Canada’s first bio-composite-bodied electric car recalls Henry Ford’s innovations in its use of hemp mats.

The Kestrel is an electric 4-passenger bio-composite compact vehicle, designed and engineered by Motive Industries Inc. in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

“The very first Model T in 1912 was made of hemp and ran on hemp oil,” says Nathan James Armstrong, president of Motive Industries. “Then in 1941, Henry Ford made one attempt with hemp in automobile design, and in 2005, the Lotus Eco-Elise pushed the envelope further and came out with body panels made of hemp.”

Darren McKeage, the firm’s vice president of design, marketing and media relations, says mass-produced hemp cars never picked up since Henry Ford. That’s changing now, says Armstrong, as industrial hemp, bioengineered to produce maximum fiber, is an ideal green alternative. “There are no pesticides. There are no known pathogens. It’s a dense crop. No weeds can grow. It’s very clean and a very hardy plant.”

Armstrong says the Kestrel is the first production vehicle to use hemp in inner secondary structural elements. Motive Industries designed the Kestrel with the goal of increasing electric vehicle production in Canada. It is a product of Project Eve, a Canadian initiative to further the production of electric vehicles and components in Canada.

Funding for the Kestrel’s initial design came from the National Research Council in Canada, says Armstrong, who declined to reveal the specific amount, but said it was significant. “But the launch of the Kestrel officially began with the X-Prize,” he says, referring to the Progressive Automotive X-Prize, awarded by the X Prize Foundation for “radical breakthroughs,” according to the foundation’s website. Armstrong says his team decided to redesign an earlier car, the Switch, to have wider appeal.

From 1995 to 2004, Armstrong worked in California, building concept and advanced prototype vehicles for the major OEMs. “I started in 2004 with the idea to take the composite materials, tooling techniques, engineering techniques and assembly techniques and move it out of the concept world and take those materials into the production arena,” he says. “We’ve done over 200 prototypes, concept cars and advanced prototypes.

“The main challenge was, how do we standardize this bio material? If you have a dry year, if you have a wet year—how does it affect the fiber? We’re working toward a worst case. We’re getting to the point of analyzing the gray area of an engineered product. It’s made of a natural fiber with crop variations depending upon the climate,” says Armstrong. “It’s blurring the line of what is an engineered material versus what is an organic product.”