Smart Cities Insider interviewed Michael Boehm. Michael is the Executive Director at E4 Advanced Transportation Center and Founder of the Advanced Sustainability Institute. We discussed the future of electric vehicles, potentials of other alternative fuels, transportation challenges and opportunities in cities.
Will electric vehicles take over the alternative fuel auto market?
Michael Boehm: I think the electric vehicles make sense but there is no reason why they can’t coexist. And indeed if you look at the California Air Resources Board planned for California and carbon reduction, they identify those electric vehicles hybrid electric vehicles and fuel cell as necessary steps to meet our goals. One alone will not be sufficient. You’ve got to pursue multiple paths. Fuel cells right now basically have a range of typically 100 to 150 miles, except the Tesla, and while that is satisfactory for most people commuting and local driving, some people feel like they want to be insured against having to make a long trip and some people like Fiat offer you a half dozen free car rental days for your long trip to make it more palatable, but people still like going places in their own car with their own music and everything. But a fuel cell can go 300 miles or more on a tank of hydrogen, so refueling is comparable to gasoline. If people don’t want a disruption in their lifestyle, then the fuel cell is a good alternative.
What are the 3 most promising fuels out there?
Michael Boehm: Short term it’s electric. There’s an abundance of electric power available and the technology is proven right in our backyards. Just south of Los Angeles International Airport, the Tesla Model S was designed, the best electric vehicle ever, and some people might even say best car ever, depending on their preference. So electric vehicles and technology has now matured in the past 5 years, and it’s ready for consumers to adopt.
Number two is methane based vehicles on natural gas, CNG (Compressed Natural Gas), propane, and all these different fuels that are not gasoline. The benefits of them are reduced air pollution coming from tailpipe and slightly reduced carbon emissions. The drawbacks to them potentially is that it’s still using fossil fuels, and it doesn’t get us off the internal combustion model, however, clean diesel are better ways to get fleets of trucks to get off of gasoline and regular diesel. The ports and all the logistics of goods movement around the ports use a lot of heavy equipment and fleet vehicles to do it, and the electrification of those should be a good benefit to our region in terms of air quality and reduce our carbon footprint.
I would say the third one is more promising, but further out. The third one is fuel cell and hydrogen and right now we have about eight hydrogen refueling stations around Los Angeles and we have pilots from Toyota and Honda. Toyota has made a commitment to have a lot of vehicles with fuel cell. And we have the Sedona which is the first commercially available fuel cell vehicle in Southern California. It’s a model from Hyundai. And I think it will take a while to build out more hydrogen fueling stations; they cost almost $1 million to build out. It’s like the chicken and the egg; why build a fueling station if there are no vehicles and how can you sell the vehicles if there are no fueling station. So there’s a hydrogen fuel-cell collaborative, and they’re working on what’s called the hydrogen highway, which will refuel your hydrogen based fuel cell if you’re driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas or to San Francisco for example. It’s still five years out I think.
Are electric vehicles truly fossil-free?
Michael Boehm: Not really. Electric vehicles are fossil fuel-powered if you go all the way back to the energy chain. Because in California majority of the energy is coming from hydro, natural gas, and coal plants which they don’t count as renewable energy. Those are the main ways to get energy for electric cars. When you buy an electric vehicle, it’s only the car that gets cleaner. If you don’t use electricity from the grid but through your own solar generated energy at home, then you could claim your electric car is completely fossil-free. Nevertheless, the energy in the grid becomes more and more greener as more renewable energy is integrated into the grid.
Do small city cars have a future in American cities?
Michael Boehm: There are lightweight vehicles that are so light that they can get very good miles per gallon so they can indeed be electrified. You see this coming both from scooter companies like Piaggio, and vehicle companies, and they’re both looking to meet in the middle ground where it’s neither a motorcycle or scooter or a true vehicle like Americans think of it. It’s like a three wheeled car. These are especially popular in Europe where cities have narrow streets.
In America, our cities are more modern. We don’t have the narrow alleys. And Americans like a lot of room in their cars. Even though we’re seeing a few of the city cars in the US, they’re not nearly as popular as in Europe.
What’s the status on electric truck fleets?
Michael Boehm: One of the things that I do along with the executive director of the E4 Advanced Transportation Center is I put my money where my mouth is. We support local startups in this space. One of the companies I work for is Euro Trucks, and they build an electric medium duty truck; so think of what your FedEx or your UPS parcel comes in, it’s about that size of a truck, Class 4. They sell to local municipal and commercial fleets.
The range of the trucks is about a hundred miles. These are a lot of deliveries with a lot of starts and stops, so that you can regenerate energy from breaking. The route is usually no more than 50 miles.