In May 2010, GM, in partnership with Shanghai Automotive, began demonstrating three EN–V [electric networked vehicle] concept cars at the Shanghai Expo. These are two-wheel, two-person cars that use Segway stabilization technology and are powered by lithium-ion batteries. They are fully networked, are capable of autonomous driving, and have accident avoidance technology.
S+B: As you think about mass adoption of cars like these, are battery capacity and the ability of people to recharge the batteries a problem?
BURNS: No. The problem with batteries today isn’t really the batteries themselves; the problem is the vehicle that we’re putting them in. To power a typical car today, you need a battery the size of one or two Sumo wrestlers, and it takes eight hours to recharge, so you need charging stations in garages or on the street. For the 750-pound class of vehicles that we envision, the battery could someday become small enough so that you could easily bring it into your house or apartment to recharge, and it would recharge in just three hours.
The Market Tipping Point
S+B: What about the argument that by shifting emissions from tailpipes to the electric power grid, you are trading one set of problems — those associated with petroleum — for another, since 50 percent of electric power is currently produced by coal-fired power plants, which are the major source of greenhouse gases?
BURNS: Based on my analysis, in the U.S., for example, you can get all the energy you need for transportation purposes by producing electricity and hydrogen from three domestic sources: natural gas, biomass, and wind.
The energy challenges that the world faces aren’t going to be solved by focusing on energy alone. To solve these challenges, we must focus more broadly on how people live their everyday lives and what they find desirable, along with how people and companies make money.
Until you change consumer behavior and get manufacturers and suppliers to align with a new set of alternatives, you’re not going to solve the energy problem, because the solution requires such scale. The problem is embedded right in the fabric of the way the world works, and the world doesn’t work around energy in isolation. Energy is an input to the economy.
The solution lies in reaching a market tipping point for vehicles that use energy differently and more efficiently. For this to happen, consumers must like the new solution better than what’s been available to them in the past, and its value must exceed its price so that they will want to own one. In addition, the price must exceed the cost so that companies can make money by building it, along with the supporting infrastructure. It’s very simple. That’s where the tipping point will be. But to do this you have to deeply understand consumers, and a lot of people who weigh in on the energy debate — the ones who tend to jump to the conclusion, superficially, that improving battery technology alone or developing a new fuel is the key to the future — just do not understand consumers.
S+B: Is there an alternative vision, in which cities invest massively in public transportation instead? Could it be that individual personal mobility was a 20th-century idea tied to the automobile, but it isn’t suited to the 21st century?
BURNS: Part of the answer is what we discussed earlier — that ever since people could walk, the ability to move when they want and where they want is something people have found very compelling, and that’s what drove the development of the automobile and its supporting infrastructures.