Sometimes we zoom down the road without knowing exactly where we are going. Then, it’s time to stop and ask for directions. When that happens on our drive to sustainable transportation strategies, we give a call to John DeCicco, senior fellow at Environmental Defense.

Question

The upcoming release of the Tesla Roadster is being met with great enthusiasm. As a Silicon Valley company, Tesla is apparently creating a new approach to auto technology and business by outsourcing certain key manufacturing tasks, rethinking the core power system (by using electricity as fuel), and cutting costs by selling directly through a small number of their own stores. In addition, they have stated a near-term goal of offering an affordable electric vehicle or hybrid using the same innovative approach. Can Silicon Valley do for sustainable transportation what Detroit has failed to accomplish?”

John’s Reply

Silicon Valley and the creativity of Information Technology may well do more for sustainable transportation than Detroit—with its well-earned reputation for painstaking plodding progress in automotive technology. But Silicon Valley’s contribution will not come from boutique products such as the Tesla Roadster.

Tesla needs quite a lot of plodding (read: careful, high quality) auto engineering to make their visionary product work. It’s taken a lot of engineering to get batteries to the point where meaningful driving range is feasible. And a lot more such engineering lies ahead before batteries achieve the levels of reliability and affordability needed for a sizable market. Even the niche market sought by Tesla will require a degree of development that Detroit takes for granted—quite daunting and expensive for a start-up.

While I wish Tesla well, an initial market for cars-you-can-charge, whether battery-only like the Tesla Roadster or a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt, may well be captured by the old General from Detroit. But it’ll still be a boutique market, more for the Chris Paines of the world as GM seeks public relations redemption after Who Killed the Electric Car? than for ordinary budget-minded consumers who seek a greener ride.

So how exactly will Silicon Valley play a big role for sustainable transportation? Not in the ways most folks now talk about. Unless the United States gets politically committed to curbing global warming, the invention is more likely to happen overseas in an IT-rich but oil-constrained Silicon Valley of the Far East. After all, in spite of the high-minded hopefuls trying to help America invent its way out of conspicuous carbon consumption, U.S. energy policy remains mostly like the old Tareyton cigarette commercials: "We’d rather fight than switch."

A 6,831 laptop-like lithium celled roadster with a four-second zero-to-sixty time is a noble quest, but it also screams lack of restraint. At the end of the day, power performance without limit whether you need it or not does not get us closer to sustainable transportation.

But the fully networked car, with performance measured in bandwidth rather than horsepower, might open the door to personal transportation that isn’t so inherently resource consumptive. That’s a key difference between IT-based systems and their ongoing leaps of progress and mass- and muscle-based systems that now burden the meaning of mobility.

My hope is that a Silicon Valley somewhere will create cars with smarts not so much in managing massive flows of motive power, but instead focused on knowing its surroundings. Such cars would have "V2V" (vehicle-to-vehicle) and "V2C" (vehicle-to-cityscape) capabilities. "V2G" (vehicle-to-grid) may be incidental and helpful but of itself unnecessary. In short, plug-in ability is unlikely to drive new forms of customer experience that offer a truly transformative business proposition. However, no breakthroughs are needed to realize the networked car, which would drive itself much of the time, relieving drivers of the need to "act out" and freeing up their time and attention for activities en-route that are more rewarding than starting, stopping, steering and speeding.

Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, John DeCicco is a Ph.D. mechanical engineer who specializes in automotive strategies for Environmental Defense, where he evaluates vehicle technologies and helps develop market-based policies for addressing the car-climate challenge. John was the original creator of ACEEE’s Green Book, which HybridCars.com references for the its Gas Mileage Impact Calculator and lists of the "greenest" and "meanest" vehicles, and he has published widely-cited technical studies on automotive energy and climate issues.