As part of the GM Centennial celebration today, the General hosted an hour-long panel discussion that purported to look ahead 100 years and discover "Future of Transportation," according to my handy-dandy GM event schedule. The panel certainly was an hour long and did feature all of the listed guests, but the discussion rarely ranged past the 20-years-in-the-future timeframe. Still, if you didn't know anything about how the U.S. and the major automakers are going to shift away from gasoline-powered vehicles, it was a good condensation of the current state of affairs into 60 minutes.

Hosted by Joel Makower, co-founder and executive editor of Greener World Media, Inc., the panel also included: John Casesa, managing partner of Casesa Shapiro; GM VP Larry Burns; Don Hillebrand, director of transportation research at Argonne National Laboratory, "Who Killed The Electric Car?" director Chris Paine; and Mark Duvall, program manager of EPRI. The panelists took questions from the audience and from the online community (as the event was streamed live at GM Next). Click past the jump to see what the discussion was all about.

Due to the Q&A nature of the session, the topics changed quickly. Here are the highlights:

Chris Paine said that consumers can't choose to buy a PHEV (ok, ok, or an ER-EV, whatever) and that means, "It's a frustrating time now," he said. Oil prices have gone up but mass market plug-in vehicles still are not available to everyone. During this time, Toyota has the best publicity game and does have the best options for consumers today; they can also serve as a model for how to build and keep customers' trust though Toyota, like the other automakers, need to continuously be watched to make sure they're not abusing the trust. Casesa said that the Volt has the potential to turn GM's public image into a greener one, much in the same way that the Prius did for Toyota. At the very least, he said, investor confidence will go up and if the car works as advertised, then perception that GM still has it in the technology realm will go a long way to making people who hate GM (or don't care) think again.

In response to a question on the bleeding fortunes of the Big Three, John Casesa said he thinks that GM has adequate funding to not only survive in the current market but also bring cars like the Volt to showroom floors. Still, he said, there is a lot of uncertainty in the market today and added, "I'm hoping to God that capitalism will carry us through." That's a pretty odd combination of religion and secularism there, but perhaps that's what it takes.

Larry Burns said there's a huge amount of co-dependence between the auto industry, the oil industry and consumers. While this may seem like a challenge, Burns said it's really quite an opportunity. Remember, he said, 100 years ago people were trying to build vehicles that ran on wood, steam, electricity and gas. The market sorted it out, he said, and the market will do so again. Paine explained the shift in people's mindset from gasoline vehicles to electricity-powered vehicles in an interesting way: that it's kind of like moving from renting to buying. He bought his electric car 10 years ago and, over time, realized he could do without his Ford Explorer and now wants to get solar panels for his house so his electricity is self-powered and clean. Burns added that the E in E-Flex stands for electricity, and since electricity is generated a lot of different ways, "That's the beauty of electricity - it's diversity immediately."

Don Hillebrand, director of transportation research at Argonne National Laboratory, said that hydrogen has always been a long-term solution. And the things that make it so ideal as a way to power cars are still as true today as they were seven years ago when the government began its big hydrogen push. But, thanks to increased fuel prices today and the reality that a hydrogen infrastructure is not yet available, a lot of resources have been shifted to plug-in vehicles. The hydrogen research continues, he said, but cars with plugs are more important for consumers now. Or even yesterday, I'd say.

On the topic of oil price fluctuations, Burns said - as he has before - that he wakes up at night worried that the price of a barrel of oil would drop back down to $40. From the audience came a question about a price floor for the price of oil/gasoline in the U.S. as a way to encourage development in alternatives. While the panelists could see an overall good to high fuel prices, it's a tricky topic. One problem is that if the U.S. sets itself a price floor at, say, $60, then Americans are at a disadvantage if the global price drops to $40 because China and India can buy and use the oil at the lower price. Casesa said that, basically, tough times call for tough measures and so we might need to operate in that unfair field in order to push the U.S. away from oil (Thomas Friedman would be proud). When someone asked, then, if the panel was in favor of energy price gouging (while also paying autoworkers lower wages), Casesa explained that people in Europe have adapted to high gas prices/taxes, and we might have, to, too. He wouldn't call this gouging - but he didn't have to. Show me one American consumer who would think that they were being gouged if the price at the pump were much lower that it is today, something that could be accomplished even with a price floor of $60 or $80 dollars a barrel.

Makower caught me off guard with a question about the increasing popularity alternative forms of transportation - electric bikes and scooters, NEVs, etc. - and what the automakers' role is in this new environment. Burns admitted that for people in a city, who today drive at an average speed of 12-15 mph, a car that's got a footprint of 100 square feet and weighs 3,000 pounds might not be the right answer. Still, Burns said, the car represents freedom and people will always want that. Something tells me that "freedom" isn't exactly the feeling people have when they pump $50 into the tank, but that's another story. Paine admitted he recently rode his bike in LA recently and discovered it wasn't so bad. "I might even ride the bus," he said, adding that, "The environmentalists' best friend has been high gas prices."

Paine answered a question about how he felt that it will be the Volt, which uses gas, that will probably do more to bring EVs to public acceptance than any other car by saying that each greener car is a step along the way. When the Prius came out, he said, some were disappointed that it still used gas and wasn't much of an electric car. Still, Paine said, it got people excited about electricity in cars and they now they try to squeeze 50 miles out of a gallon. As people get used to the Volt and discover that they really can avoid the gas station for months at a time, it'll soon be normal to talk about how easy it is to drive an EV.

The panelists agreed with Mark Duvall that GM was shooting for a good target with the 40-mile EV-only range. Hillebrand said that since it's a lot easier to dial back from 40 than get to it from 20, GM could potentially offer reduced range Volts at lower costs if it turns out that people want those kinds of cars.

There was more - mostly things we've discussed before, like GM's investments in Mascoma and Coskata - and if you're interested, you can watch the entire panel discussion over at GMNext "for the foreseeable future." It's not up yet, but probably within a day. For now, let's just look at the Volt some more. That's what we came to Detroit for, right?



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