TechKnow: Alternative Fuel Cars session report

The TechKnow forum on Alternative Fuel Cars in Ann Arbor last night featured some of the green car industry's biggest names and an appreciative audience of about 500 people. Moderated by Jean Jennings, president of Automobile Magazine, the two-hour event featured one hour of formal presentations by five well-spoken presenters and then a free-wheeling Q&A session with the audience. That's where the good stuff happened.

If you read any of the previews of the forum, you'll have noticed that there were supposed to be six main presenters. Jennings said that Tesla Motor's Martin Eberhard was in London for an "emergency meeting" with Lotus, but Tesla's Darryl Siry assured AutoblogGreen that the agenda for the meeting had been set long ago, it was just the timing that needed to be changed. So no big news there, apparently.

Click through after the jump to read the AutoblogGreen write-up of the event, and we'll have audio up later today.
The Automotive X Prize's Mark Goodstein was first on the stage, and his presentation was nowhere near as long nor as detailed as those who followed. This is because Goodstein isn't trying to promote a company's flex fuel lineup, or describing all the hydrogen research work that a lab full of engineers is doing. Instead, he's trying to promote an idea, and it's an idea that can be explained quickly. Competition drives innovation, and the AXP will promote ideas and technologies that will make cars cleaner, safe and affordable in the future. Goodstein's slideshow featured images of a Phoenix SUV, Zap!'s Obvio, a Smart, a Prius with an extension cord, the three-wheeled VentureOne, among others. Since mobility and prosperity track one-to-one around the world, he said, helping to make cheap, green transportation easy to achieve for millions will not only help the environment, but also people who live in that environment (read, everyone).

Next up, Chuck Gulash, VP of research and material engineering at the Toyota Technical Center. Gulash brought up a number that was referenced by a lot of the panelists later in the day: there are 800,000 million vehicles in the world today, and this is expected to grow to 1.6 billion (that is, to double) by 2030. Gulash said this means there are a lot of reasons to make cleaner, better cars. Gulash used a graph from Colin Campbell's, and said that while there are no silver bullets to solve the upcoming end of cheap oil (but Gulach admitted that oil will remain mainstream for the near future), Toyota has a solution. "The core technology for Toyota is the hybrid," he said, but that does not mean only gasoline-electric powertrains. Toyota's sustainable mobility vision includes an ultimate eco-vehicle with no injuries and allows the pursuit of personal & social enrichment.

Following up on that, Nancy Gioia, director of sustainable motor technologies and hybrid vehicles at Ford came right out and stated that, "At Ford, we believe climate change is real. There's no question in our minds. The question is is it too late to reverse the trend." She said that whatever fuel people move to will become more expensive over time and while customers in different regions have different demands, fuel economy is one of the top three in most cases (along with quality and safety). Take hydrogen, as an exampe. Hydrogen cars, while in operation today, do not meet what customers expect from a car: a range of 300-400 miles on a tank, operation life of 120,000+ miles and ten years. Oh, and the hydrogen cars also cost millions, which is unreasonable. Gioia highlighted the Ford Edge HySeries and the Focus FCV, the Escape and Mariner hybrids, the F-150 E85 Flex Fuel. She said Ford is trying to squeeze every last bit of efficiency out of gasoline engines. Hybrids and BEVs face the better battery stumbling block and Giolia repeated Ford's claim that it will make half its fleet FFVs by 2020 (she meant 2012).

The most "green" of Gioia's statements came when she touched on the world's exploding population. Gioia said, "This [population growth] will increase the demand for fossil resources and the corresponding impact on climate change really does need to be addressed today, along with other critical items such as congestion, infrastructure, fresh water sources and, really, our whole societal model, based on consumption. It may have to indeed change" (anyone want to make a crack about how a lot of people have already stopped consumption, at least when it comes to Fords?).

Next up, Larry Burns of GM. You're all probably familiar with him. Burns is an engaging speaker and, like so many others on the panel, mentioned his Ann Arbor bona fides. His presentation was on electrically driven vehicles, tracing a quick history of the Autonomy -> HyWire -> Sequel evolution, with a lot of attention, of course, on the Chevy Volt (which he called a car that is "purely electrically driven," for those keeping score). Burns said that global realities (wars, hurricanes, terrorism) show us how fragile our reliance on oil makes the economy; so, the answer is energy diversity.

Of course there was the plug, and the mention that 50 percent of GM's fleet will be E85-capable by 2012. Coming sooner than that, the Escalade will get the 2-mode hybrid that's now coming this fall in the Tahoe and Yukon and next year the VUE PHEV will get 10 miles plus of EV-only range and have double the fuel economy of any other SUV on the market.

Last up, for the official presentations, was David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. Cole thinks we're at the edge of a revolution, but the answer to the question of which future power plant technology is the right one is "a big question mark." No one is sure where the sweet spot is between pumping money into research and commercializing the technologies, he said. Too soon, and the cost to the end user might be too high; too late and you've missed the boat and your competitors have beat you. Cole said he thinks that by spending about a thousand dollars more per engine, engineers can squeeze out 20-25 percent more efficiency out of an ICE, which is a strong competitor to other alternatives (diesels, current hybrids), although PHEVs are going to change the game. Cole also sat down for a chat with AutoblogGreen, and you'll be able to hear that audio on the site sometime soon.

The Q&A session, as expected, was free-wheeling and touched on a lot of topics. This being in Ann Arbor, the panelists did focus some of the answers on the local economy, but they looked into the past (the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) that was a federal program that has been surplanted by FreedomCar for hydrogen vehicles), the future (hydrogen and nuclear) and everything in between.

The question that garnered the most responses was on how (or if) customers' views on global warming will affect future car models. The only question that made the panelists pause (not for long, though), was what's in it for consumers with E85 fuel? There were a lot of people in the audience who questioned the panel on the viability and green-ness of hydrogen, which made the panelists get nicely defensive about this energy carrier.

One thing that struck me during the Q&A, when the presenters were a little bit looser, was when Larry Burns said he worries about what would happen if the price of oil suddenly dropped down to 10 or 15 dollars a barrel, a reality that would make all of the work the automakers have done on automotive alternatives would lose its value in the marketplace. Well, this worry shows the Achilles heel of the way that the automakers approach biofuels and hydrogen and PHEV (etc.), that is, doing alternative fuels research strictly from an economic viewpoint. I'm not against working on some cool new technology because you think it'll be a best seller, but c'mon. I know I'm not the only one who sees environmental benefits as far outweighing the potential cost savings? I might sound like that proverb so often attributed to the Cree Nation ("Only when the last tree has died, the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize that we cannot eat money."), but I care more about the green outside than the green in my wallet.

We should have audio of this event up in a little while and probably video in a few days. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Fixed the intro date of the Tahoe/Yukon hybrids.

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