Silicon Valley is overflowing with experts on cleantech. Last week, a few of them met to discuss the future of green transportation. I listened in on their discussion ranging from an already existing technology on personalized airplanes to general skepticism about cleantech’s role in transportation.
Listening in on the SVForum's 'trends in Green Transportation' event last week, one popular opinion was that Americans don’t drive electric vehicles simply because they don’t have an incentive to do so. The electric vehicles in the market already are not driven to save cost nor the environment. Rather, as venture capitalist Matt Trevithick jokingly said, “a Tesla is someone’s 7th car”. Ian Wright of Wrightspeed who was actually one of the co-founders of Tesla, added that not only are EVs not a particularly attractive choice for consumers, EV researchers and scientists are working on the wrong technologies. Instead of spending vast sums on trying to improve the mileage on the Prius, researchers should look into improving the internal combustion engine instead.
Improving the Prius by 100% would make less of a difference than improving trucks such as the Ford-150 series, from 10 mpg to 10.2 mpg, Wright argued. This however, is true only because Americans still love their trucks more than the hybrid alternative. In 2010, America’s favorite vehicle sold almost 530,000 trucks. The Prius came in at 140.000.
Breakthrough or Behavior?
There seems to be two ways of changing this state; one is through breakthrough innovation that will radically change incentives for consumers, the other is a question of behavior. How do we get Americans to use public transportation. According to the panel, Americans’ need to drive their own car is a cultural aspect linked to a sense of freedom. As such, Americans would rather sit alone in their own car – and be stuck in traffic – than save the time and money from taking the bus or train. Therefore, it would seem wiser to put your money on breakthrough innovation.From an investment point-of-view also, public transportation was seen as a very risky investment. “They are all subsidized and none of them are making any money”. The heavily subsidized industry risks being changed unfavorably for investors “at the stroke of a pen” as Matt Trevithick put it.
One of these could be the Green Flight Challenge which Brian Seeley from the CAFE Foundation brought up. The foundation is currently setting up a technology competition for an automated safety system for personalized airplanes. The NASA project which was recently further funded by Google hopes to put 30% of road traffic in the sky, eliminating the worst congestion. Instead of cars, commuters would fly silent, 200 mile-ranging ‘green’ airplanes for up to 6 people. Who knows, maybe we’ll have airplane pool lanes in a few years.