Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Energy bill... what's the buzz?

What's the skinny? A new energy bill just passed in in the House and is on its way to the Prez. Here's what it demands (using this NY Times article as a reference):

-> "The bill requires cars and light trucks sold in the United States to meet a fleetwide average of 35 miles a gallon by 2020."

This are the infamous CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards you hear about all over the place. Currently, it is 27.5. To me, lowering energy used is as simple as making the things we use more efficient. This gets the action it out of the hands of people who don't care about the big picture (i.e. a majority of consumers). You put part of the burden of conservation on the manufacturers, where, in my opinion, it should be. This does not take the burden OFF of the consumer by any means but it makes it easier for people to make the right choice.

Problems? "Critics say it will make cars and trucks less safe and more expensive," two valid points, to be sure. But this is assuming that safety and economy are mutually exclusive which I don't agree with. Will it make cars more expensive? Sure but so does all the technology and research that goes into making them faster, which, at this junction, is going to take a back seat. You could say that making them more expensive puts off the decision to buy a new car, reducing manufacturing across the board and potential waste of an old car. You could counter THAT with saying that this will keep people in potentially less fuel-efficient cars (i.e. older) for longer. There's also been suggestion that the last time that fuel economy was raised, people simply started driving more and made up for it.

I think a CAFE is necessary but, as it is, will not be effective enough. I think an ECAFE is better: EFFECTIVE Corp Avg Fuel Economy. Under current CAFE standards, a car company could sell one model at 20 MPG and one model at 40 MPG. If 75% of your sales are the 20 MPG car, your EFFECTIVE fuel economy is (.75 x 20) + (.25 x 40) = 25 MPG while your current CAFE would be (20 + 40) / 2 = 30 MPG. Of course you can't enforce consumer choices of a higher MPG automobile but this would mean that the worst offenders would have to be phased out and replaced with better alternatives. People will complain about the lack of choice but our choices are restricted now as it is. I posted the following statement here (scroll down):

Eventually, consumer choice will have be curbed by necessity. We can't own a fully auto weapon, we can't drive cars that don't meet safety standards, we can't drive drunk, and we can't own slaves. These are all choices that have been restricted because of a number of reasons and I'm doing fine because of it. In understand that my quality of life isn't better because I'm allowed to do what I want to do. I've learned to cut back my speed on the freeway, take public transportation, deal with CFLs and power strips, and be a little colder in the winter and warmer in the summer.

That's enough from me... I want to include some relevant feedback from The Car Lounge because there are some serious gearheads and environmentalists who know more about this stuff than I do.

uncleho: "I think the process of conservation of dino fuels (my belief is that we will be tied to it for some time to come, because other fuels are not readily available or practical) in relation to cars requires "motivating" both companies AND consumers. IMO... the root cause necessitates the most motivation, because car companies will only build what people desire. Furthermore, there is only one motivator - government. I believe CAFE is a good start, but that reviews for loop holes (be it truck exclusion or dumb statistics or credits) is required."

CarLuvrSD: "Intrinsic motivation> Government coercion."

rimtrim: "The problem with waiting for intrinsic motivation (aka market forces) to kick in is that it will likely only happen AFTER a major problem has become clear -- either we really do begin to have oil shortages due to lack of supply, or global warming floods NYC, or whatever. By then it will be too late to change in an orderly fashion.

This raises the question of what our goals are. If we want to get as many people as possible into more efficient cars right away, raising the gas tax dramatically is the way to do it.... On the other hand, if the goal is to encourage a gradual changeover with minimal disruption of people's lives, a CAFE-style system is better. It has no effect on people who are happy with the cars they already have, and the effects on new-car buyers are not likely to be huge price increases. While there will be some price increases for additional hybrid or diesel equipment, the automakers would also be pressed to look for low- or no-cost changes to improve economy, such as restricting power, changing transmission gearing, improving aerodynamics, etc. The overall results of this would be that new cars would be less "cool", but more efficient, and probably not that much more expensive."

uncleho: "I often wonder WTF do we fix the CURRENT community design as so much of America (and unfortunately other countries trying to emulate us) is setup for the car (i.e. It is too late to fix it as it will be a massively expensive undertaking.). But if we don't fix it now, when will we fix it? Should we just live under some short-sighted/ignorant design forever or spend the money know for long term conservation?

Detroit and its utter lack of a real public transit system is a good candidate. And who's to say the auto companies need to make money with just CARS? GM's 'motto' is actually to be "#1 in transportation". Guess what GM??? Transportation can = buses (again), train/railway/subway, and even aircraft!

Changes in transport strategy to conserve can actually BE profitable as a whole new drive can be started in an otherwise niche market - public transport!"

