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The Reality of Greener Transportation

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When the journal Science publishes two studies questioning the greenhouse gas reduction benefits of biofuels, it’s bound to garner attention even if the cleantech community has long known that first-generation biofuels are not the answer to global climate change. And, combined with a paper deriding the sustainability of hybrids published in the International Journal of Automotive Technology and Management, it would seem that a sea change is occurring in 2008 in the clean transportation space. As many of the hard facts about the first-generation of greener transportation technologies are coming to light, many researchers are finding that their net impacts are mixed at best.

The hybrid paper was lead authored by Jean-Jacques Chanaron, research director within France’s version of the National Science Foundation, the French National Centre for Scientific Research. Chanaron writes that the growth in hybrids across US car manufacturers, “is based more on customer perception triggered by very clever marketing and communication campaigns than on pure rationale scientific arguments.”

European policy debate tends to be farther ahead of the one in the US, so it’s not a surprise that French researchers are behind the paper. As one VC put it to us recently, “If you told everybody [in the U.S.] that they could replace their car with an electric car, they’d think it was great, but in Europe, they might say, ‘What are you going to do with all the batteries?'” Though we have been hearing hybrid skepticism from Silicon Valley VCs like Vinod Khosla, who likes to frame that thought in a more controversial way (his favorite “hybrids are toys” line.)

Chanaron and co-author Julius Teske of Grenoble School of Management also note that the adoption of hybrid electric vehicles might slow the adoption of fuel cell technologies that would offer truly sustainable fuel solutions. Although they also admit that fuel cell vehicles are unlikely to be produced at scale until a good 2025.

The bottom line is that electric cars haven’t been able to scale. Biofuels can scale, but in that process lose most of the sustainability benefits of small-scale recycled oil fuels like old-school biodiesel. (Algae or synthetic biology based supercrude, possibly excepted).

Hybrids, these authors argue, are, at best, a sustainability wash. And fuel cell cars are more than a decade away. So, where does that leave green personal transport?

Until something better comes along, it leads us to a major redesign of the car. And just a very simple design change, to make cars smaller, much closer to the size of a human being.

For a glimpse into the (hopefully near) future, we could look at the SmartForTwo microcar, which is experiencing a successful, if small-scale, launch here in the US. Or we could take a look at the three-wheeler companies like the Aptera.

By simply making cars smaller, and in Aptera founder Steve Fambro’s formulation, “less like furniture,” we could go a long way towards making our cars and cities more sustainable. Combined with any fuel system, the tiny car would be a more sustainable model for personal transportation than large-scale biofuels or hybrids can currently offer.

It might not seem like small cars are a great cleantech investment thesis, but there are two reasons that green VCs should care about them. First is that smaller cars, overall, will use less energy. That’s good for the world, and good for investors trying to drive any vehicle that uses batteries.

Second, there’s a major and underappreciated role for cleantech in finding the types of sustainable materials that can enable entirely new ways of living (call them “life models”). That’s where to look for breakthrough technologies that will get people to change their behaviors, and in so doing, open up a new market.

5 Responses to “The Reality of Greener Transportation”

  1. Green energy is definitely the best solution in most cases. Technology like solar energy, wind power, fuel cells, zaps electric vehicles, EV hybrids, etc have come so far recently. Green energy even costs way less than oil and gas in many cases.

  2. Alexis Madrigal

    Hi Jim,

    Recycling the batteries is obviously the way to go, but I think his point was that the systems aren’t in place for millions of batteries in tens of millions of cars.

    Point taken on hydrogen.

  3. What are you going to do with the batteries? After they use up their lifetime, you recycle them and use them again, that’s what. The fact that the French researchers think that hydrogen is ‘truly sustainable’ greatly diminishes the credibility of their other comments in my opinion.