DETROIT -- Lots of grand visions are floating about the Detroit auto show. Deep thinkers are pondering post-oil personal transportation. A few gutsy leaders are ponying up some serious money to finance their visions.
But most deep thoughts are on a practical level -- guys such as program manager Terry Penney at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., who worries about scrap-metal thieves and wonders if an entrepreneur could make a living driving around overnight and recharging EVs at curbside.
In a world of finite resources, burgeoning population and 900 million light vehicles on the road, it's high time to consider long-term sustainability. What happens when the oil runs out?
But there's an immediate problem. There are lots of plausible replacements for the petroleum-fueled car, but no obviously successful winner. Electric vehicles? Hybrids? Fuel cells? Alternate fuels from switchback grass and biodiesel to ethanol and compressed natural gas?
Everybody is experimenting with multiple potential technologies. Tiny startups have bet the farm. But only three big guys have picked a primary technology: Toyota chose hybrids; Nissan, a pure EV; and GM, a plug-in hybrid.
Toyota has made the Prius a hit. Still, there is that nagging feeling that maybe hybrids are a transitional technology. You know, like eight-track tapes.
The jury is out on Nissan and GM. Monday at the Automotive News World Congress, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn argued for government subsidies until 500,000 privately owned EVs are on the road worldwide. "At 500,000, EV technology is sustainable," he said.
GM hitched its technology star to the plug-in Volt and rolled it out in December 2010. Volt's U.S. sales in 2011? Exactly 7,671. Monday, GM Vice Chairman Steve Girsky was candid. "We'll know by June if it has legs or not," he said. "If it doesn't have legs, we'll adjust production to sales."
Which is why most automakers are staying small with hybrids and still funding parallel research programs. "You have to have bets across the table," Hyundai Motor America CEO John Krafcik said Monday night . Long-term, Hyundai favors hydrogen fuel cells, he added.
And let's be candid with ourselves about the entry barriers to any nonpetroleum vehicle technology. They're huge.
900 million vehicles
But the biggest barrier isn't inertia, the sheer weight of 900 million gasoline or diesel vehicles and the tens of millions of global jobs dependent on building cars, using them and keeping them going.
It isn't even the stupendous cost of creating one or more new infrastructures to support a new technology.
Nope. It's pitting the Terry Penneys and his fellow alt-tech researchers against the body of knowledge that millions of engineers, researchers, mechanics and tinkerers have built over more than a century of experience.
Penney's lab is sweating how to keep copper thieves from clipping power cords at public charging stations. The oil industry solved the parallel problem sometime before 1920.
We haven't invented the technology needed to build an alternative to the petroleum-fueled car. Kent Niederhofer, president of consultancy Ricardo, describes assessing for the feds what could be done by 2025 as "the art of the possible" on powertrains.
Hundreds of small practical problems remain.
Gasoline-fueled cars fill up at the corner. But the cost of home rechargers is a huge barrier against EVs. And 60 percent of U.S. cars can't park in home garages at all.
The energy valet?
Back in Colorado at the energy lab, Penney and his co-workers debate the practicality of the neighborhood energy valet to solve that. Could an entrepreneur make a living driving around every night with a big battery in his truck, recharging nongaraged EVs and billing his customers monthly? The lab guys envision EVs that call automatically when they need juice and energy valets with computerized route maps.
"But would it work?" Penney wonders.
So here we are, much like we were at last year's Detroit show. Lots of possibilities, few definite answers.
For any breakthrough, we'll need grand visionaries like Ghosn as champions. And they'll need thousands of worker visionaries like Penney and Niederhofer.