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More thoughts on the hype cycle and electric vehicles

Published Tue, 2013.10.29 | By

John German

The other day I was quoted in an item in the New Yorker's Currency blog on why electric vehicles have “stalled.” It's an interesting piece as far as it goes (and of course it's nice to get quoted in the New Yorker), but it doesn't really go as far as it should. Plus, some of my colleagues here at the ICCT pointed out that my comments could be misconstrued, especially by anyone motivated to do so—and, let’s face it, public policy on electric vehicles, like all policy having to do with energy and the environment, is an ideological battleground as well as a set of technical questions, and ideology motivates people. So let me clarify a couple of things.

One problem with the piece is that it ends up focusing too narrowly both on the present and on one particular type of electric vehicle. What is missing, and frankly what is harder because it is more complex and realistic, is a proper emphasis on the diverse paths to reducing fuel consumption and carbon emissions. These were well characterized in a report earlier this year by the National Academy of Sciences on Transitions to Alternative Vehicles and Fuels (full disclosure, I was a contributor). That report found that there is both a ton of efficiency to be wrung out of conventional and hybrid vehicles in incremental stages and great potential for battery-electric and fuel cell vehicles in the long run. We really have to bear down on conventional technologies in the short run, because there is no technological home run coming in the next five years to win the game. At the same time, we also need to work hard now on overcoming barriers to battery electric and fuel cell vehicles. Conventional technology will not be enough to meet the long-term challenges of energy security and global warming. The transition to alternative vehicles is a necessary disruption in the conventional pattern, and the path it will follow is both technically and economically feasible—and already clear.

The vehicle fleet of the medium-term future is going to be very diverse with respect to power plant and technology. And it had better be. One size is not going to fit all, and trying to force a single solution is inherently inefficient. We need to be more strategic and rational about how we deploy technology and infrastructure, in order to effectively create a future in which battery electric and fuel cell vehicles can take the prominent role that we need them to play in our transportation system. It is highly likely that battery electric vehicles will appeal to urban customers, who don't drive a lot most days and can recharge at night, and fuel cell vehicles will appeal to drivers who have to take long trips. For those markets to develop as we need them to, batteries have to improve, ways must be found to manage long recharging times efficiently, hydrogen refueling stations must be built, and the cost of sustainably producing hydrogen reduced. All of these require a lot more focus right away—along with a realistic understanding that this is for the long haul, we can expect no instant results—or we're going to blow it. Solutions for alternative vehicles are not going to happen by themselves, and they're not going to happen overnight.

Which brings us to the hype cycle, a very useful tool for understanding public perception of any new technology, not just information technologies. The New Yorker piece misquoted me slightly, as I said that fuel cell vehicles, not battery electric vehicles, were in the “trough of despair”, but this is relatively unimportant if the full implications of the hype cycle are understood. And I got the label wrong: the hype cycle includes a “trough of disillusionment” not “despair” as I had it (I tend to use those words interchangeably).

Five or ten years ago fuel cell vehicles were being touted as “the” solution, with large volumes in the near future. This was the “peak of inflated expectations.” When the inflated expectations failed to materialize, expectations plunged into the “trough of disillusionment.” What it is important to understand is that neither the peak of inflated expectations or the trough of disillusionment have anything to do with the actual development of the technology. Fuel cell technology development has proceeded steadily for at least the last fifteen years and continues to progress rapidly, completely independent of the expectations. Whether fuel cell vehicles—or battery electric vehicles—are in the peak of inflated expectations or the trough of despair/disillusionment has nothing to do with the long-term potential success of the technology. While battery electric vehicles have not matched the inflated expectations of the past few years, sales have still increased by over 50% this year and more models are continuously being introduced. Fuel cell vehicles have passed through both the peak of inflated expectations and the trough of disillusionment and are now on the “slope of enlightenment.” At least four vehicle manufacturers, Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, and Daimler, have announced plans to produce thousands of fuel cell vehicles annually in the 2015 to 2017 timeframe. Toyota recently stated that the cost of producing the fuel cell powertrain in their upcoming 2015 fuel cell vehicle will be about $51,000, just 5 percent of what it was less than a decade ago, and they expect to halve the cost again by 2020. Certainly a far cry from Elon Musk's claim last week that automakers backing hydrogen “don’t really believe this; it’s like a marketing thing.”

Bottom line. The hype cycle is helpful in explaining why exaggerated expectations occur and why it is not productive to base policy on either inflated expectations or disillusionment. Battery electric and fuel cell vehicles are both long-term solutions, whose ultimate success or failure will not be determined by current expectations but by our commitment—or lack thereof—to long-range planning, steady technological development, and far-sighted public policy.