Click on the image above for a gallery of the panelists

Before the Washington Auto Show starts up for real tomorrow, a very spirited debate took place as part of the Green Car Summit. The topics: legislation, consumer desires, fuel-saving technologies and a whole lot more. The panelists:

  • Johan de Nysschen, president of Audi America
  • Bill Reinert, national manager, advanced technology group, Toyota Motor Sales
  • Alan Neidzwiecki, president and CEO of Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide
  • William Craven, general manager, regulatory affairs, Daimler
  • Richard Kolodziej, president, NGVAmerica, the trade association for natural gas vehicles
  • Britta Gross, manager, hydrogen and electrical infrastructure
  • Dan Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy, Center for American Progress

Unlike some panels featuring people with different agendas, this one was a bit of a powder keg - and moderators Warren Brown (Washington Post) and Ron Cogan (Green Car Journal, the event sponsor) were happy to let the panelists shoot off their own sparks. Details and audio available after the jump.

Overall, the summit was a deep-in-the-woods discussion about two things. First, where American lawmakers - specifically those in California and D.C. - are vis-à-vis gren car legislation. Second, where the automakers are in terms of that legislation (they're against the "patchwork") and technologies. While Kolodziej was unsurprisingly in support of expanding the reach of natural gas in automobiles, the rest of the panelists agreed that a "silver buckshot" approach was the best one. de Nysschen came out particularly strong in favor of using a variety of technologies to reduce petroleum use and said that his company knows that you need to look at every option in this cause. Any energy policy that thinks there is a single answer is "flawed," he said. Biofuels are a transitional solution, he said, adding that hydrogen fuel cells are "probably" 20 years away. He said that there is a huge danger in the government's very strong support for PHEVs because it has not yet been proven that there is deman for them. His example was the Audi Duo, which was developed back in the mid-1990s and de Nysschen told the audience that Audi discovered that no one wanted to buy one back then. I'm not sure how consumer data from over a decade ago - and a very important decade for oil dependency and environmental awareness at that - can hold water today, but that's what he said.

There was a lot of old knowledge on the panel. Both Reinert and Neidzwiecki started their opening remarks with asides about how they've been working in the alternative energy field for decades. This isn't exactly a promising situation, because they've been around long enough to forget more information about alt-fuel vehicles than some of us will ever learn and we still don't have viable alternatives cruising the streets.

Speaking of which, and on the topic of natural gas, Kolodziej, said that supply in the United States is "virtually unlimited." Underground natural gas sources may be what most people think of right away, but there is also natural gas made from landfill gasses and from animal and human waste. With all this potential energy around, why don't we have more natural gas vehicles?

The answer came when the panel responded to Cogan's question about what happened to the natural gas fleet vehicles that were readily available in the early 1990s. Kolodziej said that fleet buyers are much more sophisticated, and understand tax credits and other government incentives much better than the average consumer, but also said that there are many reasons for the disappearance of CNG vehicles from the forefront. First, it's incredibly hard to compete with gas that costs $1.25 or $1.50 a gallon. Second, the loopholes in the natural gas mandate meant that fleets needed to buy alternative fuel vehicles, but didn't have to actually run them on the alternative fuel. Third, many automakers think of natural gas as a hobby - Fiat being one big exception with their models that are built for natural gas use from the ground up - and that all adds up to the three big possible demand sources not providing much demand at all. Then the topic of Honda's home CNG fueling station, Phill, came up, and someone pointed out that it's easy to sell sexy card, but hard to do the same with a big gray box, Kolodziej objected. "There's more sex in that [home natural gas refueling] than in a natural gas vehicle," he said.

When Reinert said that natural gas has a lot of flexibility - that you can process it into diesel fuel, for example - Kolodziej couldn't restrain himself. "Making diesel out of natural gas is like putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa! It doesn't make sense."

The discussion got heated when the EPA/California waiver issue came up. It's really interesting to watch someone who represents the progressive side of things, CAP's Weiss, in this case, make some points that are anathema to the industry mindset. When Weiss said that the automaker complaint about a patchwork regulatory system that might come with the California waiver is nonsense because there would really be two systems (California and the states that adopt its policies and the the Federal regulations), Reinert responsed with, "That's naïve." Kolodziej pointed out that the automakers could just think of the two sets of states as two different countries. It's not like the regulations in the U.S. are the same as those in Mexico, and yet GM (for example) sells cars in both countries. de Nysschen responded by echoing Reinert and called that naïve.

Another policy issues was gas taxes. Brown asked the panel if any of them were in favor of a higher gas tax. Only Kolodziej raised his hand but Craven said that, "We should not fear higher fuel prices." They change customer demand, which is a much better thing for a company to rely on than the government telling customers what vehicles they should buy, or want to buy, via incentives. de Nysschen said that the reality is that in an economic crisis, the last thing you want to do is raise energy prices.

There was much more in the two-hour summit, and almost all of it is worth hearing. Listen to the whole thing by using the flash player below (53 MB, 2 hours) if you're going to spend some time by your computer. You can also download the MP3 here if you want to take the conversation with you.

One last little tip for the Auto Show organizers: Don't just say that your event is on "Capitol Hill." Go ahead and spell out the building and room. Luckily, the weather in D.C. today was sunny and much warmer than expected so wandering around The Hill lost was actually kind of pleasant.

Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the Auto Alliance.

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