LightWorks Inaugural Lecture Series: Assessing the electric vehicle and the direction toward transportation sustainability


On Monday, November 19, 2012, LightWorks kicked off its Inaugural Lecture Series with Ford Motor Company’s Executive Technical Leader of Energy Systems and Sustainability, Dr. Michael A. Tamor. The event operated as a three-pronged unit with a seminar, workshop, and lecture spanning over the course of the day.

Dr. Tamor began the session with a seminar titled, “Global Vehicle Usage Studies: Who Can Really Use an Electric Car?” He gave an overview of the attractive qualities of the electric vehicle (EV) including its silence, efficiency, and zero-emissions. However, these attractive qualities come with a more limited use range and longer “refueling” time than traditional vehicles. Dr. Tamor ran through a series of tables and graphs of a variety of cities worldwide that indicated very similar patterns in terms of the way we use transportation. He noted that we can conclude with relative certainty that the limited range of EVs will likely prove too inconvenient for wide adoption, and for those who are willing to use EVs despite this inconvenience, batteries must be unrealistically priced for the economic return. In light of the universality of vehicle usage, this becomes a powerful indicator for how transportation will evolve in the developing world. Dr. Tamor noted that perhaps the vehicle most likely to achieve widespread use is the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), which operates by both battery and traditional fuel and thus provides compromise for EV limitations. Although the PHEV may have advantages in travel range and electrification potential, it depends on the driving patterns of the individual to decide whether or not a PHEV is right for them. Dr. Tamor provided a list of questions that can estimate whether an individual will choose between purchasing an EV or a PHEV by simply identifying the amount of distance traveled.

  1. How many miles do you drive annually?
  2. Roughly how many days per year do you use your vehicle?
  3. How many days do you commute?

Between the PHEV and the EV, an electric vehicle may be the most desirable option for an individual living within close proximity to where they most often commute. Also, a PHEV can never pay for itself the same way an EV can because of its use of 100% electricity. An individual might be able to simply plug their EV into their home solar panels and ultimately save more money than they would with a PHEV. Although a more clean and efficient option, the answers from individuals surveyed show that the majority of people simply travel too far to actually benefit from an EV. “The trouble is you have to ask what a vehicle can do for you,” Tamor said. “Sometimes buying an electric vehicle is not going to be necessarily cheaper.”

Following the seminar, participants gathered in a workshop titled, “Envisioning a Sustainable Transportation Future in 2050.” Groups were paired off to discuss trajectory end points. Odd tables were asked to describe a pivotal event, experience, or conversation in 2012 that crystallized the nature of the sustainable transportation challenge and to consider that moment in terms of how it reflects current transportation leadership, choices, and trajectories. Even tables were asked to describe the main ways they imagined 2050 would look versus 2012, specifically in terms of transportation leadership, choices, and trajectories made over that period. Groups reported their findings, and solutions were collected for use in further studies.

The reported findings and solutions made by the workshop groups generated similar results. Odd tables agreed that green policy initiatives and the wide acceptance of renewable energies has been an important step forward on the nature of current sustainable transportation leadership. The converging of electrical and transportation networks, use of dynamic charging and upgrade of electrical infrastructure has been a pivotal point in 2012 to solidify the United States as being sustainably conscious of transportation. Even tables argued that our world in 2050 would be possibly more EV friendly due to the impact of climate change and urban sprawl becoming less evident. A city 38 years from now may incorporate a design that allows people to be in closer vicinity and incorporates more public transportation options. Workshop participants agreed that in order to reach broader sustainable transportation leadership there would need to be a national cultural and social shift. Along with vast public support, current and future leadership must lead the United States’ transportation sector into a sustainable system that relies on renewable energy funding and policy initiatives such as a Carbon Tax, Open Fuels Standard Act, and implemented fuel standards. As a reflection on the future of Arizona, workshop participants agreed that the transition to solar and algae biofuels would be the likely source of energy in the South West due to abundant sunlight.

The final lecture, “Sustainable Personal Transportation: The Re-electrification of the Automobile,” concluded the series with the question of whether or not personal automobiles have a place in a sustainable transportation future. Dr. Tamor noted that the public often willfully accepts as fact that automobiles are less efficient than other modes of transportation, and that EVs will reduce green house gas emissions and contribute to the acceleration of clean electric generation. Dr. Tamor challenged these conceptions by discussing the limitations of battery storage and introducing a number of non-traditional fuels to continue to study for vehicular use. Among these, he highlighted hydrogen fuels and natural gas, which he noted has become greatly available due to new fracking technologies—though he was sure to note that depending on whether or not this remained what he called a “sustainable” fuel rested on its environmental impact.

The Inaugural Lecture Series seeks to engage with experts in a wide variety of energy-related fields. The event contributed to the discussion LightWorks hopes to continue on our energy future, a large part of which is affected by our transportation choices.

Written by Sydney Lines and Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

Photo by Sydney Lines

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