Hey everyone, Jim here again. I thought share some info on a recent forum we were asked to participate in. On January 31st, the Center for American Progress held a panel discussion in Washington D.C. entitled “Plug-in Hybrids: the Future of Cars?” Four panelists, covering a range of perspectives, spoke: General Motors, Honda, an expert battery consultant, and yours truly.
On a number of topics, all the panelists agreed. Everyone concurred that batteries continue to be a major challenge for plug-ins, especially in terms of cost. Everyone also agreed that no silver bullet exists to get our country out of its transportation energy quandary, and that a full portfolio of technologies and policies to improve fuel economy, reduce carbon from fuels, and reduce the total amount of driving (vehicle miles traveled, a.k.a. VMT) will be required. In other words, successful plugins could help get us there, but they’re only one piece of the puzzle.
GM had an optimistic view of plugins, as demonstrated by their commitment to the Chevy Volt and Saturn Vue Green Line plugins. In contrast, Honda made the case that the small additional fuel savings offered by a typical plugin over a comparable non-plugin hybrid isn’t worth the high price to consumers or Uncle Sam (who, in all likelihood, would have to incentivize at least the early vehicles to make them marketable). Moreover, Honda questioned whether the enthusiasm for plugins would last, citing the ebb and flow of interest in other advanced vehicle technologies.
Battery expert Jack Deppe, from Deppe Consulting, characterized the batteries as making progress on durability, but that challenges remain, especially in terms of cost and safety. With respect to the cost challenges, he thought we may see short range plugins (in the neighborhood of 10 miles) sooner than longer range (i.e., 40-mile) plugins, though even low-range plugins still face battery cost-related hurdles. That said, he commended GM on their aggressive pursuit of the 40-mile Volt.
As for me, I discussed how plugins fit into the larger transportation/environment picture, and addressed the challenges this technology faces. For those keeping score, those challenges are battery cost, safety, and durability, as well as the unknowns about the people who drive them (where they live, if they park on the street, when they’ll recharge, etc.). I also addressed how over-hyping plugins stand to hurt this promising, but fledgling industry.
From an environmental perspective, the all-important questions is, of course, “how many, how soon?” and, to that, I raised the question of at what point “commercialization” becomes real. Put more plainly, at what sales volume does greenwashing end and environmental progress begin? To this last point, as reported by the Detroit News among others, GM announced at this forum that the Volt would be sold in the “tens of thousands” within a short period of its 2010 release.
GM will have a challenge on their hands delivering that many vehicles, that soon, but if they start there and deliver millions more over the years that follow, I won’t argue. After all, the auto industry has historically been most innovative and effective in finding solutions when challenged. I look forward to watching GM on this front.
Posted by: Jim