01/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Low Gas Prices May Doom Automakers, Sustainability Expert William McDonough Warns

"Clearly this is an opportunity, not just a crisis moment," sustainability expert William McDonough told me. McDonough is one of Time magazine's Heroes of the Planet. I caught up with him -- no mean feat, by the way -- to find out how this global visionary would reimagine the auto industry, if Congress had the horse sense to ask him.

Why solicit McDonough's opinion? Because this architect and author is no stranger to Detroit or the greening of industrial processes. The last time I spoke with him we were walking on the world's largest living roof, the 10-acre marvel he designed for Henry Ford's iconic River Rouge Plant. He also collaborated with Ford on the Model U -- a car whose basic elements can be recycled again and again.

You've said the United States should be on a war footing against cyclical gas prices.

Bill McDonough: Cyclical gas prices must be recognized and understood as pernicious. It is a pattern that's lulling us to sleep. Have you noticed how the price of oil drops whenever renewable alternatives gain traction? All they have to do is drop the price of oil for one month to destroy those investments. From my perspective, Congress should say, "Look, folks, get used to $4 a gallon because it's a good thing. And here's why it's a good thing -- because when we set the price at $4, we can take the spread and use it to deploy indigenous energy, rebuild the transportation infrastructure, and create jobs."

But ultimately you want to ditch the internal combustion engine, right?

The whole world should drive electric cars powered by the sun. That doesn't mean we can't celebrate oil as a gift from the past. However, oil is capital. And like business capital, the last thing we should be doing is burning it up. Oil is incredibly valuable and should only be used as feedstock for recyclable products.

That's a tough sell -- electric cars would require a whole new infrastructure.

I'm talking about anticipatory design science. The idea is to anticipate the future, and design as if it mattered. That's what I'm calling for here. Automakers can't turn on a dime, but they should be able to turn on a quarter. Now, you may be thinking, "Ask the entire nation to commit to electric cars? You're crazy, Bill." Am I? They're already doing it in Israel. If they can do it, we can do it.

Was Israel's aim to get off oil?

In 2005, the World Economic Forum posed the question, "How do you make the world a better place by 2020?" For Silicon Valley entrepreneur Shai Agassi, the answer was to get Israel off of oil. Agassi took the cell phone business model and applied it to electric vehicles. His company offers one convenient plan that includes a car, a battery, and access to a recharging infrastructure. Israel and Denmark are Agassi's first customers. It's looking like Australia may be the third. Israel will also manufacture their electric cars -- in partnership with Renault and Nissan -- to create thousands of local jobs.

How did Agassi solve the battery problem?

He separated the battery from the vehicle. Nissan's new battery can be pulled easily out of a car, so service station attendants can replace a spent battery quickly -- in roughly the same amount of the time it takes to fill a conventional gas tank. A wireless network will tell drivers where batteries can be replaced out on the road.

Is it reasonable to expect Madison Avenue can put an electric car in every driveway?

In Israel's case, the government will be putting a substantial tax on gasoline vehicles -- and zero tax on electric cars -- to encourage people to make the switch.

But doesn't a sustainable auto industry necessitate more than getting off oil?

Automakers also should be looking at materials, and water usage. They should design cars that can become cars forever -- vehicles that are completely recyclable. Leathers should act as biological nutrients. Plastics should recirculate through the polymer chains. I would like to see a car put together with a glue that disadheres when the car is dipped into enzymes that tell the glue to let go, so we can disassemble cars quickly and recycle them cheaply. Water should be cleaned as part of the manufacturing process. It's too valuable to be discarded.

On a lighter note, you've called cars fun and romantic.

In my opinion, cars are the fourth place: you have a home, an office, cafe society for hanging out with friends, and a car. A car allows you to get inside, listen to your favorite music at your own volume, and go wherever you want to go. There's nothing else like it.

Is an oversight panel the best way to avoid missing this opportunity to get off oil?

I hope anyone put in a position of counsel to the auto sector will have the vision to see what's happening in the world of design and deployment. This is the time for massive change. The car is an amazing thing. It's worth figuring out how to get it right.

It's a tough moment for everyone involved in the car business.

We should wish everybody in the auto sector well. These are difficult times, and it's going to be hard to rise to the occasion. We need to be sympathetic. But that doesn't mean we should encourage the automakers to do what they did before. What did Einstein say? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.