The CAFE thing, unfortunately, is not the only change proposed...

-> "[The bill] requires the annual production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022, a fivefold increase from current ethanol production levels"

That's bad, plain and simple. Want to know why I think that? Start here, go here and then keep reading; it should not take much to convince you that ethanol is not the answer.

If dreams were pennies...

According to the State Department, MIT is on-track to save the world. I always roll my eyes at these articles about concepts and dreams... I like to read articles about things hitting the marketplace or starting to be manufactured. On the other hand, it is MIT, the same group that brought you the "Flexcar2" idea. Here's the skinny:

Amy Jaffe is surprised that only very few people think she and her colleagues are crazy. What the Massachusetts Technology Institute (MIT) senior, about 400 other students and 30 faculty members from around the world want to do is not a small feat. The group plans to build, in just three years, a hyperefficient, supersafe four-passenger to six-passenger car called VDS Vision that will be produced and used with 95 percent less energy and toxic materials throughout its lifetime than an average existing vehicle.

Hyperefficient! Supersafe! Neither of these words are accepted by my browser spell check, just in case you were wondering.
Adrian Chernoff, who volunteers as a guide, mentor and adviser to program participants, says they face a tremendous challenge...Chernoff, an accomplished inventor and innovator, knows what he is talking about. As a chief architect and principal inventor behind General Motors's 2001 Reinvention of the Automobile program, he helped to bring about several concept and demonstration vehicles such as AUTOnomy, Hy-Wire, CARousel and Sequel. With many independent teams spread around the world, working together smoothly and efficiently will be the most difficult part of the project, Chernoff said. “In the end, it is about networking, collaboration and teamwork,” Chernoff said.

*Sigh*, the Hy-Wire...

GM General Motors Hy-Wire concept
It's funny that this car should come up in a article considering my recent reminiscing session. The Hy-Wire was the GM car that really got me excited about hydrogen power in cars. The innovation behind the car was less about its propulsion and more about its actual design. Hydrogen (and electric) cars allow (read: require) you to re-design the idea of a car from the ground up. Forget about steering shafts, drive-lines, engine placement, and cooling systems; everything needed to move the car is modular and doesn't really limit its placement in the vehicle. What this lets you do is include all this stuff into one "skateboard" section of the car and then rearrange the rest of it as you will. I did a Google Sketch-Up to illustrate:

Hy-Wire skateboard section on Google Sketch-Up
So imagine the green as the batteries and/or fuel cell(s) and the blue for your electric motors. Computers are interspersed through-out and the car is drive-by-wire (so instead of the steering shaft actually turning wheels or your gas pedal actually feeding fuel, your inputs tell the computer to do it [my VW is drive-by-wire for gas input so this isn't crazy future stuff]). That means you can add and remove all the interior parts (seats, dash, etc) and even change the body on it and you won't be affecting how the car moves. It's a great concept and not that hard to actually make happen.

The point I eventually intend to make is that this little Hy-Wire guy has been out and about for many years, at least 7 if my memory serves me right. Despite its great ideas and "potential to revolutionize the blah blah blah," it's gone nowhere. Well, Wired got to drive it at least, that's something.

I admire long term goals ("the group's goal goes beyond that; members also want to change the way cars are produced and used") but it's important to take this kind of news for exactly what it is: a step in the right direction and a promise of absolutely nothing. I would hate for someone to read this and go "here it is! The future is now! Problems are solved!" There are quite a few safe and economic options out there to begin with and not everyone is rushing to get them. You can buy and own an electric vehicle, you can choose a hybrid SUV, you can drive differently. All of these things contributes towards the same goal and this project: using less oil, changing our economy, and polluting less. If people the way we produce and buy and use our cars was apt to be changed, wouldn't we already be doing everything we could?

Simply put, there are not enough people out there (yet) who care enough to make this kind of radical change. Never stop dreaming, never stop building, never stop designing, never ever. But make sure you have the big picture in your head too: there's more to overcome than just the products that are available. There is a massive, interconnected, complicated sociology, psychology, and infrastructure in place that just won't shift directions for a product like a Saint Bernard for a milkbone.

Keeping dreaming but don't quit your day job (see number 7):

THE SEX & CASH THEORY: "The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs: One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the task in hand covers both bases, but not often. This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

OMG! Seattle INCREASES public transportation!?

This I've got to see in person. Here is the main site and here is the route:

SLUT route map
Call me crazy but I'm not sure that route is going to help too much. You're cutting right through a section of Seattle that doesn't have a lot of people living in it. The whole North half of the route is not a very populated/popular area. Plus, the housing there is fairly expensive and I'm pretty sure the bulk of public transportation (PT) riders, for now, are not the ones who left their C-class Mercedes at home (congrats to you if you do, though; PT should have nothing to do with socioeconomic status).

