Sperling at SAE: Potholes and Promises on the Path to Vehicle Electrification

ITS-Davis Director Dan Sperling recounted the history of electric vehicle policy and offered a vision for the future in his keynote presentation to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) 2014 Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Technologies Symposium on February 11. The symposium highlights the latest advances and developments in electric vehicle technologies and addresses the business decisions around technology development and implementation.

In his presentation, “Potholes and Promises on the Path to Vehicle Electrification,” Sperling began by stating, contrary to popular belief, the world is not running out of oil. The new energy revolution with unconventional oil and shale gas means that oil will likely be plentiful and relatively cheap for the foreseeable future. But that oil needs to stay in the ground if we want to decarbonize our economy and slow climate change. Climate change – not oil scarcity – increasingly will be the motivator for continued advancement of alternative fuels. The fuels of the future will likely include biofuels, hydrogen and electricity, he said.

Progress has been slow – and frustrating.

“So far we’re following a fuel du jour phenomenon, where politicians and the media jump from one alt fuel to another. They desire a single silver bullet solution. They hype the fuel du jour and are always disappointed,” he told the audience of industry leaders.

“If we believe that plug-in and fuel cell vehicles are necessary for large reductions in greenhouse gases, then we need policies and regulations that go beyond the national 54 mpg by 2025 requirement, because even it will not be enough to motivate large investments in zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) technologies,” said Sperling. Automakers are finding that it is cheaper in the near term to focus on incremental enhancements of conventional vehicles, including greater use of lightweight materials, enhanced combustion techniques, more efficient transmissions and so on. Those improvements are desirable, but California and eight other states have determined that it is important to accelerate investments in ZEV technology. They have adopted a ZEV Program, which provides a foundation for the introduction of plug-in and fuel cell cars, Sperling noted. Complementary policies, such as California’s cap-and-trade program, Low Carbon Fuel Standard and incentives for ZEVs and other alternative fuel vehicles are also key.

What will it cost society to transform our transportation system? The International Energy Agency and National Academies, as well as UC Davis NextSTEPS researchers Joan Ogden and Lew Fulton have arrived at similar findings. They estimate an investment ranging roughly from $50 billion to $200 billion – to cover the additional costs of plug-in electric and fuel cell cars and their charging and hydrogen fuel infrastructure – is needed for these alternatives to become competitive with petroleum-fueled vehicles. The break-even point could be before 2030 if production ramped up quickly.

Is this a lot of money or a little? Considering the United States will spend an estimated $15 trillion on vehicles and fuels between now and 2030, the investment is a small fraction, less than 1 percent of the expenditures, Sperling explained. These additional costs will need to be covered by some mix of industry, consumers and taxpayers. Taking into account fuel savings, the net benefits of this transition are likely to be strongly positive after 2030; the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates a net $50 trillion in global savings from vehicles, fuels and infrastructure through 2050 in its two-degree scenario.

In closing, Sperling addressed future fuels for heavy-duty trucks, suggesting they would eventually be powered by biofuels and fuel cells.

Photo: Daniel Sperling addresses the SAE 2014 Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Technologies Symposium on Feb. 11.  Courtesy photo.