Concept cars at Volvo Museum in Goteborg Sweden - from my flickr photos.
Last week I attended a fascinating conference organized by the Austrian Agency for Alternative Propulsion Systems (A3PS). The A3PS is a quasi governmental agency that supports research in new propulsion systems. They are oriented to automobile propulsion since Austria is a net exporter of automotive products, especially drive trains.
The day consisted of five keynote presentations and then several parallel sessions where Austrian research groups presented results of their research in electric mobility, fuel cells and alternative fuels. A total of 19 different research projects were discussed. Most interesting for me were the keynote presentations by Karl Rose from Shell oil, Remi Bastin from Renault and Peter Froeschle from Daimler.
Karl Rose, who works on strategy development for Shell Oil, made several very interesting points. First, he criticized the "cycles of hype" in alternative energy, namely everyone goes crazy over one type of alternative energy (think hydrogen fuel cells several years ago and now electric cars) for a while then forgets about it and picks another form to hype.
Rose believes that there are three hard truths facing the energy market: (1) a surge in demand as world population and development continue (especially for electricity); (2) supplying this increase in demand will be difficult; (3) environmental concerns are becoming more critical. These truths create a complex situation for government policy and businesses. He sees two approaches: a Scramble World (where countries scramble to secure energy resources leading to a type of energy nationalism and reactive situation), or a Blueprint World (where countries work together to ensure energy supply and distribution).
An important point about the Blueprint world is that different countries and regions have different needs, and they should solve their energy problems differently. Much of the discussion of energy is in terms of averages, which masks these regional differences.
According to Rose, replacing oil will require a mosaic of solutions. The first part will be to make existing transport more efficient (think hybrid cars), over the next 10-15 years biofuels will begin playing a key role (it will take a while before enough biofuels can be refined and distributed), later electric cars (there are still major issues with batteries, to say nothing about electricity generation and distribution on a scale needed for a world of electric cars), and finally hydrogen fuel cell cars.
Rene Bastien described Renault's strategy for sustainable mobility for all. He made the very interesting observation that automobiles are beginning to be negatively perceived today in developing countries (due to increasing costs, congestion, parking problems, etc.) and are viewed as "a product that has not adopted to a changing world." On the other hand, cars are still highly desired in developing countries where they provide freedom (at least compared to other forms of transport).
Renault seems to agree with many of the points made by Karl Rose outlined above. They are also building electric cars for Better Place which will be a big test of an electric car based business model.
Peter Froeschle from Daimler also echoed many of the points made by Rose and Bastien. He discussed Daimler's portfolio of options (optimized engines, hybrid autos, emission free options, and future energy sources).
Froeschle emphasized the industrial stages of development: (1) technology demonstration (will the technology work?); (2) customer acceptance (will customers like the new product?); (3) cost reduction (multiple cycles!); (4) mass production.
Most alternative fuel vehicles are currently in stage 2, we know that they will work, but are unsure if customers will like them. (Will they be willing to put up with the work needed to charge electric cars? An interesting note, he said that electric Smart cars can go 180 km on a charge ... but without heat or air conditioning, will customers accept that?)
During the question and answer period there were several questions focused on what role government should play in helping make the transition to alternative energy. Most agreed that regulation would play a part. Klaus Bohnhoff from Germany's NOW (a public-private agency designed to encourage the development of alternative fuel vehicles) made the excellent point that there needs to be a more detailed discussion on how public support can be provided ... the public should probably set goals for the program, but not dictate specific types of energy, there is too much uncertainty right now.
All the participants agreed that infrastructure whether distribution systems for electricity, biofuels or hydrogen will be a huge issue in the future of alternative fuels.
In summary, it was an excellent and thought-provoking conference.