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An Interview with Daniel Sperling

There are about a billion cars in the world today, and that number will double in 20 years, largely due to the recent enormous growth in China and India. Our reliance on automobiles is already a contributing factor in problems ranging from geopolitics to climate change. Can we accommodate even more cars? What measures are necessary to produce a sustainable future?

"Cars are arguably one of the greatest man-made threats to human society," writes Daniel Sperling, a professor of engineering at the University of California–Davis and founding director of the school's Institute of Transportation Studies. But in Two Billion Cars (Oxford University Press, 2009), written with policy analyst Deborah Gordon, Sperling explains how new technologies and fuels, reforms in the oil and auto industries, and an evolved, enlightened culture can produce a secure, prosperous and efficient world with a harmoniously integrated transportation system.

American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross spoke with Sperling by telephone in April 2009.


What led you to write the book?Click to Enlarge Image

I became quite frustrated by the fact that almost all the books that were written about energy and transportation were by journalists, and I felt that, while they of course provide some value, they have limited insight into both the problems and the solutions. So, having worked in this area for quite a few years, I felt inspired to write a book that actually dug a little deeper, showed more insights about what the problems really were, provided more context, more history, and then laid out the options that we have before us to deal with climate, oil, security and all the other problems in transportation.

How are we doing as a nation in improving the energy efficiency of our vehicles?

We're doing a horrible job. The book can be read as something very depressing, because in fact if you look at almost any trend, it's going in the wrong direction in terms of energy and climate change and greenhouse-gas emissions. So it's very easy to become depressed. But I think the overall sense of the book is positive, and we try to lay out all the strategies, technologies, solutions and changes that are possible, in some cases actually being pursued already—and that in fact there are many opportunities to respond to those problems and challenges. So in the U.S. today, the good news is that, at the national level, even during the Bush administration there were a couple of laws passed that really started to change the discussion and started to put in place a policy framework for improving the efficiency of our vehicles, and to a lesser extent, started to decarbonize our fuels. So that was good, and then the Obama administration, of course, is pursuing those themes even more aggressively. And, best of all, California is pursuing those policies even more aggressively. But the reality is, even with all of that emerging policy leadership, in fact there hasn't been much change in actual behavior and actual technology.

Is there one key element, say an electric-drive technology, that you think is essential to the whole solution?

I think the greatest opportunity, where we can get the biggest improvement and it's most accessible to us, is improving the vehicles, and that means both improving the efficiency of conventional technology and eventually moving to electric-drive technology and fueling vehicles with low-carbon fuels and biofuels, hydrogen electricity. So we have started the transition to electric-drive technology; you know, we see the Toyota hybrid Prius becoming quite popular, and now there are many other hybrid technologies being unveiled by almost every major car company in the world. But it's still small: Only about 2.5 percent of new vehicle sales are hybrid vehicles, so there's still a long way to go. But at least there is movement in that direction, and most of the car companies have embraced the idea that most vehicles, if not all vehicles, will be electric-drive in the future.

It seems that Detroit does innovate, but until recently its innovations were more toward SUVs and creature comforts rather than toward increased efficiency.

Well, I think the more profound story is that automotive engineers and automotive companies have been quite effective at improving efficiency of vehicles in a technical sense, making the engines more efficient, using more lightweight materials, moving to electrical controls rather than mechanical and hydraulic controls, but they have used most of that efficiency improvement to make the vehicles bigger and more powerful and heavier, and so in the U.S. in the last 25 years the fuel economy has essentially stayed flat, even though in a technical sense the vehicles are much more efficient. And that's because they're more powerful and bigger.

Just one little factoid on that is that in the mid-'80s the average car went from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 14.5 seconds. The average car today does it in 9.5 seconds. So today's vehicles are much more powerful, as well as being bigger, than they were 20 to 25 years ago.

So the Detroit companies have moved to bigger vehicles , big pickups, big SUVs, more and faster than other companies, but even Toyota's Tundra pickup truck was huge, and they just unveiled that a few years ago. But the Detroit companies clearly pursued the SUV phenomenon more than the other companies.

You mentioned low-carbon fuels. How is that search going? Are the right incentives in place for oil companies and others to find an effective low-carbon fuel?

