hours, but it will take a bit longer, I'm sure," Kor told Popular Mechanics. "You know, the dog has to pee and whatnot. And we could have a breakdown. But it will be a swift and efficient trip."

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