Why I’m passionate about (and obsessed with) clean transportation and alt-fuel vehicles

AFVs beat gasoline“When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters – one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”  U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy said in a 1959 speech.

I’ve been fortunate to have fascinating conversations with several readers of this newsletter in recent years. That could have happened while preparing for an Automotive Digest video interview, during an article interview, while seated near each other at industry conferences, or while standing in line at ride and drive events. Some people in my social circles tune out while I sermonize on the benefits of clean transportation being deployed in the US and around the world. Other people have their share of passion on the topic – including personally driving a hybrid, electric vehicle, natural gas car, or something similar. Sometimes they manage hundreds of these vehicles in their fleets.

Beyond the bells and whistles of a particular green car, here are typical points that I, and many of my peers, make during these conversations………

  • Reducing tailpipe and carbon emissions. As the article on China covers this week, the number of vehicles on roads is increasing and bringing serious ramifications to urban centers around the world. Ground transportation makes up a big chunk of carbon emissions and air quality impact – whether that be through passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles, or buses. I tend to be “technology neutral” about how we do it. Some advocate plug-in electric vehicles as the only way to go, or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, or natural gas vehicles, or clean diesel, or small cars that get high mileage, or……. you name it. I tend to support all of them – as long as the case can be made that they’re all built on scientifically tested, safe technologies and fuels that meet government rules.
  • Turning problems into solutions. As you read the quote from JFK above from my consulting website, it points to a realistic assessment of global conditions. China, India, and Brazil are the emerging economic markets – the US no longer plays its dominant role, nor does Europe. All of these economies are becoming more interlinked and dependent on each other (as was clearing demonstrated by the Japanese earthquake of 2011). For the US, clean transportation and alternative fuel vehicles represent four huge opportunities: job creation; research and development for advanced technologies; breakthrough technology and fuel innovations; and capital investments. It is definitely tough to gain support from venture capitalists in Silicon Valley and other regions for green vehicles compared to smartphones and tablets – but there’s a lot of growing interest out there in clean transportation and for cleantech overall.  Turning waste into energy also points to another problem-into-solution, such as renewable natural gas being made from sewage and garbage.
  • Training and development opportunities. There are a lot of Millennials/GenYers out there who’ve had great, expensive college educations but are working at Starbucks; along with talented service technicians who want good paying jobs. There a quite a few people in their 40s and 50s who’ve burned out on their office jobs or have been laid off during the Great Recession. How about getting them into automotive and charging and fueling infrastructure jobs? There’s a need for engineers, designers, service technicians, charging station installers, renewable energy technicians, alternative fuel station and storage tank experts, vehicle service and repair departments, emergency first responders, battery makers, dealers, vehicle remarketers, and others to make clean transportation thrive. And don’t forget educators – there are some excellent training and development programs out there that need our support.
  • Recovery from fossil fuel addiction. As 2GreenEnergy’s editor Craig Shields depicts in blog posts and books, fossil fuels used in electricity and transportation dominate decisions in Washington and in corporate boardrooms. That is starting to change, but the challenges are enormous. While Shields would likely not get along with former president George H.W. Bush, they would agree on one thing:  “We’re addicted to oil,” as Bush said in his State of the Union speech in 2006. Former oil tycoon and natural gas champion T. Boone Pickens would agree with that statement and always talks about how many barrels of foreign oil the US imports every day. As for me, I would go back to the JFK quote – turn problems into opportunities. Whether you believe in climate change or not, how about cleaning air quality, creating jobs, and recovering from oil addiction through clean transportation and alternative fuel vehicles? That sounds pretty darn good to me.
  • This isn’t just a momentary fad. All of the technologies and fuels have gone through spurts of possibility in the past before quickly fading away – natural gas vehicles (NGVs) in the early 1990s, electric vehicles (EVs)  in the late 1990s, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the early 2000s, and flex-fuel vehicles in the second half of the past decade……… This time, none of them are likely to go away. EVs have recently hit an overall sales trend stronger than the early days of hybrids; there are more green vehicles being announced by OEMs or in the pipelines than ever before; the charging and fueling infrastructure is moving forward at public and private stations; incentive programs aren’t going away anytime soon; gasoline and diesel prices are high enough for consumers to take notice; corporations, government agencies, and non-profit organizations are adding clean transportation to their sustainability programs and policies, and they seem to be expecting that their employees comply; and sales figures for EVs, hybrids, clean diesel, NGVs are still small, but nearly all the forecasts say the numbers will be growing through the next 10 years along with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, propane autogas, and biofuels. And take a look at media coverage in a given week, such as what gets summarized in Green Auto Market. There are always significant, substantial vehicle launches, studies, government policies and incentives, partnerships, and innovations. It appears that clean transportation and alternative fuel vehicles are here to stay.

China a great market for green vehicles as its urban air pollution worsens

Traffic in ChinaThe Chinese government will soon release details of its plan to remove six million vehicles from its roads as air pollution worsens. The government recently acknowledged failing to meet its pollution reduction goals for 2011-2013 as its cities continue experiencing dramatic growth trends. Chinese cities such as Beijing have strict emissions standards in place, but enforcement has been lax and has not really addressed the problem.

Chinese citizens have been moving from small towns and rural communities to mega-cities and buying their first-ever cars; and Chinese industries have been acquiring their share of passenger and commercial vehicles. There are about 240 million vehicles in operation there today, with half of them being passenger cars.

The six million vehicles will likely be older – registered before 2005, according to the Chinese government. The US government addressed this problem with the successful Cash for Clunkers program in 2009, where owners of nearly 700,000 older, low mileage vehicles were given cash rebates as they traded in their gas guzzlers for newer, more fuel efficient vehicles.

In China, the first five million vehicles will be taken from Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Guangzhou and surrounding regions; the government will later announce where the remaining one million of these vehicles will come from. The government’s plan will also likely address bringing the cleanest grades of gasoline and diesel to Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities where most of these vehicles subside.

China has been adopting other policies and programs to deal with air pollution and carbon emissions as its vehicle sales hit record numbers (it’s the largest new vehicle sales market in the world today). Taxi fleets and public buses in major cities are now required to switch to natural gas or battery power. Electric vehicles (EVs) have been a focal point of government policies, though these sales numbers have so far been slim.

BMW Group and Tesla Motors think that will be turning around sometime soon. Karsten Engel, head of BMW’s China operations, expects China to become the world’s biggest market for EVs in at most five years. More charging stations will be deployed and government policies are promoting clean, light vehicles to reduce its air pollution problem.  “We expect that the Chinese car market for electromobility will become the largest markets for those cars in a few years,” Engel said. “Because you have supply now, there are cars coming on the market. We are coming with ours, others are coming as well.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently traveled to China to deliver the first eight Model S sedans that were sold to Chinese owners. Musk thinks Tesla’s future in China looks very good – and other automakers are planning on bringing several new EV models to China in the near future.