Not exactly. What has happened is that in December 2007 Congress passed a new energy law that requires 36 billion gallons of biofuels to be sold per year by 2022. There are a lot of flaws with that law, one of them being that it only targets biofuels and that it allows almost half of those biofuels to be corn ethanol, which gives us little or no improvement in greenhouse-gas emissions on a life-cycle basis. So that was a step in the right direction, but not the best step. California has developed something called the low-carbon fuel standard, which does cover all fuels, and it's a performance standard that's applied to the oil companies that doesn't pick winners. The European Union is also moving toward a policy very similar to the low-carbon fuel standard, and there are several bills at the U.S. Congress that include a low-carbon fuel standard, so there's a good chance that this standard will sweep through the U.S. and Europe, at least, and that is exactly the kind of policy that will be effective at transforming our fuels and our oil companies as we move into this low-carbon world.

I know you've had your eye on California in particular as a leader in a lot of these areas. Why California?

I've seen some book reviews coming out, and some of them have said that we're too enamored of California, that we're holding up California as a model. But in fact, in terms of policy leadership on climate change, California definitely is an important leader, and it's been putting in place a whole series of laws and policies that are going to be effective at creating this transition to a low-carbon future. So it's not that California is a model, broadly; clearly the budget process has been a disaster, and foreclosures and everything; there are lots of problems in California. But in terms of climate policy and environmental policy leadership, California clearly is a model. It has been very deliberately creating policies that can be imitated elsewhere and that will be consistent and can easily be complemented by policies elsewhere.

So the question might be "Why California?" I think that California is a unique place in many ways, good and bad. The good is that it has a very strong research community; it's got some of the best universities in the world, it's got strong national labs, and it's got Silicon Valley, which has created a large venture capital industry and invests in a lot of new ideas. It's got a population that's very sensitive to environmental problems, and it's got an innovative business community that came out of Silicon Valley. It also has a government agency, the Air Resources Board, that operates fairly independently and has therefore been less encumbered by political constraints than EPA has been in Washington. Also, in California there's no coal industry, and no Detroit car industry to slow things down. So it's had more political space to maneuver in the climate and environmental world. And it's a new society, a new economy, so people are not as bound by tradition as you would find elsewhere.

You say at the same time that the federal government can hinder individual state initiatives like California's. How does that happen?

A lot of policies and rules and laws that are adopted by the states have to be approved by the federal government to be implemented, for various reasons. So, for instance, the greenhouse gas standards adopted by California and 14 or 15 other states—to go into effect, those rules had to be approved by the EPA.  For the past 30 years those rules have been under the jurisdiction of the Clean Air Act, and the EPA in the past has always approved these waivers, allowing the states to go ahead with these rules as long as they're more aggressive than the federal ones. This was the first time they actually blocked it, and that was really the Bush administration blocking it. Whereas the low-carbon fuels standard does not need the permission of the federal government. So that's the complicated policy landscape.

The United States used to be the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases, but China surpassed us last year. Are they sensitive to these issues?

I think what you could say about China is that it is very concerned about expanding oil imports; it's very concerned about the amount of energy being used, and therefore it is committed to reducing oil use and reducing energy use through energy efficiency. You'd have to say they're not quite as excited about addressing climate change. They see climate change as having been caused largely by the U.S. and the Western countries, and they're correct, because these gases stay in the atmosphere for a hundred years or more, so most of the problem today is due to what the U.S. has done in the past, and Western Europe. But, having said that, they do have motives to reduce oil use and energy use, and they are committed to doing that, and they do realize that they have to be part of the solution. And so they're slowly starting to participate in the global discussion about greenhouse gas reduction. I think they're going to have a meeting in Copenhagen in December, and China will agree to participate in this, but clearly they expect the U.S. to take leadership. That's why the Obama administration's actions are so important, because the rest of the world is not going to pursue greenhouse-gas reduction aggressively unless the U.S. takes leadership.

What's your opinion of Obama's energy policy with regard to these issues in particular?

He's said all the right things, and he's targeted energy efficiency and renewable fuels and devoted a lot of money to that, so I think that's all good. Also, his appointments have been excellent in terms of climate policy and energy efficiency. Carol Browner [assistant to the president for energy and climate change], John Holdren [director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy], Steve Chu [Secretary of Energy]—some of them have a strong science basis, unlike many of the leaders in the Bush administration, and all of them are strongly committed to stronger environmental protections and reduction in oil use and reduction in greenhouse gases. So I think that every step he's taken so far has been very positive.

It strikes me that even if the market could lead us to a good solution to a lot of these problems, that may take some time, and with global warming in the equation, that lends an urgency to the whole endeavor. Is there a chance we just won't reach a good solution in time?