Other then the kind of goofy route, the fare is low ($1.50) and the website says it does connect the other PT systems which is a start:

The Seattle Streetcar's South Lake Union line has eleven stops conveniently located a short walk from other transportation hubs connecting the entire the region's transportation options, including: Metro buses and Sound Transit buses, trains and light rail; Ferry service; Taxi; Flexcar; Park and Ride; and Monorail.

The big upside is that the South Lake Union Trolley has a great acronym. Part of me wonders if someone was smart enough to "accidentally" give it such a funny name to possibly get it into people's minds.

Someone: "Wanna drive there or ride the SLUT?"
Someone else: "Is that a serious question? SLUT, of course!"
The first someone: "Alright, let's go SLUT it up!"

That was fun but I digress... So they have a great nickname, the fare is low, they connect other modes of transportation, and they look pretty neat:

SLUT Seattle Lake Union Trolley car (I wonder if anyone will do an image search for 'slut' and get this picture hahaha
All this is fine and dandy but there's a big problem in the mind of those who would like to see a massive increase in PT options like this one (especially in Seattle). The Seattle PI says that this could lead to new networks of PT: "We now want to talk about a network that connects neighborhoods to downtown." But those are talks, not plans. There is now this fancy, new trolley system covering areas where the ridership is, naturally, going to be pretty low. These are not congested areas, they are not huge urban centers (in terms of living spaces), and they probably didn't need this route to begin with. I suspect that they will see much less people riding the trolley as they anticipated and will use it as a reason to avoid future PT plans. The purse-string controllers will go "see, you silly Seattlites, we told you PT was stupid... look, no one is riding the one we gave you $52 million to build."

Seattle is a beautiful city caught up in a lot of goofy crap. It has two of the most amazing sports stadiums in the country and two disappointing sports teams with a pretty weak (in terms of numbers and overall fanaticism) fan base (come see the maniac Charger fans and you'll see what I mean). PT gets cut and cut and cut and people wonder why no one rides the buses and monorails (the monorail goes from the friggen Science Center to the Westlake Mall... not useful). Ineffective leadership, poor money management, and almost zero cultural diversity, Seattle simply needs a huge injection of something other than heroin.

So what to do? Why not make Seattle the shining example of a green city? Lots of rain to use, it already looks great, and the whole place could use an identity. I mean, it's already called the Emerald City. Make an environment for architects that fosters green design, legislate strict LEED enforcement, add a greentech museum... none of this is hard and none of it is all that expensive. Tax breaks for adding EV charging stations, same for alternative fuel stations.

Seattle skyline from Lake Union
*sigh* complaining about Seattle makes me miss it a little bit... coming home soon.

Monday, December 17, 2007

What does it all mean?

Hugh MacLeod, the first blogger I ever started reading and ever subscribed to, drew this carton which makes me laugh first, then consider the implications:

Hugh MacLeod Gaping Void brand experience cartoon
What are your meaningful brand experiences? What brands get you going? Does it make you feel icky to be asked that question? I think it is a natural human reaction to recoil a bit from the idea of a "Meaningful Brand Experience" making us feel better but I also think it is not a waste of time to consider what it means.

Since we're sharing, I'll start. I have had meaningful brand experiences with Apple, for sure. Listening, organizing, and sharing the music that gets me through my life... also yelling, swearing, and threatening when I realize Apple's conspiracy against PC users (this has not been officially substantiated). Despite it's recent and mysterious demise, I've always had a love affair with Canon digital cameras. The 4+ gigabytes of pictures I obsessively and repeatedly back-up show a long trail of friends, relationships, and experiences, all of which I relate back to my two Canon cameras. On a smaller scale, I also have a strong affection for the BreakBeat Science record label. They were my drum&bass mecca and visiting the shop in New York was a big highlight of my trip out east. Their logo still makes me smile...

BreakBeat Science logo
Today, I'm faced with a different kind of brand experience, a distinctly sad one. Stumbling through alternative energy news on Google News (I know, surprise surprise, a Google product), I came across a few stories mentioning the potential demise of Ballard Power Systems, a fuel cell company in Vancouver, British Columbia that I always fancied myself working for.

Here's one sign:

Peter Stickler, vice president of human resources at Ballard Power Systems Inc. sold 19,180 shares at prices ranging from US$4.90 to US$5 on Dec. 13 and Dec. 14, 2007. His total company holdings after these transactions was 115,440 shares.

