[Editor’s note: We asked Felix Kramer to provide an update on prospects for an affordable hybrid-electric car. GM has just agreed to make one.]
These days, the feeling of urgency for green-tech reminds me of the intensity I saw five years ago at startups that operated famously on “internet time.” Back then, new communications and development tools compressed development time and launch schedules. And a competititve environment drove companies to “get big fast” at any cost.
Global warming is today’s driving force for an expanding number of constituencies. Britain’s Stern Report confirms that we can stabilize the atmosphere at 550 parts-per-million of CO2, which will keep the world pretty livable — if we start now. (Only a few years ago, we could have hoped for 450-500, which would have meant much milder consequences, but that’s now history.) Climate change motivated Environmental Entrepreneurs‘ (E2) tireless efforts to enact California’s AB32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. Renewable energy fueled the campaign of wind entrepreneur Jerry McNerney, who in January will replace Calilfornia’senvironmental dinosaur Richard Pombo in the House of Representatives.
From today’s entrepreneurs re-tooling their careers (and their resumes) with sustainability as the gating factor, I hear updated versions of “we have to build the plane as it heads down the runway.” (It helps that many hope to make their fortunes along the way, in what John Doerr calls “the biggest opportunity of the 21st century.”) In 2006, green-tech is now operating on what I think of as “carbon time.”
The same spirit of urgency holds true for the California Cars Initiative — a “non-profit startup” that has promoted an hybrid car that you can also plug in to your electrical outlet at home. It’s taken five years for these so-called plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) to gain recognition as the way to get cars off oil using existing technology with no new infrastructure.
Yet still missing — and thus slowing everything down — are the auto-makers. Finally, Toyota,GM, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Nissan, Hyundai and others are showing interest in PHEVs. GM has just taken the lead, announcing its intention to build a production PHEV Saturn Vue — but with no timetable. Car-makers aren’t convinced they can make money if they jump in nowâ€”the’re taking a “wait-and-see” approach. Their biggest stated obstacle: they can’t stand 100% behind the batteries they’d use today for a car’s lifetime, and they’re not confident enough to assume continued rapid improvmeent of battery pricing. On the flip side, business analysts get that PHEVs are a way for American car-makers to rapidly evolve their product lines.
It feels like the early 1980s, when careful people said “I’m not going to buy a computer, because they’ll be better and cheaper next year.” Others said “I need a computer now.” This time, it’s about what the world needs — and meanwhile, not making the perfect the enemy of the good. In the U.S., the average car stays on the road for 15 years. Until we start electrifying transportation and running it on the infrastructure we already have in every 120-volt outlet, we won’t make a dent in displacing oil . Researching PHEVs doesn’t help stave off global warming or increase energy independence. Today’s batteries can make “good-enough” PHEVs. They’ll get better every year. And by the way, while the plug-in fleet increases, the power grid will evolve to increasingly renewable fuel sources, further multiplying the benefits.
CalCars.org has known what our next steps are for a long time. Now, finally, we may get the resources to start. We and our allies are working on a combination of public campaigns, incentive packages, innovative ways to remove the battery warranty as a risk factor — plus regulatory flexibility for initial vehicles. We think this can lead rapidly to a mid-2007 commitment from car-makers to start building thousands of PHEVs for a demonstration fleet. And it will mesh with longer-term state and federal efforts to help commercialize PHEVs and spur the development of even better batteries.
Today’s after-market conversions show what’s possible now, with existing technology and today’s batteries. Since April, I’ve put 10,000 miles on the PHEV I drive every day. My message — “I get 100+ MPG (plus electricity” — attracts amazement from passing cars and crowds when I park. Two dozen drivers of converted hybrids now enjoy the thrill of driving the world’s cleanest extended-range vehicles, Even a modest fleet will enable communities, companies and early adopters that have been clamoring for their own demonstration cars to begin to experience that satisfaction — and redouble their efforts to bring PHEVs to mass production.
Yet delivery of conversions has been frustratingly slow so far. We’re closer to coming up with ways to get more cars on the road, possibly with a for-profit spin-off (while CalCars continues its non-profit role). We’re getting advice and offers. This week, Dave Bagshaw, a seasoned entrepreneur with business and technical successes at Shutterfly, Excite@Home, @Home Networks and Silicon Graphics, just signed up as a senior advisor.
It’s time to give the 17 million Americans who will buy a new car in 2007 the opportunity to experience a plug-in hybrid. It’s time for automakers to carry the ball across the goal lineâ€”something only they can do.