"This is a very exciting and important time in the auto industry, more important than the launch of hybrids. It's like being back in 1900, when gas, steam and electric propulsions were battling it out," TDG car blogger Jim Motavalli told the audience of the alternative vehicle panel at New York City's recent Go Green Expo.
"The Big 3 [GM, Ford and Chrysler] are going to get smaller, and all these startups like Tesla are going to take their place," continued Motavalli, who also wrote the book Forward Drive back in 2001. "The EPA has announced that greenhouse gases can be regulated as a pollutant, which is going to have major implications. The future is so bright we should wear shades."
During the panel talk swung from boosting efficiency of battery technology to debating the merits of biofuels, hydrogen, military spending and more. It was moderated by Seth Leitman, who blogs as Green Living Guy, edits McGraw-Hill's "Green Guru Series" and is the best-selling author of Build Your Own Electric Vehicle, Second Edition and Build Your Own Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle.
On the panel to represent Big Auto was Chris Colquitt, a driver relationship manager for GM who serves as a primary point of contact for participants in the company's Project Driveway, the largest market test of fuel cell technology to date. Colquitt said that everything is looking good for the highly anticipated launch of the Chevy Volt for late 2010. "At GM we're excited by EVs. We're also on track to reduce oil use by 30% with cellulosic ethanol by 2030," said Colquitt.
Also on the panel was Shannon Arvizu, a cleantech strategist and educator who is pursuing a Ph.D. in the recent history of electric vehicles from Columbia University. Arvizu also runs the fun, informative site EVGrrl. "I love my car and hate my car," she said. "There are hundreds of millions of cars emitting toxins into the closed garage of our environment. My grandma never smoked but has lung cancer, and she has lived near freeways in LA for years."
"The Fisker Karma is one sexy mofo plug-in hybrid with curves," added Arvizu. "But it costs $85,000, so that's a green premium. We have federal tax credits for EVs -- buyers can now get $7,500 back -- but we could do more. In Israel hybrids cost the same as regular cars now [thanks to government subsidies], and we could do that here."
Also present was Donald R. Sadoway, Ph.D., a professor of materials chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and one of the world's foremost experts on advanced battery technology. He told the audience, "At the end of the day it all comes down to batteries. There is plenty of room at the top -- we're nowhere near the upper limits of the technology. Lithium-ion batteries could be made two to three times more energy dense than they are now."
Sadoway said there is no reason not to expect electric vehicles in the near future with a 450-mile range. He also added, "We want to drive green because it's a better ride." He said that because he had enjoyed the experience of GM's fated EV1 (of Who Killed the Electric Car? fame) so much, he decided to realign his research interest to focus on batteries that would help lead to the next generation of motorized vehicles.
However, Sadoway said that there is precious little funding available for basic research on the batteries that we will need to really have an electric future. He said the federal government's stimulus package does not include any money for basic battery research, as it does for life science research. It does earmark some money for helping set up manufacturing of advanced batteries, but in his view there needs to be additional money to bridge the gap from theoretical to final product.
"Lithium-ion is too expensive now for cars," said Sadoway. "That technology was never intended for cars. Yes we've been mass-producing lithium-ion batteries for some 16 years, but for small applications, like cell phones and laptops." Sadoway pointed out that the small size of such devices means they have very different requirements for heat dissipation, and he hinted at reliability issues, as well as the oft-repeated concern that ramping up production of lithium-ion batteries could bring on a global shortage of lithium itself.
Instead, he offered an exciting solution: "The way you make a battery dirt cheap is by making it from dirt. Make it from aluminum, iron, magnesium and other common materials that can be sourced here in the U.S. That's what I'm researching," said Sadoway.
Interestingly, Sadoway rejected the oft-repeated concept of launching a centralized "Manhattan Project" for batteries. "We don't have a Manhattan Project for cancer research, we just spend a lot of money on it," he said. He argued that funding needs to be increased, and made more stable and permanent, so researchers don't run out "halfway through a Ph.D."
When Leitman asked the panel about the fastest way to get to a world of cleaner cars, Remy Chevalier of Electrifying Times answered that it's to bypass the mainstream auto industry, the highway lobby, big oil and even the government, and instead to encourage innovation at colleges, by scrappy startups, through after-market conversions, drag racers and the like. "Twenty thousand people have built their own electric vehicles, but many people don't even know that," he said. Chevalier also spoke of the one million electric vehicles that already exist in America, transporting goods and materials inside factories and mines, shuttling folks around retirement communities and golf courses, and serving dutifully in various commercial fleets.
Jim Motavalli responded that what would really sell EVs is low gas prices, and he suggested putting a minimum floor price on gasoline to help kickstart greener transportation. He pointed out that today's relatively low prices also make it likely that gas prices will rise in the near future, since oil companies have curtailed exploration and development of new reserves.
An audience member, Sam Salamay of Energence Biofuels, told the panel that his company is working on a plan that turns sweet sorghum grown on marginal land into affordable ethanol fuel, complete with carbon sequestration. He said his clean fuel could be easily run in hybrid gas-electric engines. "Then we don't have to think about batteries," said Salamay.
Colquitt of GM responded, "Ethanol is the best alternative fuel in the near future to reduce gas use." Motavalli said even if such technologies do prove to be viable, the most difficult challenges are often scalability, infrastructure and -- most crucially -- acceptance from industry, government and consumers.
"Don't fall for an ethanol versus EVs debate," replied Sadoway. "For one thing every hybrid has a battery in it. Toyota is worrying that all those Prius batteries out there will start failing." Perhaps more importantly, Sadoway argued that anyone who wants to help the world get off it's addiction to oil should be embraced and included in the conversation. "Let's all try to pull together, and not drive wedges between us," he said.
The rest of the panel heartily agreed. Chevalier took it a step further, and said that there needed to be broader cooperation between other sectors as well, especially those who work in advanced military technology, other realms of science and engineering, and even the makers of electric-driven toys, from go karts to scale models. He pointed out that a broad-based interdisciplinary approach can overcome many problems, and gave as one example research suggesting that laser-based ignition systems could boost efficiency, even though the concept has come from outside traditional car companies.
The panelists mentioned that use of used cooking oil in diesel engines, production of ethanol from algae and even advanced work with ultracapacitors are likely to all be part of the new transportation picture. "There's no silver bullet," said Sadoway. "When you add up all those 5s and 10s [percentages of the car fleet that can be run on a given alternative fuel or technology], pretty soon you can get off oil."
"There are many great minds working toward a common goal," concluded Leitman.
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