And another (with a particularly morose headline and picture):
Ballard -- the Canadian fuel-cell company that once hoped to be the "Intel Inside of the hydrogen car revolution -- has sold off its automotive fuel-cell business to Daimler and Ford.

[Analyst]: [Ballard] would never contemplate such as move if it thought it had any chance of making good on the millions it has poured into that research -- and the vast financing it has been able to raise with promises of the hydrogen highway, a route to the future that has never materialized, but seduced investors with visions of cars that spewed only water from their tailpipes.

The above article takes much of its content from here, BTW.

From the horse's mouth:
Ballard Power Systems (TSX: BLD)(NASDAQ: BLDP) today announced that it has agreed to sell the company's automotive fuel cell assets to Daimler AG and Ford Motor Company. Payment for these assets will consist of all 34.3 million Ballard shares held by Daimler and Ford. These shares will then be cancelled. Ballard expects to record an estimated gain on the transaction of $95-to-$105 million.

"This transaction will enable Ballard to concentrate on growth in fuel cell applications which provide clean energy solutions in commercial markets," said John Sheridan, Ballard's President and CEO. "It also lowers Ballard's risk profile by addressing the realities of the high cost and long timeline for automotive fuel cell commercialization. At the same time, a new private company will be established and will be positioned for success in automotive fuel cell technology over the longer term, with management and funding provided by Daimler and Ford."

So what does it all mean? I have two perspectives on the matter...

If this does, in fact, point to hydrogen's eventual demise as an automotive fuel, so be it. If you know me then you know I love the idea of hydrogen and I feel like it is a viable option. A lot of my optimism is simply a general belief in scientific progress and an overall "never say never" sentiment. I know there are problems with a massive hydrogen economy/infrastructure as it stands; if you follow the industry at all, you'll know this. But the storage problems are, in my opinion, minute and easy to overcome. The hydrogen production problem is the big one but even that has some promising technology .

Regardless, if hydrogen is not meant to be, I'm not going to be the lone voice screaming against all reason for the fuel to be adopted simply because I like it and think it is neat. I'm seeing a lot of this going on with ethanol and I refuse to be counter-productive in the search for sustainable transportation simply because my pet technology didn't work out.

Enough said on that.

The sad part - i.e. my second perspective on this news - is the death of an icon representing something very important to me. Ballad Power Systems was the second company I attributed to clean energy and sustainable vehicles. The first was GM. In fact, GM was the whole reason I started pursuing this industry as a career. It was a Wired article about their fuel cell technology that made me perk up, get my crap together, and go to school (no joke). As I learned more about the technology and what kind of promise it held, Ballard ousted GM as my dream company for employment (after GM declined my generous offer to move out to Detroit and help them pursue green technologies... also no joke. Apparently they have my resume on file). I imagined myself living in Vancouver, making a name for myself in the transportation world. It was a perfect dream but, of course, just that... a dream.

It turns out, all of that dreaming actually lead somewhere. I'm in school with a goal in sight, I'm building valuable contacts in the field, and I'm working hands-on with chemistry that might just be the hydrogen storage silver bullet (there's that bright and shiny optimism). The loss of my "corporate role-model" certainly doesn't indicate the end of the road for my quest but it is symbolic. Ballard's name comes up in almost every hydrogen fuel cell story simply because they build the best fuel cell available right now. The were THE name in fuel cells and, for a while, represented a pretty solid investment.

BLDP Ballard Power Systems stock price
So is this the "end of the road for hydrogen?" Will Ballard Power's symbolic loss of their automotive sector really lead to the demise of this technology? It's a bad sign but, really, who can say? All it really means is that hydrogen will not be profitable in the very near future and Ballard, certainly a company that has shouldered huge financial burdens to try to make this technology come to fruition, needs a break. I will add, however, that having a buyer (Daimler Chrysler...not expected) ready and able to step up and take over the technology is a good thing. Ballard will continue to develop fuel cells but in a different sector (hopefully a profitable one). Who knows, maybe this is exactly what hydrogen technology needs. Ballard can concentrate on different markets and leave the automotive stuff to an automotive company. Win-win? I guess we'll see :)

As for me, I'll have a little moment of silence for the company that symbolized progress and altruism despite obstacles but I will also revisit the big picture reason why I'm pursuing what I'm pursuing.

1) I'm for safe, clean, scalable, and sustainable transportation for the most people possible.

2) I'm not a cheerleader for anything except the greenest, most feasible technology available.

3) It will be hard but not impossible for us to achieve a long-term, valid replacement for petroleum.

I wish great karma and financial success for all the people involved with Ballard Power Systems. Thank you for my meaningful brand experience...