How hype hurts alternative fuel innovation

Study shows a cycle of excitement, failure and disappointment.

Are our short attention spans hurting our ability to focus on alternative fuels? Since 1980, media attention to various environmental solutions in the transportation sector has shifted frequently, according to a study from Simon Fraser University, UC Davis, and Navius Research. Unfortunately, this has been reflected in policy as well, as the authors of the study point out, George H.W. Bush's proposed methanol mandate, George W. Bush's ethanol goals, and Barack Obama's goal of 1 million EVs by 2015 all failed.

"A full-on transition to alternative fuel vehicles needs to start today." - Jonn Axsen

Yet a transition to alternative fuels is necessary to abate climate change. As lead author of the study Jonn Axsen says, "A full-on transition to alternative fuel vehicles needs to start today to have any hope of cutting our emissions by 80 percent in 2050."

The problem is that when one of these overambitious alternative fuel goals fails, instead of working harder at it, we lose interest and seek out a different solution to get temporarily excited about. We, as a society - as consumers, media, industry professionals and legislators - perpetuate a cycle of hype, failure and disappointment when it comes to alternative fuels. According to the aforementioned study, the amounts of media attention, innovation, and funding all follow the same course.

The greater the hype, the greater the disappointment.

And the greater the hype, the greater the disappointment. Governments are guilty, according to the study, of "establishing excessive expectations and thus negatively affecting innovation, namely by publicly announcing what proved to be unattainable sales targets, followed by changes in policy and removal of funding support." Each time the bubble burst, damage is done.

While our attention has jumped from one solution to another quite a few times in the past few decades, the data shows some promise. Our overall awareness appears to have heightened as of late, and hybrid and electric vehicles have captured our prolonged attention.

For innovation in alternative fuels to continue, we need to break the cycle of hype and disappointment, and work toward consistent vision and funding. We also need to learn to live with uncertainty. The trick, it seems, is not to get too excited. Slow and steady, after all, is what wins the race. We should expect policymakers to set realistic goals - not make grand promises - to create shared expectations across society. The best way to do that, the authors of the study argue, is to rely on institutions (similar to the defunct Office of Technology Assessment) for regularly updated, balanced assessments of technology and, of course, beware the hype.

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