Sunday, June 28, 2009

Clean Vehicle Adoption - VHS & BetaMax all over again?

Clean Vehicle Adoption Curve

One of the things that drives me crazy about clean vehicle debates is the binary nature of the dialogue: hydrogen or electric? Plug-in hybrid & range-extended or flex-fuel?

Sides are forming, straw men are being thrown up, and in the technology of the new clean green car it looks like a VHS versus BetaMax argument all over again.

When new technologies come on-line the supposed way things happen is that the best tech wins as the relative merits are discovered by an unsung army of innovative consumer investigators who compare the offerings and vote with their wallets.

Innovators in small numbers buy the new technology just because its new. These folks love trying out new stuff, and don't mind if it doesn't work perfectly.

Then the early adopters get on the bandwagon - they can see that the new tech actually provides a pragmatic solution to their real world need, and are willing to spend a bit extra in time and cash to find out how. There's lots more numbers of these trend-setters, and a key difference (at least according to the theory) is that they'll send out the message via journalism, blogging, and the whole range of public expression.

You can see from the diagram how the rest of the population takeup follows on from these ground-breaking types. In the ideal cleaner world, at any rate.

But in the case of VHS and BetaMax the best product didn't win. It was a case of marketing, politics, vested interests, sides being taken and sheer chance.

So how do the folks out there make their choices? What makes a technology debate finally settle to where it seems like it was always meant to be that way? What will Joe Sixpack do? What car will he choose?

Those lining up behind Hydrogen as a solution are running the argument that Joe Sixpack is on their side, and therefore manufacturers and governments should focus on the hydrogen highway. The argument goes that Joe and his friends will choose the hydrogen cars, because they look like that SUV he already has.

Of course the Honda FCX Clarity is a big four door car. And it looks like a valid choice. Hydrogen filling stations, SUV's with gas pedals: its not a hard sacrifice for Joe Sixpack to make.

But its actual on-road cost is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, you can only lease them, and then with a insurance bill that reflects the units actual value. It will be 5-10 years before the investments in hydrogen technology research produce a vehicle that can be mass produced.

And Honda has now committed to electrification as the way forward, with plans to produce a range of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, including electric motorcycles.

Toyota, Mitsubish, Nissan, GM and most major manufacturers have now switched to electrification as their key strategy for clean vehicles with plans for either all electric or plug-in hybrid/range-extended vehicles starting from 2010.

But doesn't Joe Sixpack get a wallet vote here? How do these manufacturers know they've chosen VHS or BetaMax?

As much as I hate to say it I don't think the noble consumer vote is going to carry much sway here, since our decisions are going to be mostly made for us by pricing - hydrogen cars are way to expensive to produce.

At present if you live California or Iceland you can refill the hydrogen fuel cell that supplies electricity to your electrically powered vehicle. But in Australia, and most of the rest of the world, where hydrogen is still a commercial gas for industry, produced in relatively small quantities from fossil fuels, pulling into the local hydrogen station is at least 10 years away.

Yes, hydrogen can be produced from water using electricity - but then why not just use the electricity?

Why do we have to build out a collection of hydrogen filling stations just to act as middle-men? Are we trying to keep Joe Sixpack happy here, or is it actually ExxonMobil?

I have cheap electricity already coming out of a socket in my garage, so explain to me again why I should drive somewhere, and queue up so I can pay someone for it?

And what the manufacturers and governments are realizing is that it will not be a reality for the early and late adopters in their very large numbers, for ten years at least.

Another compelling argument for going straight to electricity over using hydrogen as an electricity middle-man is the Smart Grid.

Its certain that the Smart Grid will be a necessary innovation to both enable new efficient energy consumption strategies for consumers, and to manage the growth of solar, wind and other alternative electric power sources. The way we get power at present is that each turbine and generator that is bought online at the local power station to meet a days peaking usage results in a big step up in power availability. Its like power is sprayed out over the consuming public from a fire-hose, and another fire engine just backed up to pump out more.

Its a hit-and-miss operation, where the amounts we choose to use bear little relation to the generation capacity power authorities have to produce. A SmartGrid allows a feed back loop where intelligent management of capacity and consumption makes the consumers partners in the process - instead of a firehose, we get to channel more like what we need.

Also the SmartGrid enables balancing and management of clean energies at the times they're produced - on windy days, or sunny days for example.

When we see large scale take up of clean vehicles that don't use oil to power them, an amazing by product will be the free electricity no longer needed by the refineries - one analyst at least says that this amount of electricity would power the equivalent electric vehicles of the petroleum that would have been produced. This changing face of electricity production and usage in the face of climate change initiatives and a new greener high-tech economy will necessarily require a smart grid to manage it.

So we're going to have to get a SmartGrid - where does Hydrogen fit into that? Answer, nowhere that I can see.

Electric vehicles can use the SmartGrid to charge at off peak times, and even take an active part in buffering the SmartGrid. Hydrogen doesn't work that way, and the Joe Sixpack consumer model hydrogen gas station is even worse of a fit.

Nevertheless, common-sense and the good of mankind have never been good enough reasons to do the right thing.

And its certain that adoption of cleaner vehicles will be slow going.


Clean Vehicle Adoption with Chasm
If you follow the "Crossing the Chasm" theory of technology adoption, there is a big gulf between those true-believing converts in the early adoption camp, and their reticent counterparts in the early adoption majority.

But this is yet another win for electric vehicles, in my view. Electric cars are the ideal chasm bridging technology, because they provide a way to "sharpen the wedge".

Hydrogen has a big hump to get over with its requirements for new fuel cell technology, hydrogen filling stations, cryogenic storage and a laundry list of high-tech advances.

But with electric vehicles, ordinary folks are building them out of spare bits and pieces in their garages. The technology is really nothing new. That innovative spirit that has us rolling up our sleeves and tinkering in the shed will give traction to the already burgeoning grass roots electric car movement.

Also making the take up slope less of a hike is the the time-saving and budget-conscious aspects of electric vehicle ownership. I don't have to do anything new with my electric car - just park it and plug it in. The socket is right there, where I park my car - its a no-brainer. No more finding time to get to the gas station, or adding up those 4c per liter savings vouchers.

Don't get me wrong - its not that I don't think hydrogen has a future. It definitely has a future, especially in fleet and heavy vehicle usage.

But to get over the hump of clean vehicle adoption before we all choke on our collective soot, we can start with an easy curve to climb.

2010 will be the year when we see these new cars arrive in numbers sufficient to make a difference. Zero tail-pipe emissions is a really good difference to be able make, especially around our schools, our cities, and our local environment.

It will be exciting to finally have the chance to be part of that difference.