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Future auto technologies discussed

After two years of assessing possible new automotive technologies, Dr. Malcolm Weiss of the Energy Laboratory and Professor John Heywood of the Department of Mechanical Engineering still don't know what the winner will be in 2020. The good news is that hard work on conventional technologies should produce an "evolved" passenger car with dramatically higher fuel economy and lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to today's models.

Dr. Weiss, Professor Heywood and their coworkers presented their findings at "On the Road in 2020," a conference hosted by the Energy Laboratory on October 24-25 at MIT. Their intention was to see how people with widely varying interests would respond to their technology assessment and its results. The 70 attendees came from companies that make and distribute vehicles and fuels, government groups, and other academic and nongovernmental organizations involved in transportation. The MIT study was also the focus of a November 3 New York Times article by Matthew Wald.

Cars in 2020

In the opening sessions, the MIT researchers described their methodology and conclusions. Their assessment focused on the year 2020 and selected combinations of fuels and vehicle types that could be developed and commercialized by then. Their options included hybrids, fuel cells and electric vehicles. For each 2020 fuel/vehicle combination, they estimated key characteristics such as energy efficiency, cost, greenhouse gas emissions, safety and other consumer concerns such as reliability, convenience and familiarity.

As expected, there was no consensus among conference participants as to the technology winner for 2020. But there was general agreement about the validity and value of the MIT approach.

Speakers applauded the researchers' use of life-cycle analysis. Unlike similar studies, this assessment included costs, energy use and emissions not just from driving the vehicle but also from making and delivering the fuel and the vehicle. Including that history significantly reduced the attractiveness of certain new technologies.

Researchers also got credit for their choice of a base case. New technologies were compared to an evolved midsize car, specifically the 2020 model that would result from a modest continuing effort to improve fuel efficiency using traditional technologies. According to the assessment, the 2020 model will use one-third less fuel, cut greenhouse gas emissions by a third and cost only about 5 percent more than today's model&emdash;a hard act for new technologies to beat.

Future fuels

The MIT assessment has thus far focused on "end-point" comparisons. But how to get there is a critical issue, and the MIT researchers sought insights from conference participants. Dr. David Greene of Oak Ridge National Laboratory predicted that in the next 20 to 30 years, "transportation will begin an energy transition... away from conventional petroleum to something else." He noted that there are plenty of fuels to choose from, but getting those fuels and the vehicles that use them into the marketplace requires overcoming many barriers.

One major obstacle is today's fuel infrastructure. Dr. James Katzer of ExxonMobil Corp. noted that the existing infrastructure for gasoline and diesel fuels is the result of 100 years' development. Switching to methanol or hydrogen requires building an entirely new infrastructure at a cost of many billions of dollars. "We can only afford one change in infrastructure in the next century, so let's get it right," he said. An infrastructure for handling methanol, for example, will become obsolete if we must eliminate carbon emissions to prevent future climate change.

Peter Ward of the California Energy Commission recounted his state's experience with a related problem: the distribution of alternative fuels. One demonstration involved running 5,000 vehicles on methanol supplied by more than 50 retail stations staffed by specially trained personnel. Engineers found ways to prevent the methanol from corroding storage tanks and to prevent the tanks and other equipment from contaminating the methanol. But owners of the "flexible fuel" vehicles were not always cooperative. When methanol wasn't handy, they would simply use their other fuel option: gasoline. Customers clearly won't buy an alternative-fuel vehicle until that fuel is as readily available as gasoline is now, he said.

Given the costs involved, how will new technologies ever enter the marketplace? Dr. Philip Sharp of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government believes that it's "highly improbable that government will pick a technology for a strategic push." However, he does think the nation may soon take some action regarding global warming (an area where the United States lags far behind the rest of the world). And any action taken&emdash;either to constrain carbon emissions or not&emdash;will profoundly influence the choice of transportation technology.

The bottom line, however, is the all-powerful consumer. Companies can manufacture whatever vehicles they like, but customers must decide to buy them. Dale Jewett of Automotive News said automakers are victims of their own success. Consumers have come to expect comfort, convenience and reliability, and they won't settle for less. And while consumers want to be environmentally responsible, they aren't willing to pay extra for it, said Vincent Fazio of Ford Motor Co.

Consumers are willing to pay for what they value, so the real challenge may be to change their values&emdash;at best, a difficult and time-consuming process, said Dr. Elisabeth Drake of the Energy Lab and a member of the assessment team. Participants noted that buyers of the 2020 vehicles are now 10-year-olds sitting at their computers, wildly maneuvering indestructible vehicles around indestructible city streets. When those future consumers take driver's education, perhaps they can be taught to drive both safely and with respect for the environment.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 8, 2000.

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