Monday, October 8, 2018

Pondering the future of the car with the planet in mind

Historical vehicles on display at General Motors Factory One (left to right): Flint Road Cart (1886),
Buick Model C (1905) and Chevrolet Classic Six (1913)
  [photo: Jason Robinson, courtesy of General Motors]
This year, the Society of Environmental Journalists' (SEJ) Annual Conference was held in Flint, Michigan. The city has been in the news recently because of its toxic, lead-contaminated tap water, a public health crisis brought on by negligence and indifference at all levels of government. Clean water was a major theme of the event, which included moving presentations by members of the community, activists and researchers involved in the crisis.

Historically, however, Flint is one of the cities that gave birth to the automobile. William Durant, a key co-founder of General Motors, and his partner Josiah Dort opened a factory for making horse-drawn carriages there in 1886. That building subsequently became an early factory for Durant's car company before falling into disuse in 1924. Five years ago, General Motors purchased the building and named it Factory One, turning the refurbished structure into a museum and event space.

This location served as a fitting venue for an evening plenary on the Future of Cars held on October 3, 2018, the first day of the SEJ conference. Moderated by Jim Motavalli, the panel included Michelle Krebs, a leading automotive analyst, Mike Ableson, a GM vice president involved in the company's electric vehicle efforts, and myself.

Jim framed the discussion in terms of the much-hailed mobility revolution that will occur as car sharing, electrification and autonomous operation converge to overthrow the century-long dominance of personal vehicle ownership. Apostles of this "3 Revolutions" vision foresee a not-too-distant future when electric robocars run cleanly and around the clock, taking people wherever they want to go and delivering whatever consumers desire to their doorsteps.

Jim pressed the panel on how soon such a green transportation utopia will transpire, and my own opening remarks homed in on the factors likely to determine just how planet friendly the future of automobiles will be.

This issue has many facets, of course. Impacts on air, water and climate happen throughout the entire process of vehicle production and use, but the concern that looms largest for the future of transportation is global warming. The car-climate challenge has five main dimensions:

  • the vehicle population
  • fuel efficiency
  • electrification
  • automation, and
  • carbon offsets.

The first one is obvious: the world vehicle population now stands at roughly one billion, and conventional projections -- that is, those made without factoring in the wild card of automation -- foresee a billion more by mid-century. Two billion plus cars will rack up many trillions of miles each year, consuming road space as well as fuel.

The second dimension is fuel efficiency: now and for the next 2-3 decades, how well we improve the fuel economy of gasoline and diesel vehicles will be the main factor that influences the global warming impact of automobiles.

The third and fourth dimensions pertain to the new mobility technologies -- electrification and automation -- which are now garnering so much investment by not only car companies, but also many startups and other innovators in the rapidly evolving new mobility ecosystem.

Certainly in the United States, electric vehicles clearly provide a climate benefit. However, given their cost, capability limitations, charging issues and other barriers, the question is this: will the process of electrification be revolutionary as some suggest, or will it be evolutionary, and to what extent can it be forced by policy?

As for the automation of mobility -- which is a better way to look at it than "autonomous vehicles" -- there's no doubt that it will be a disruptive change. It is indeed a wild card, and the big question is whether its net effects are positive or negative for the environment.

The fifth dimension -- carbon offsets -- is a sleeper. It's not been part of the conversation even though it should be. Cars and other forms of transportation will continue to use vast quantities of liquid fuel for many years to come even as electrification unfolds. The notion of low-carbon fuel is pure myth; the scientific reality is that as long as you burn a liquid fuel, you are putting more carbon into the atmosphere. To mitigate that part of emissions, you have to speed up the rate at which you pull carbon out of the atmosphere somewhere else. I realize this one might be a head-scratcher for many of you and so as we get into the discussion, I'll be happy to further explain how it might influence the future of the car.

So those are my five points to ponder -- vehicle population, fuel efficiency, electrification, automation and offsets -- and I'll look forward to hearing what all of you have to say. Thank you.

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