Editor's note: This is the first post in a two-part story on Shell's Eco-marathon Americas event and Powering Progress Together roundtable. You can read part two here.
Last week at Shell’s Eco-marathon Americas, the winning team from Quebec’s Université Laval achieved the equivalent of 2,584 miles per gallon with a car students designed and built themselves. The event has been held annually since 1985. As of last year, Shell moved it from Houston to Detroit, in order to elicit more participation from the automobile industry.
This year, the company added a side event to the regular competition -- a symposium entitled Powering Progress Together, which featured a number of prominent thinkers in fields related to motor transportation who came to share their views on the future of this critical sector.
Among the speakers were Shell Chairman Charles Holliday; Mark Barteau, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Michigan; Dr. Michael Tamor, a Henry Ford Technical Fellow at Ford Motor Co.; Jean Redfield, CEO of NextEnergy; Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of RMI; Shelly Poticha, director of Urban Solutions NRDC; Wolfgang Warnecke, chief scientist of mobility for Shell; Kristin Schondorf, who heads up mobility for ErnstYoung (EY); and Roger Penske, chairman of Penske Corp. -- just to name a few.
Shell's board chairman went on to suggest that energy efficiency is the new fracking, in that it will be the next big source of cheap energy -- adding quickly that we'll need natural gas for decades to come, regardless of energy-efficiency gains.
According to the Energy Information Administration, more than 65 percent of vehicles will still be powered by conventional engines in 2035. An informal survey of those attending the Shell event, taken later, put the number closer to 50 percent. The big question, Barteau said, is: “WWPD, what will people do?”
Our national energy consumption is the result of literally billions of individual decisions made every day. Survey data indicates that purchasing a smaller, more efficient vehicle will not be the primary response to rising fuel costs. Many did say, however, that they would seek alternative means of transportation -- another hot topic of the day. (Rail transport, however, was not mentioned once the whole day.)
Multi-modal transport: There was also a lot of discussion around autonomous vehicles. While it’s true that they will be more efficient, will the convenience encourage people to travel further and faster, negating some of the efficiency gains?
According to Ted Serbinski of Techstars, most of the action in the venture cap world centers around ride-sharing. All agreed that electric vehicles are for real, and the action around Tesla’s Model 3 shows that consumers are ready, now, to purchase an EV. Why has Tesla outpaced legacy companies in EV sales? Serbinski says people are buying the experience as much as the car. What is the vision 25 years out? Harmonization between transportation modes, he concluded.
The rise of biofuels: Tamor of Ford Motor Co., one of the few to mention biofuels all day, cited electro-catalysis (also known as electrofuels) as a trend to watch. Producing liquid fuels directly from microorganisms could be ten times as efficient as the photosynthetic biofuels being produced today.
Systems-level thinking: Jean Redfield and Linda Capuano, of Rice University Center for Energy Studies, spoke on the question of moving to a low-carbon economy. Redfield said that “what we think of as a car,” is going to change. How are we going to knit together a coherent system out of all these disparate players? Embrace the chaos, a systems-level approach is essential.
Detroit, which has the lowest car ownership of any city in the U.S., is a great campus for mobility experiments. What’s happening with research funding? More funding is going on outside the U.S. now. What will that mean in the future? Well-intentioned government policies create barriers. Just look at the energy-water nexus: We waste at least a third of all the energy, water and food we produce in this country. In one state, 30 percent of all electricity used is for pumping water.
Energy-efficiency makes great sense. What about capital efficiency? In some places 40 percent of assets (for peaker plants) are only utilized 80 hours a year -- the opposite of a smart grid. Cisco bought a startup that monitors every outlet and manages demand in ways that are invisible to the user, but help shave those peaks down.
For more trends cited by industry leaders at Shell's event, keep an eye out for part two of this article.
Photo by RP Siegel
RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org