The Futurist Interviews Jim Motavalli, author of High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug In the Auto Industry
Electric vehicles have existed as a concept since the 1890s, but now the technology is finally here to make them a standard consumer vehicle of choice, according to Jim Motavalli, environmental writer, in his new book, High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug In the Auto Industry (Rodale, 2011). He sees a huge market growth ahead for electric vehicles, and for hybrid vehicles, as well.
Nearly every major is planning new electrics and hybrids. Ford, for instance, intends to roll out five new such car models by next year. One industry expert that Motavalli cites expects that by 2025, one out of every 10 vehicles on the world’s roads will be electric vehicles (EV), and another four will be hybrids. The EVs will run on lithium-ion batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, and other non-gasoline energy sources.
Motavalli, who blogs on clean car technology for the New York Times, Plugincars.com, NPR, and other media outlets, spoke about his book and his expectations for the clean car market, and some of the remaining challenges to its success, in this interview. Conducting the interview was Rick Docksai, assistant editor for THE FUTURIST.
THE FUTURIST: In your book, you express a lot of optimism for hydrogen fuel-cell-powered cars. Today, such cars are a rarity. What advancements will we achieve between now and 2025 that will make hydrogen fuel-cell-powered cars a mass commodity?
Jim Motavalli: The issue isn’t so much with the cars. They’ve made steady improvements in size, cost, and output of the fuel itself. The issue is more with the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure. We have fewer than a hundred hydrogen stations in all of the United States.
There is an attempt to put a network of hydrogen stations in place, as a private effort. Tom Sullivan, the founder of Lumber Liquidators, he has just started a private chain of hydrogen fueling stations along the east coast. It’s called SunHydro.
THE FUTURIST: The federal government has been hydrogen-powered car technologies. But what you’re describing sounds like the private sector is stepping up, too, and taking action in areas where the federal government has not yet done enough.
Motavalli: Under Steven Chu, the Department of Energy has been very negative about hydrogen and has defunded it. Chu is seen as the enemy of hydrogen. Hydrogen advocates can’t say enough bad things about him.
In addition, four car companies—Daimler, Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai—plan to roll out tens of thousands each of new hydrogen-powered cars by 2015. The question remains, however, of will there be an infrastructure for them. They may end up being sold in Europe or Japan because we don’t have the hydrogen stations.
THE FUTURIST: To what extent are Europe and Japan ahead of the United States on hydrogen infrastructure?
Motavalli: Their public commitments are much stronger. The U.S. government has had an on-again, off-again relationship with hydrogen-powered cars. The Bush administration was actually very much into them. The Obama administration is not. Right now, it's not looking great for hydrogen funding in the United States.
THE FUTURIST: You’re hopeful that consumer demand will rise for all kinds of electric and hybrid cars, hydrogen-powered and otherwise. What role might gas prices play in this? After all, they gas prices are going up and are likely to go up much further in years ahead. Maybe that would trigger more interest in cars that run on little or no gasoline. What do you think?
Motavalli: Gas prices are a wild card. It's impossible to predict what will happen with them. High prices suppress economic activity. Then the suppressed economy activity lowers gas prices. And that triggers more economic activity, which in turn raises gas prices.
Most of the increased demand for gas is from the developing world, from China and India. I do think we will reach a point of peak oil, but I don’t see gas prices getting dramatically lower
I think people adjust to higher prices. Paying $3.50 per gallon seems normal now, but if you had gone back just a few years, people would have been horrified at it.
I would predict that, with all the factors I know now, by 2020, 10% of all the new vehicles will be plug-in electric or hybrid.
THE FUTURIST: And that’s all new vehicles worldwide, or on U.S. roadways?
Motavalli: That’s all new vehicles worldwide.
THE FUTURIST: Considering what you said about Europe and Japan building up much more hydrogen-powered vehicle infrastructure than the United States has, I wonder if we’ll end up with the scenario of Europe, Japan, and other industrialized parts of the world going electric while U.S. automobile owners continue to guzzle gas. How likely is that, and what would the economic implications be if so?
Motavalli: I don’t see that right now. The EV demand is higher in the United States than in anywhere else. I don’t expect the situation to stay like that, though. I think demand in China will surpass the U.S. demand very quickly. I think China will become the largest EV market. China has put in place some of the world’s best incentives for electric cars, and quite a few manufacturers are lining up to sell them to Chinese buyers.
THE FUTURIST: Demographic trends might help the electric car market. It’s said that more and more people will move to cities. This means more people needing vehicles that can get them short distances, usually at low speeds due to traffic and pedestrians. To what extent is this favorable for the electric-car market?
Motavalli: There are two interesting factors here. First, a lot of auto makers perceive electric vehicles as city cars because they can only go short distances and at low speeds. The problem with that is that they still have to address how EVs are going to charge in the city. That hasn’t been resolved yet.
In cities like New York, there isn’t going to be on-street parking for EVs. There isn’t on-street parking for much of anything in New York City, honestly. With all the red tape for putting in an EV charging unit in New York, it isn’t going to be happening. We’re probably going to see EV charging units in garages and buildings. It's not really been established yet.
THE FUTURIST: So we still need to put EV-friendly societal reforms in place, and time will tell if we succeed at that.
Motavalli: That’s right. Suppose you own a condo, and you want to install a charging station on the condo grounds. You have to bring in the condo association on it, and it's going to slow things down. There need to be guidelines for apartment dwellers to charge EVs. Right now, that doesn't exist.
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This is my last posting for the next few days. I will be taking my office apart so that we can move to our new apartment downtown next Tuesday. I will be unplugged and disconnected except by tablet. Expect me to be back in the saddle before the end of next week probably in time to provide you with some more headlines. In the interim these are the stories I share with you this week:
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