CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – The biggest challenge for automakers in developing zero emissions vehicles isn’t technology. It’s convincing an American public weaned on cheap gas that their zero emissions cars are worth buying. That was the conclusion of the New England Motor Press Association/MIT Technology Conference at MIT last week.
The conference – held at MIT’s Media Lab for faculty, students, the media and technologists – was billed as a report card for the automotive industry on its way to 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025.
“We have 16 different zero emission models, and we’ve been operating with a field of dreams dynamic,” said John Bozella, the head of Global Automakers, who was the two-session panel’s moderator. “The reality is that there’s a lot of complexity in developing these markets. We’re looking at a 17 million sales year, and though EV sales are also up, they’re not keeping pace with the market.”
The first panel included (L to R): Stephen Russell, a Massachusetts EV advocate; Watson Collins, manager of business development for Eversource Energy; Britta Gross of General Motors and Bob Perciasepe of the Center for Climate Energy Solutions.
A challenge for automakers is that while hybrid technology is fairly well represented in the new car mix, it has nowhere near the impact of driving a zero emissions vehicle. Bob Perciasepe – president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions – painted the picture: A hybrid car is significantly cleaner than the outlier (a Hummer), producing about three tons of carbon dioxide annually, versus the Hummer’s 10 tons. But a ZEV produces less than a ton. A ZEV might be 90 percent more climate-friendly than a Hummer, but it’s also 60 percent better than a hybrid.
Volatility in the oil market keeps more Americans from making the jump to a cleaner car. Unfortunately, the increase in the number of ZEVs available didn’t coincide with the era of five-dollar-a-gallon gasoline. Just as ZEVs began to proliferate from a number of legitimate manufacturers, the price of gasoline plummeted. That price volatility – according to Britta Gross, director of advanced vehicle commercialization policy at General Motors allowed consumers to “change their minds almost instantly about what vehicle they want to buy.
Toyota thinks ZEVs of the future aren’t cars you’re going to be ones you plug into a wall socket. Bob Zimmer, director of the energy and environmental research group at Toyota, talked about the company’s investment in fuel cell technology. “It’s hard to expect people to switch to cars that are radically different from what we drive today,” he said.
With five-minute fill-ups and 300 miles of range, fuel cell cars offer the same convenience of internal-combustion engines, but outside of California, you’d be hard pressed to find a place to refuel. Within 100 miles of the conference’s location at MIT, for example, there is currently one public hydrogen filling station, and it’s located in New Haven, Connecticut. More are supposed to be coming, but the infrastructure is significantly lower than plug-in electric stations, which are also pretty thin on the ground.
Dr. Anup Bandivadekar, program director for passenger vehicles at the International Council on Clean Transportation, noted that the countries that have best organized cities, states and the federal government in working with private industry to build cars and infrastructure were the countries that have adopted ZEVs as a matter of course. “There’s a reason that 20 percent of the auto market in Norway is EVs,” Badivadekar said.
It got specifically to the challenge facing Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont, the four New England states that signed on to the California Zero Emissions Memorandum of Understanding. The goal was to hit 15 percent of all new registered cars every year, but none of those states have managed to crack a single percent in a year. Each state offers an inconsistent array of incentives ranging from tax credits to an inspection waiver, none of which has been enough to convince New Englanders to switch to ZEVs in wide numbers. An infographic produced by the New England Motor Press Association and BestRide.com shows that while former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick committed to working to get 330,000 ZEVs registered in Massachusetts in the next ten years, just over 1,700 are registered on the road today.
For Stephen Zoepf, a doctoral researcher at MIT’s Sloan Automotive Laboratory, car-sharing is the key to EV awareness and eventual purchase. He began sharing his own Chevrolet Volt through Boston’s Relay Rides program, and found out that an alarming number of people had major misconceptions about it. He built an FAQ on his page at Relay Rides with detailed answers for all the questions he’d received, and he’s found that people are much more accepting of the car once they realize there’s no inconvenience to it. But even then, the average car-buyer isn’t the person who is going to buy a ZEV: “We have to get them into the hands of people who will have a great experience with them,” said Zoepf, “and that’s not everybody.”