Fuel of the Future - Years Of Living Dangerously

Fuel of the Future

By John O’Dell

An electric car charging station in Sacramento, Calif. Photo: Max Whittaker/The New York Times

Electricity is the transportation fuel of the future. Cars with small on-board generators, advanced batteries or tanks of hydrogen will one day be as plentiful as gasoline vehicles are today.

That’s not a dream.

Although there are obstacles to overcome, major automakers around the world are investing heavily in electrification of mass-produced vehicles to meet national fuel efficiency, clean air, and energy independence goals. Consumer acceptance of electric cars is growing, albeit slowly, as companies roll out more models. Billions of dollars have been spent developing battery and hydrogen fuel cell technology, and those dollars aren’t likely to be thrown away.

For some, the idea that EVs are the future may have taken a hit with Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president. He has, after all, called for stepped up exploitation of coal and oil resources and dubbed climate change a hoax.

But experts say it is far too soon to pull the plug.

Even the auto industry, despite lobbying for a softening of fuel efficiency standards, has long acknowledged that the electrification of the automobile is here to stay. Almost every major automaker is working on battery-electric vehicles, which require recharging from the power grid, and cars that produce their own electricity from compressed hydrogen gas. Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai already have begun marketing fuel cell vehicles – although a lack of hydrogen fuel stations has confined initial sales to California.

“Things are moving all across the globe,” says Roland Hwang, energy and transportation program director at the environmental group National Resources Defense Council.

General Motors has invested more than $2 billion in vehicle electrification since 2010 and plans to launch its third plug-in model, the Chevrolet Bolt EV, by the end of the year. GM has said repeatedly that it is fully committed to increasing the number of plug-in vehicles it offers.

Toyota has pledged in its “Challenge 2050” to reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of its global car and truck offerings by 90 percent by mid-century. Meeting that goal requires further improvements in the efficiency of its U.S. vehicles, which account for about 25 percent of its global sales. The automaker hasn’t yet determined the powertrain and fuels mix, but it will involve a great degree of vehicle electrification, says Jaycie Chitwood, sustainable mobility specialist for Toyota Motor North America’s advanced product unit.

Abandoning development of EVs would be competitive suicide for the US auto industry when European and Asian nations are embracing them as a major tool in their pushes for cleaner air and less dependence on petroleum.

China is already the world’s largest market for EVs. In addition, renewable power generation is outpacing new petroleum-fueled generating capacity globally, and the battery industry is on the verge of major price reductions that will help make EV prices competitive with other cars. “U.S. automakers can’t afford not to keep up,” Hwang says.

Additionally, a dozen states, led by California, have air quality standards on the books that require use of low- and zero-carbon fuels and sales of plug-in vehicles. California alone accounts for 10 percent of the nation’s new car sales, so automakers cannot ignore its demands.

Indeed, passenger cars and light-duty trucks account for almost 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation segment of the U.S. economy, according to federal estimates. An electric car is almost 50 percent cleaner than a conventionally fueled vehicle even when taking into account the emissions created during fuel production.

Replacing a quarter of all of internal combustion cars and light trucks with plug-in electric vehicles would cut greenhouse gases by about 14 percent. Clean up the grid with more renewable power and the percentage rises; dirty it with more coal generation and it declines.

Unless the United States reverts to getting all of its electricity from coal-fired plants with no pollution-scrubbing equipment, EVs and plug-in hybrids are more efficient and cleaner than conventional vehicles. That’s thanks in large part to the efficiency of electric motors, which are about three times better than internal combustion engines at converting fuel to wheel-turning power.

Given all that, “we are optimistic, but pragmatic,” says Don Anair, deputy director and head of research for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ clean vehicles program.  “There’s still a lot of work to be done. But there have been more than 500,000 plug-in vehicles sold in the U.S. so far and there are more than 25 models available and more are coming, and all that’s been done since 2010” when GM and Nissan introduced the first plug-in cars, the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, he said.

“We are entering Gen 2.0,” added EV advocate Chelsea Sexton, referring to a new generation of electric cars, starting with the Chevrolet Bolt, that will deliver 200 miles or more of travel per charge, up from today’s norm of about 100 miles, at prices that are starting to be competitive with gasoline cars thanks to lighter, stronger, and less expensive batteries.

Nevertheless, most consumers haven’t been exposed to electric cars or educated about their benefits. Many don’t think they can afford one and are unaware of federal and state incentives that help cut the cost. Others suspect that EVs won’t do the job they think they need their cars to do. Most plug-in vehicle models today are available only in a handful of states with the toughest air quality regulations.

Plug-in cars aren’t cheap. Their batteries, at today’s production costs, add many thousands of dollars to their price tags. To help offset that, Congress has established a plug-in vehicle tax credit worth up to $7,500. Several states also offer direct cash rebates or tax credits. The federal and state incentives can reduce the cost of an EV by as much as $13,000 in Colorado, $11,500 in California and $10,000 in Georgia and Connecticut.

Many don’t know about those incentives, though. A recent survey of California drivers by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that while more than 60 percent said they would consider an electric car, 75 percent did not know that federal and state financial incentives were available. That’s despite California being ground zero for the EV for nearly two decades.

“Increased consumer awareness will accelerate consumer acceptance,” said Toyota’s Chitwood, who added that consumer demand is more powerful than government regulation in promoting new technologies.

One big boost for advocates of more EV education is $2 billion that has been set aside in a settlement of the federal government’s suit against Volkswagen for installing software that turned off its diesel cars’ emissions controls. “We need consumer education and the VW settlement will be very helpful…it’s more than we’ll ever get from government,” says Hwang.

The new Trump administration likely will face a battle in the courts if it seeks policies that would turn back the clock on vehicle electrification.

Fuel efficiency standards “are highly popular with the American people and have even been supported by the auto industry,” says Luke Tonachel, Clean Vehicles and Fuels Project director for the National Resources Defense Council.

If the Trump administration tries to weaken them, he said, “it will find us standing in the way.”