Technical Editor Jacob Joseph takes a look at some of the unnecessary challenges facing the most high-profile alternative fuels.
When discussing the future, there are quite a few people on both sides of the fence who believe that automotive enthusiasts and environmentalists are fundamentally at odds. This might be true of the professionally concerned, manufacturers of electric cars who stand to profit from climate change hysteria, or celebrities who can capitalize on the publicity which comes with having a self-righteous attitude of which one is unaware.
But I find that my friends who are truly passionate about the environment, and have done their homework, tend to agree with me about quite a few things. The first of these is battery EV's, which I believe are a major step backwards in the usability of automobiles, and are therefore unappealing. This lack of appeal worries my environmentalist friends because they recognize that a majority of people view EV's this way, something recently confirmed by a J.D. Power & Associates study which proclaimed them "more hope than reality".
The worry is that, after all this hype, EV's will fail, and in doing so undermine the public's desire to investigate alternative fuels. EV's present another problem in that they are not a complete fix. Batteries don't have a solution for trucking, aviation, or shipping, and this makes them a half measure and a potentially harmful distraction. The research money going to EV's could be put to better use finding a real, all-encompassing solution that can release all forms of transportation from the yoke of fossil fuels. Of, course, even this distraction is not the biggest obstacle facing real renewable energy.
It is also important to remember the role which greed plays in holding all of humanity back. Powerful lobbying groups like the Renewable Fuels Association, which drew fire from Al Gore a few months ago, work hard to make sure that when you say "biofuel" you mean corn-based ethanol. This is a fuel which requires large amounts of land to produce, and as critics rightly point out, this land could be used to produce much-needed food. Algae fuel makes much more efficient use of space and can be grown on land otherwise unusable for farming.
This leads some (including the US Department of Energy) to believe it has the potential to truly be an all-encompassing solution, but this and other forms of biofuel suffer from their association with corn. They are denied research funding and have unfair criticisms leveled at them solely because they are called biofuel. The corn lobby would prefer to take all of biofuel down with them than relinquish their stranglehold on what is likely to be an ever-shrinking market. Then we have EV's and their messiah-turned-robber-baron Shai Agassi.
Agassi and his Palo Alto-based EV sales/service company Better Place have recently begun setting up shop in a select few locations around the world. The idea is that you buy a car from Better Place and then also a service plan to use their network of charging and battery swapping stations which make the car practical. The first country to get their network up and prices set has been Israel, and the prices which have been set are so absurdly exorbitant that one writer from the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz described Agassi's attitude as "contempt for the Israeli consumer".
Better Place also has a monopoly on charging stations, so even if you don't buy your EV from them, you'll still have to pay their unreasonable prices. They are currently vying for a similarly profitable position in the US, as a central planner for a "smart charging grid", all in the guise of saving electricity consumers money. People like Agassi, who are determined to play on people's environmental fears and turn their heartfelt concern into a profit margin which would make John D. Rockefeller blush, will make villains out of the green movement, and it seems likely that my environmentalist friends' fears are well founded.
The future of driving will not go to whichever technology is best, it will go to whichever technology is owned by someone whose greed gets in the way the least.