As the new Congress prepares to make its mark in Washington, proponents of alternative vehicles are hopeful that the change in leadership will provide a fresh start for legislation and incentives. During today's OnPoint Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, discusses his organization's plans to focus on educating Congress on automotive technologies and the steps the federal government can take to help the automobile industry accelerate the adoption of hybrids. He also discusses the importance of educating consumers about the myriad of alternative vehicles that are now available to them. Wynne talks about electric drive technologies working in conjunction with ethanol-powered vehicles to create a more energy secure nation.
Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Brian Wynne, president the Electric Drive Transportation Association. Brian thanks for joining me.
Brian Wynne: Glad to be here.
Monica Trauzzi: Brian, with the Democrats poised to take over the House and the Senate in January, members are already trying to lobby for their issues to make it onto the agenda. How much do you see getting done in support for fuel cells, hybrids, electric cars, the things that EDTA pushes for? How much legislation do you see in that direction?
Brian Wynne: Well, I suspect there's going to be a lot to. It's sort of a fresh start, in some respects, for the 110th. And everyone is very interested in addressing energy security and pollution issues and greenhouse gas. Electric drive allows us to address all three of those in one fell swoop. So there's been a lot of interest on both sides of the aisle candidly, but we think that obviously we have an opportunity to take a fresh look at this and I think our solutions will stand up well.
Monica Trauzzi: Congressman John Dingell is set to become the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He's got an ambitious agenda. And among the things he'd like to focus on are measures that would promote new energy technologies, diesel fuel in cars and electric vehicles. But he's also promising a lot of oversight and investigation. Is that going to get in the way of legislation?
Brian Wynne: No, I don't think so. I think that one way or the other the American public, particularly in this election, has spoken and said we're concerned about energy security. And so, yeah, we need to look at what's been going on. But going forward, I think, there's going to be a real focus on solutions and I think, in that respect, electric drive plays very well.
Monica Trauzzi: And what specifically do you need from Congress and the federal government in order to put more hybrids and more fuel cells on the road? Is there a specific legislation that's needed?
Brian Wynne: Well, I think it's going to show up in a lot of different pieces of legislation. For me, and for our industry I think, you've actually captured it quite well because in many respects one of the things that we feel like we need to do a better job of doing is educating members of Congress and policymakers on the connections between battery electric vehicles, hybrids, plug-in hybrid vehicles and fuel cell electric vehicles. These all utilize the same essential technology, foundational technology, and we'll be doing the education of that so that when different pieces of legislation come up they can connect the dots and we can help them do that.
Monica Trauzzi: How are you going to be doing that?
Brian Wynne: Well, in essence is largely an educational effort. But in some respects we need to be focused on what the federal government can do in collaboration with the industry to move this forward. It's already a proven technology. You can go to a dealership, see a hybrid vehicle, measure its benefits against those of a conventional vehicle, and make a decision as to whether or not that makes sense for you. But there are additional things that the federal government can do to accelerate the adoption of electric drive and, therefore, its benefits in the marketplace.
Monica Trauzzi: Gas prices have recently gone down quite a bit. Has the push and interest for alternative vehicles also dropped? And how do you keep that interest up when the gas prices are going down and people sort of feel comfortable when gas prices are low?
Brian Wynne: For me it's really about energy security. If you wanted to talk about gas prices we'd talk about the volatility of gas prices. And I think consumers understand that, certainly fleet operators understand that volatility is here with us and its here to stay. But going forward I think that we need to understand that it's really about energy security. And I think people are very concerned about it. I think they're looking at the world that we're living in and saying we want to control our own destiny. To the extent that we're dependent on oil we're at risk. And so we need to be looking at solutions in that regard. Having said all that, the demand for hybrid vehicles continues to be very strong. There are a number of new entrants for battery electric vehicles in the marketplace. We're looking at plug-in hybrids and there's a tremendous amount of interest in the potential that plug-in hybrids offer. And fuel cells continue to be an area where we're working very hard to see, as we move down the road with all of this, these different elements of the suite, how can we bring the future of fuel cell technology in so that we have the benefit of zero emission vehicles?
Monica Trauzzi: One solution for energy security that's being pushed in Congress is ethanol. You have Senator Barack Obama, who's really pushing for increased ethanol supply. Are hybrids and fuel cells a better option than ethanol? Can all three work together in improving the energy security and also efficiency? Compare those three.
Brian Wynne: I see them as very complementary. In fact, electric drive can be married, as we see, with hybrids. Electric drive can be married up in a number of different ways, including with flex fuel vehicles or ethanol vehicles, biodiesel vehicles, etc. Indeed, I was on a bus earlier this week that was utilizing biodiesel. You can hybridize a transit bus and utilize biodiesel. So we view electric drive as a complementary technology and let's not forget that electricity is an alternative fuel. But we play nice with all the alternative fuels and we're very supportive of all those efforts, recognizing that in order to have a more efficient fleet we need to go forward with as many options as we can move forward with.
Monica Trauzzi: So it's not you would consider ethanol a direct competitor to some of the vehicles that you push?
Brian Wynne: Not at all.
