This week, we went to listen to three days of talks by folks in the Zero Emission Vehicles world, from regulators and academics to folks at suppliers, OEMs, and startups. Specifically, we heard talks that detailed progress in areas like hydrogen storage, fuel cell efficiency, energy and power density in batteries, and so forth. Take a look at the presentations. It was interesting...I mean, large portions were dry as a desert, interspersed by wonderful oases of non-monotonal technical dissertations and fleeting, but brilliant, mirages of pointed political commentary that bordered on petulant. I didn't fall asleep once, I assure you. But the free WiFi was a great thing...
My overarching conclusion is that we must recognize that there will be multiple solutions to our energy and mobility crises and that the market is more than large enough to profitably accommodate the right alternatives. It's disappointing to see the barely hidden vitriol that exists between the various technology proponents, those that favor some sort of battery, or hydrogen, or hybrid drivetrain. But the stakes were high. The findings from this symposium are being summarized and presented to the Air Resources Board (ARB) and regulatory changes might follow. So, imagine a mixture of scientific/experimental data reports, politics, business, spin, and sometimes not-so subtle lobbying. Given that ARB has the power to do things as divergent as mandate the length of warranties on batteries and also the levels of emissions of carbon and particulate matter...you can see big dollars resting on the results of these days of reports and questioning.
On this all-important subject, given the economic impact ARB decisions have on the auto industry, one thing stood out like a sore thumb: the truthiness of people's units and energy calculations. Wow. In presentation after another, there were data and arguments being discussed, each with units and justifications that we couldn't benchmark. It seemed like each presentation created its own arbitrary axes and coordinate systems to make its case. And because many arguments were made without regard for opposing or alternate perspectives, it was hard to consider the presentations objectively...a little bewildering. I amused myself by imagining a giant gong sounding each time somebody said something that deserved a chortle to point out its imbalance.
That said, the hydrogen folks seemed defensive, as if their failure to have affordable technology in the marketplace right now was some sort of congenital failure. Not the kind of curious, entrepreneurial attitude we want exuding from people on the forefront of future mobility. Why are we castigating them for doing research into a possible solution to a percentage of our mobility future? Then came the battery electric folks...exactly the opposite: politely combative, confident, and ready to challenge all comers. As one person said to me...it was like the future mobility wagons had circled but everybody decided to fire inward rather than defend the family. That's just silly.
But there were highlights...one of which came when somebody off the street came to ask the panel of battery electric vehicle innovators, including Tesla, GEM, Miles Automotive, Wrightspeed, Aerovironment (the folks that brought us the EV1), and AC Propulsion, what kind of practical options he could plan on seeing in his lifetime. What he saw from this panel ranged from a $100k supercar to a $12k neighborhood electric vehicle that can't go over 25MPH. He pointed out the gaps in this range and said, "I have $25k and can only afford one car...and it needs to take me to work and also cart my family around." That's the question, alright! Where are our alternatives and when are they coming?