Good Intentions

  John Eichberger |  February 25, 2019

Why is it that good intentions become distorted as we get mired in the details? Why must we become so fixated on our current path that we forget to keep in mind the ultimate objectives?  Why do we lock ourselves within our own echo chambers and emerge only to attack those who think differently? Within the transportation energy sector, do we even remember what it is we are trying to achieve? It is so frustrating to witness well intentioned advocates attack one another because their strategies have diverged – can’t we all get along?

Toad the Wet Sprocket, a Santa Barbara band and one of my favorites reaching back to college, wrote a little bit about what I am lamenting in their song “Good Intentions”:

It's hard to rely on my own good senses
When I miss so much that requires attention
Have to laugh at myself sometimes
And I can see that I'm not blind

I am increasingly concerned that the debate about which powertrains will dominate the future and why one is superior to the other is missing the point. What are the ultimate societal objectives regarding transportation energy? I would assert they are (or at least should be) to reduce emissions and benefit consumers. But we have become a market of single-technology advocates. Why cannot technology be allowed to mature and the market then determine how to leverage it to provide the greatest benefit to society?

The transportation sector is engaged in what I believe to be a misleading debate – electric vehicles vs liquid fuels. And it seems like if you fall within one camp, you are assumed to be irretrievably against the other. But the reality is that both internal combustion engines and electrified powertrains will and must coexist for many years – the market cannot flip like a light switch, it must evolve. The animosity between technology advocates therefore is misplaced. And quite frankly, advocates for one technology over another are becoming blind to the prime directive.

Some believe electrified powertrains hold the greatest promise to deliver on these objectives, while others believe combustion engines have the advantage. But if both powertrains exist simultaneously, what is to prevent them from benefiting from each other to deliver even greater benefit to society? I don’t think the technologies represent the limiting factor – I think it is the myopic perspective of the most vocal advocates.

There's little relief
Give us reprieve
Imagining the world outside
I'm positive that I'm not blind

For example, are high octane fuel optimized engines mutually exclusive of electrified powertrains?  I believe strongly that electrified vehicles will at some point represent a majority of vehicles on the road and I don’t think an octane standard will eliminate that eventuality. But, I also am convinced that an electrified vehicle market will not be void of internal combustion engines that could benefit from higher octane gasoline and other technology advancements.

Context is important, especially when thinking about electrification. This term can refer to a battery electric vehicle that derives all of its energy from a plug. And it can also refer to a mild hybrid, which operates exclusively on liquid fuel but benefits from efficiency gains provided by a battery pack that delivers additional power when necessary.

Context is further important when a manufacturer claims to be going “all in on electric.” Most of the statements suggesting such a move are not explicit in terms of what they define as an “electrified” vehicle and they often do not establish a definitive time frame for getting “all in.” Further, most statements retain flexibility to enable the manufacturer to simultaneously satisfy regulatory requirements as well as consumer demands. It is important to remember that it does no good to produce a vehicle that meets certain requirements if no wants to buy it.

The efforts to simplify the “choice” facing the market as pro-combustion or pro-electrification is not helpful. And, it completely underestimates the ingenuity of the market.

I'm not afraid things won't get better
But it feels like this has gone on forever

If we do not close the door on research and development to deliver improved emissions and consumer value through various powertrains, what will stop us from mating a significantly more efficient internal combustion engine with a lower cost and higher performing battery to deliver incredible value to the consumer while driving emissions far below objectives? Or maybe engineers will find a holy grail of efficiency and affordability that we have not yet realized. It is only our stubbornness to advocate for one solution over another that prevents us from realizing greater potential.

I believe that pursuing a customer-centric strategy requires being flexible, embracing all opportunities and not becoming too entrenched in a position that espouses exclusivity. I understand we must prioritize research and development resources, but I hope the pursuit of a superior transportation energy market will stay focused on the core principles of reducing emissions and benefiting consumers and will evaluate all options available today and potentially tomorrow. Otherwise, I fear we will miss out on some valuable opportunities and impose on consumer diminished value. So, let’s try to keep our eye on the prize and apply our good intentions to our actual behaviors, if in no other way than in the manner by which we engage with each other in discussion about the future of the market.

I can't be hard on you
'cause you know I've been there too
Learned a lot of things from you

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