Washington Summit Focuses on Greening U.S. Autos

In the State of the Union address last night, President Obama announced his desire to see one million electric vehicle on the road by 2015. Combine that with gas prices rising aggressively again, already sailing past $3 per gallon, and you've got a nation with a renewed interest in vehicles that rely on alternative sources of energy. That makes today's "Green Summit" on Capital Hill particularly timely. It's a part of the broader Washington D.C. Auto Show being held this week. The summit's panel of experts discussed the various challenges the industry faces, but there appeared to be some consensus: a scatter shot approach is the best strategy.

Of the panel's seven experts, three worked for automakers. They all agreed that there was no one technology that would clearly win the green car race. BMW North America Vice President of Engineering Tom Baloga said, "A single technology cannot be expected to serve a monopoly of consumer needs." As a result, a wide range of technologies should be explored, from diesel to hybrids to battery electric to hydrogen.

Ford Vice President for Sustainability Susan M. Cischke held a similar view. She stressed that multiple vehicle strategies needed to be explored. While she said Ford had an interest in many of the cutting edge green technologies already mentioned, she also stressed ecoboosting as an important component to making more efficient vehicles. She said taking measures like re-engineering cars to be lighter and adding components like a turbocharger helped Ford to increase some vehicles' fuel efficiency by as much as 20%.

This sort of innovation to create more fuel efficient cars has also been utilized by Hyundai. Michael O'Brien, Vice President of Product and Corporate Planning, also explained the various steps Hyundai had taken to boost their vehicles' fuel economy through small tweaks like shrinking vehicles' interior room slightly and swapping out spare tires for lighter replacement alternatives. But like the other automakers, Hyundai is also looking into a number of different technologies, including plug-in hybrids and fuel cell.

Besides automakers, a few green fuel industry representatives also sat on the panel. One was D. Hunt Ramsbottom, President and CEO of synthetic fuel producer Rentech. Although he obviously spent some time lauding the benefits of synthetic fuels, he also recognized the importance of a portfolio approach. In his experience, an important aspect of improving consumer demand for these new technologies is creating awareness of how they work. Often people resist change until they understand its benefits, he said.

But not all of the panelists were in favor of the industry exploring all options. Dr. Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, expressed cynicism about a few technologies in particular. On several different occasions he explained that biofuels will probably never be a much better alternative than gasoline. As oil prices rise, other commodity prices generally will too, which means that products like ethanol will follow the trajectory of oil prices. He also thinks hydrogen isn't worth spending much time researching, as it requires too much of a "staggering investment" to be viable. The only fuel he sees as being promising replacement for gasoline is electricity.

But Romm wasn't pessimistic about everything. He said Obama's goal of one million electric vehicles by 2015 was pretty realistic. When someone asked what additional government subsidies might be necessary to make this happen, he explained that the funding was already in place to secure one million electric vehicles through 2015 through the bailout legislation and 2009 stimulus. The challenge for this new technology, he said, is after that time, when the government subsidies expire. The hope is that the technology will be cheaper by then to provide more reasonably priced vehicles, and consumer interest will be strong enough to provide the demand to continue green vehicle growth.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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