Monica Trauzzi: OK. I wanted to ask you about the week three automakers, the American car companies. Are they doing enough? Are they in the way of hybrids and pushing alternative sorts of vehicles? Are they doing enough?
Brian Wynne: I think all of the vehicle manufacturers, across the board, are working very hard to figure out how do we green and clean the fleet going forward? And let's not forget that it isn't just about automobiles. There are a lot of different kinds of vehicles out there on the road. The different auto manufacturers and vehicle manufacturers have different strengths depending upon what segment of the market they're looking for. Electric drive is a technology that can be utilized in a lot of different ways. And how you utilize it can play to your strengths and be complementary to other things that you're trying to do in the marketplace. All of the auto manufacturers have been investing in electric drive technologies, as well as other technologies, for quite some time. And it's a difficult time right now.
Monica Trauzzi: GM recently announced that they're predicting that they could mass produce hydrogen cars by 2011. Fuel cells are expensive though. Will Americans ever be driving these? Will it become a standard in our society because they're so expensive? Can the price get down to a point where people can actually afford them?
Brian Wynne: If I look at the trends in technology there's no question in my mind that these are technologies that are very worthwhile to pursue. One of the reasons why we look at electric drive as a foundational technology is because the more electric drive vehicles you can get in the marketplace, the more they become commercially viable, the closer in potentially that future becomes. It's all about sustainable transportation down the stretch here and we need to stay focused on that. We can't afford, even though fuel cells look expensive today we can get a lot further down that curve with some of the components that are common on all of these platforms if we keep working. So it's not an either/or proposition. As far as the crystal ball question, it's really difficult for me to say. I do know that all of the auto manufacturers are working on it very, very aggressively. They're doing that and they're doing other things as well. And there's a convergence factor here as well. So I think that if we hadn't worked on battery EVs for example, we wouldn't have the hybrids that we've got today. If we don't continue to move forward and work on additional applications for hybrid vehicles, if we do we can continue to bring a sustainable future little bit closer in.
Monica Trauzzi: What about larger SUV type hybrid vehicles? The fuel economy isn't really that much lower than your standard vehicle. And consumers could be buying these cars, these vehicles, believing that they're helping with our energy independence and they're doing good things for the environment when they're actually not really. So how do we resolve this?
Brian Wynne: Well, it's not a static picture. If we take a snapshot of where we are today there are lots and lots of different ways that we can look at it and say on a percentage basis this particular vehicle is this much better or this much more fuel-efficient than its conventional counterpart. And even incremental changes, at this particular stage in the game, mean a great deal, but there are additional vehicles coming and additional technologies. Again, it's a very, very competitive marketplace and it's being driven by government policy that says there's a lot at stake here. There's a tremendous benefit that can be achieved for us as a society and very consistently with the objectives that we need to achieve, that are going to be very relevant to the 110th Congress. So I would continue to evaluate that, and we do on an ongoing basis. And consumers are making those choices. Fleet operators are starting to very aggressively make those choices. Little percentages can matter and there are bigger percentages coming.
Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned plug-in hybrids before and I wanted to talk about the commercialization of plug-in hybrids. For some reason, electric cars just didn't take off with American consumers. The idea of plugging in your car to recharge it just didn't take off. So how do you market these cars, these vehicles, in a way that makes it appealing to the American customer?
Brian Wynne: Well, to some extent I think that we've, my sense is that plugging in your vehicle can actually become very attractive. There were lots of reasons why battery EVs didn't quite fulfill their promise in the past. But it's very interesting to note that with advances in battery technology and increasing fuel prices, which make that equation a little bit different, I think they may become more attractive to consumers in the future. Plug-in hybrid vehicles are just beginning to get out on the road in prototype form. We're looking at what the benefits of them are. It's a very attractive alternative in theory and we have some data beginning to come in that make them look very interesting. But we need to make certain that we continue to work on, for example, the battery technology, which was one of the things that has held battery vehicles back in the past. So, again, there's a relationship here. And I think to the extent that plug-in hybrids can pull forward and benefit from advances in advance batteries, then I think you could see that, as a platform, become very attractive.
Monica Trauzzi: Final question, we're almost out of time. We've discussed many different types of vehicles today. We have hydrogen, hybrid, flex fuels. And the American consumer doesn't necessarily understand or know about all these different types of vehicles. Is there a possibility that too many choices are going to deter the customer from switching to these new alternative forms and sort of force them to stick to what they know, which is gas powered vehicles?
Brian Wynne: Well, I think it's a great question. You know when I go in and buy a vehicle or when I talk to people, particularly fleet owners, they're looking at what do I need to get done with this vehicle? And I think the vehicle wins that can actually handle that in the most efficient way and make people feel good about the purchase that they've made, in whatever profile that is. I think that this is a technology that's been well accepted in the marketplace as we see with hybrids. In some instances it's very differentiated. In some instances it looks exactly like a conventional vehicle only it gets way better gas mileage. So to me the consumers are already making that decision the right way.
Monica Trauzzi: OK. Brian, thanks for joining me.
Brian Wynne: Thank you.
Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.
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