The last decade has been a tumultuous one for green transportation in the U.S. Take the on-again off-again electric vehicle market. We entered the 2000’s with rules in California requiring automakers to offer EVs, but by 2003, state regulators changed the rules and many automakers dropped EV initiatives and focused on gas guzzlers. But here we are nearing the end of 2009, and automakers are now investing heavily in electric vehicles, natural gas cars are gaining traction in high places, and hydrogen cars are about as far off as ever.
Here’s our take on some of the most persistent predictions of the past decade for what kind of green transit we’d have by 2010. We invite you to share your own thoughts on broken promises, dead-on predictions or what kind of Jetsons-esque transit options you once thought we’d have delivered by this point in time. To get things rolling, here’s our top five.
1). Prediction: Natural gas vehicles will go mainstream. “I think our time has come, and I think we’re ready [for natural gas vehicles],” T. Boone Pickens told Green Car Journal in 2005. “You might say, well, if you’re talking about Monday morning, probably not. But I’m talking about the next two or three years. I think there’s going to be some real changes in the use of this fuel.”
How’d that work out?: Pickens is still touting the potential of natural gas vehicles to help wean the U.S. off imported fuels, and the tech is now getting federal attention. Legislators introduced a bill this year aimed at encouraging the development and purchasing of natural gas vehicles. But natural gas vehicles are far from mainstream, and have yet to make a real dent in the U.S. consumer market.
2). Prediction: California will finally get high-speed rail. “It could be a matter of years — not lifetimes — before Californians can zip from the Bay Area to Los Angeles on a bullet train in less than three hours…the first train could roll out of the station in 2010.” the San Jose Mercury News wrote in 1999.
How’d that work out?: Voters approved $9.95 billion in bond funding for the long-discussed project in November 2008, but this month the High Speed Rail Authority tossed the project’s route back into limbo by reneging on its approval of an environmental study for a section of the train. According to the Sacramento Bee, the latest cost estimates for the line jumped to $42.6 billion, up from the previous estimate of $33.6 billion. The new numbers take into account inflation costs expected between 2012 and 2020, when construction is — in theory — supposed to take place. We expect it could be another decade or more before Cali residents will see the benefits of this tech.
3). Prediction: Hydrogen cars are just around the corner. “You’ll be able to buy a commercially viable hydrogen car by 2009 in the showrooms in the U.S., along with regular fossil-fuel internal-combustion cars,” Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Hydrogen Economy toldSalon.com in 2002. “Those hydrogen cars will use fossil fuels to get the hydrogen, but at least it’s a bridge.” California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said in 2004 that he envisioned every citizen in California having access to hydrogen fuel along state highways by 2010.
How’d that work out?: It didn’t. Still waiting.
4). Prediction: Hybrids will form a bridge to EVs.“In the near term, at least, hybrid cars are more likely than battery-electrics to be a solution to the problems of air pollution and dependence on imported oil,” the New York Times wrote in 2000. “Toyota, which has produced both types of vehicles, told California regulators last week that the public was not ready to accept electrics; indeed, Toyota said it could not sell the cars and would have to pay customers to take them.”
How’d that work out?: That prediction still seems on target. Toyota’s early bet on hybrid tech with the Prius proved a smart one, but even the hybrid leader is now working on an “affordable” plug-in model for 2011. Global Insight has forecast that hybrids could snag some 5-11 percent of the U.S. market by 2015, up from 2.2 percent in 2007. By comparison, electric vehicles are expected to take a smaller, but growing share of the market in that time frame.
5). Prediction: It’s clear sailing now for electric car tech. “There are no technology hurdles at all [for electric transportation]. It’s simply a matter of getting the vehicle built out on the street and getting people to recognize its value,” Robert Graham of the Electric Power Research Institute said in a 2005 New York Times article.
How’d that work out?: One of the biggest remaining hurdles for mass-market adoption of electric cars — cost — has everything to do with technology. The battery technology, that is. The race is on now to reduce cost by increasing energy density. Startups including Envia Systems, Amprius, PowerGenix, Mobius Power, Seeo and many more are trying to tackle this.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user seanmcgrath
This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.