When Technology Isn't Enough
By EV World
John Heywood, the director of MIT's Sloan Automotive Lab, is pretty pragmatic about the future. He looks at the enormity of the challenges confronting our auto-centric, oil-dominated culture and finds little to room for optimism, though here and there are bright spots: direct-injection gasoline engines; "less large" cars; electric, plug-in hybrids.
But for him the sheer scope of the problem is utterly daunting.
"It is important to remember that behind the oil consumption in transportation are greenhouse gas emissions. It's difficult enough reducing oil consumption, it turns out to be even harder reducing greenhouse gas emissions..."
He pointed to a recent world mobility study co-funded by the auto and oil industries that forecasts by 2050 the global automotive fleet will rise 2.5 and 3 times its current 750 million vehicles.
"That's based on the assumption that the fuel will be available to drive them, a legitimate question," he quiped. "Can you conceive of a world with three times the number of vehicles consuming three times the amount of fuel that we are using today? That doesn't compute."
Heywood observed that while some like to complain about our transportation system, few of us are willing to abandon it. "Of course, it has problems. It's bound to. We'll never have enough highways for the cars that we want to drive."
Surprisingly, the freight movement and air travel sectors of the U.S. economy are growing faster than the private automobile segment, which uses 60% of the oil consumed by the larger transportation sector.
"The scale is vast. We use 550 billion liters of gasoline a year... and it's growing at a substantial rate on the order of 2 per cent a year on a worldwide basis," he warned. "Now that problem, scale and growth is made worse by the fact that it is dominated by one technology, the internal combustion engine and petroleum-based fuels..."
He emphasized that the reason they dominate is because they have served our transportation needs so well over the last century.
"There's not a better idea sitting out there on the shelf that's somehow being suppressed. This is a very competitive business. It's had decades to evolve. So what we've got fits very well with today, and of course, the question is, does it fit with tomorrow?"
Heywood pointed out that the core of our problem is the sheer scale of the system driven by the number of people in the world.
"To put it simply, there are too many of us using too much stuff... and that stuff is petroleum, and we use it in ways that damage the environment."
According Heywood, engines and transmissions technology "get better" at a rate of one percent per year.
"One percent a year is not trivial," he emphasized. "Twenty years, you've got 20+ percent. The question is, what do we do with that?"
In Europe, they used tax incentives to encourage the development of highly-efficient diesel engines, that also have emission issues, NOx and extremely small particulate matter. Heywood said that while the problem is being addressed, it is likely to reduce the fuel efficiency for which the engine is famous.
He explained that had we used the one percent per year improvements in engine and transmission technology to improve fuel efficiency since 1980 -- instead of putting it into increased performance -- we'd be 30 percenter better off in terms of petroleum usage.
"But we, and it's you and me and your neighbor, we chose not to do that. We invested those more efficiency, high-powered engine technologies in higher performance vehicles and larger, heavier vehicles. So, we have squandered a 30 percent opportunity the evolved and was there and was real, but we chose to do other things than conserve fuel."
Instead, he said that we chose to buy 6 cylinder engines over 4-cylinder models. For example, the popular Camry increased its zero-to-60 time by several seconds, while getting larger and heavier.
He pointed to GM's EcoTec engine as a example of a promising small, but efficient engine that will have to be produced in vast numbers just to reduce oil demand globally by 5 per cent.
To hear what his other solutions are -- including his take on plug-in hybrids -- you need to listen to his 25-minute presentation in its entirety using either of the two MP3 players at the top of this page. You can also download it at: http://www.evworld.com/evworld_audio/aspo06_jheywood.mp3.
He concludes, "technology alone will not solve this three times the vehicles in the world, three times the fuel consumption and that's inconceivable. It will take behavioral changes to get us there."
EV World expresses its appreciation to the Association for Study of Peak Oil USA for granting us permission to record the conference and make it available to our listeners. All forty-plus, unedited, MP3 presentations are also available on a single CD for $45 ($89 for non-premium members) by sending a check or money order denominated in US Dollars to EV World, P.O. Box 461132, Papillion, NE 68046, USA.