The Future of the Automotive Industry: Hemp?

You probably know at least a little bit about hemp, the preternaturally versatile and useful variety of the cannabis plant. But did you know that Henry Ford made a car from hemp in 1941? Or that there are companies making hemp cars today?

Let’s start with Ford’s “hemp car.” Also known as the “soybean car,” Ford’s prototype was built with agricultural plastic, and he famously proclaimed that he’d “grow automobiles from the soil.” According to the Henry Ford Museum, he was looking to integrate industry with agriculture, and was thus compelled to create a plant-based car. He asked the rhetorical question, “Why use up the forests which were centuries in the making and the mines which required ages to lay down if we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the hemp fields?”

And the car was more than an experiment for novelty’s sake. The hemp panels that made up the car’s body were 10 times stronger than steel, making it safer than traditionally built cars. Additionally, the hemp car was one third lighter than steel-bodied cars. The only steel in the hemp car was the welded frame onto which the plastic hemp panels were fitted, and this lighter weight made the car vastly more fuel efficient. And speaking of fuel, the car was designed to run on hemp fuel.

So why aren’t we all driving hemp cars now? The simple answer is that the outbreak of WWII caused the suspension of auto production, and in the recovery effort after the war the hemp car project fell through the cracks. Conspiracy theorists would counter that the oil, plastics, and paper industries suppressed hemp in order to save themselves from competition with a vastly superior product. Whatever the cause, there has been a recent resurgence in efforts to manufacture cars from hemp.

Earlier this week, entrepreneur Bruce Dietzen appeared on “Jay Leno’s Garage” to tout his Renew sports car. The Renew uses a Mazda Miata chassis and is covered with three layers (about 100 pounds) of woven industrial hemp. The Renew is lighter, faster, and more fuel efficient than traditional cars, and the standard model costs about $40,000.

The return of hemp to its rightful home at the center of manufacturing is doubtful as long as it remains classified as Schedule I by the federal government. But given the wave of cannabis legalization rapidly advancing across the United States, perhaps there’s hope for this wonder fiber’s reclassification sooner rather than later.