It's very likely we won't reduce greenhouse gases fast enough to avert all types of ecological and economic catastrophes. I think neither the political system nor people in general have embraced and come to appreciate how much change is really needed to stabilize the climate. It's partly because the scientific evidence is not certain, so we don't really know exactly what is going to happen. But the great probability is that we need very large reductions to avert climate change. We're clearly not on the path to do that, and it's hard to imagine that we will make large enough reductions soon enough to avert some of those problems.

Having said that, you do what you can do, and the more we do the better it is, and the less we do the worse it is. Part of the challenge here is to embrace some of these policies; in the end, though, it means individuals changing their behavior, companies changing their behavior, governments changing their behavior, and not much of that has happened yet. But, as I said, the Obama administration is taking all the right steps, California is taking the right steps, and the European Union is moving in that direction as well. So in that sense there's a lot of hope.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that the United States is such a car-centric culture, leaving aside the techological and policy questions. People just love their cars.

Well, you know, California invented car-centric cities, car-centric living, so what I like to say is that that's the good and the bad about California. It did create car-centric cities, but it's now trying to take the leadership to move to low-carbon cities and low-carbon transportation. That's part of the challenge.

There are two major things we can do that will have a major impact. One, we can keep our vehicles and still vastly reduce the carbon footprint by making them much more efficient. The engineers and all the studies they've done show that we can probably double the fuel economy of today's conventional vehicles within about 20, 25 years. And, two, if we switch to electric drive we can get even further reductions. So we can get that 70 to 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from our vehicles through more efficient vehicles, electric drive and decarbonizing the fuels.

At the same time, though, if we follow current trends, vehicle usage will continue going up. So the third action is us as people, as travelers, as individuals: In the end we've got to change behavior. The problem is, we have created this transportation monoculture where people just roll out of bed and into their car, and they don't even think about any other way of traveling. And that's mostly because there aren't any other options. Mass transit in this country only accounts for 2.5 percent of travel, and so cars have essentially vanquished transit, except in the dense older cities.

And so on the transportation side we've got to get more inventive and create new modes of travel that allow us to reduce our dependence on cars. I think we can do it in a way that creates a better transportation system. Smart jitney [shared taxi] services, smart carpooling, neighborhood cars, car-sharing—you put all that together and you can create a whole suite of services for people that in fact are better.

It's not like we have the ideal or optimal system now; we in fact have one of the most inefficient, costly transportation systems imaginable. It's not like we want to drive cars and get stuck in traffic congestion. We'd rather be chauffered, wouldn't we, most of us? We'd rather be picked up and delivered and not have to deal with parking and congestion. So these are not new technologies we're talking about; we're just talking about taking information and technology and applying them in the transportation sector, which has been remarkably resistant to innovation. I'm very encouraged that there are lots of options, but the reality is that in terms of changing our behavior and changing our transportation system, that's going to be the slowest and most difficult part of the transition.

What kind of future do you have in mind, ideally? Can you see us reaching a new equilibrium where we live sustainably on this planet with two billion cars?

Absolutely. Even more than two billion—and there probably will be more than two billion. But the cars won't look like today's cars. Some of them will be much smaller. For instance, in 2007 China sold 15 million electric motorcycles and scooters. I'm not saying that's the vision, but it is indicative that we can do things differently. People would like, for their mobility and accessibility, a whole range of vehicle types. There are times when you want that big four-wheel-drive SUV to go up into the mountains to go skiing with the family. But we don't need to drive that big four-wheel-drive SUV for the trip down to the grocery store to get a loaf of bread. So we need to make things like bicycles and walking more attractive; we want to redesign our cities so that these other modes are more feasible and attractive. We can have small vehicles and neighborhood cars for local driving, smart jitney services that pick us up. We can have car-sharing on those days when we want a certain kind of vehicle for a certain use. So it's creating a richer transportation system in which the vehicles are more efficient, with electric drives and using low-carbon fuels. When you put it all together, yes, we can get that 80 percent reduction in the transportation sector and still have a high quality of mobility and accessibility, and possibly, or even likely, at lower cost.

Right now the average cost to own and operate a car is $8,000 per year. So if we got rid of one of our cars, just to start off this transition, and you spent $8,000 on all these other services, many of these services are better. Getting picked up at your door and taken to where you want to go seems like an attractive option to me. And then you could have access to car-sharing once in a while, when you really do need a vehicle to go off somewhere, or even regular car rental. So it's all plausible; it's not the Jetsons or rocket science we're talking about. These are all very accessible technologies. Lots of innovation is needed, but for the most part these are not entirely new inventions or entirely new technologies.

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