Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

July 30, 2008


Host: Ted Simons

Fueling Trouble: Alternative Fuel


  • With rising gas prices, sales of SUVs and trucks are down, and more people are opting for fuel-efficient, gasoline-powered cars. We discuss the alternatives to gas-powered cars with ASU professors who specialize in alternative fuel vehicles.
Guests:
  • Jonathan Posner - Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor, Fulton School of Engineering, Arizona State University
Category: Business/Economy   |   Keywords: energy,

View Transcript
>>Ted Simons:
Hello and welcome to horizon, I'm Ted Simons. SUV's dominated the streets like dinosaurs once dominated the earth. But like the dinosaurs, the days of those lumbering SUV's may soon be over. That's because they guzzle gas like crazy, and filling them up can cost $100 with today's fuel prices. As we continue our series "fueling trouble", we take a look at alternatives to gasoline powered vehicles. But first, Nadine Arroyo tells us how one dealer says there is hope for SUV's and big trucks.

>>Nadine Arroyo:
In the last several years, large SUV's and V-8 engine vehicles have been all the rage. Dealers couldn't sell them fast enough, and consumers had plenty to pick and choose from. But with soaring fuel prices, experts say these large vehicles are losing their appeal fast. And although June proved to show major slowdown in what is called gas guzzler sales, some auto dealers say the current drop in fuel cost is peaking interests again.

>>Don Luke:
I think you're going to see truck sales rise again. There's been a lot of panic. A lot of people just froze when gas went crazy. And you'll see people enter into the market. They'll buy what they need. If it's a truck they'll buy a truck.

>>Nadine Arroyo:
In the last two months, auto makers across the nation announced decrease in their SUV and truck production plants even closures due to slow down in sales. General motors eliminated working shifts at two of their truck plants. Ford motor company announced they will shift from building large vehicles to small, more fuel-efficient cars. Chrysler eliminated their leasing program due to decreasing vehicle value. But according to auto dealers, the current incentive frenzy on SUV's and trucks are enticing people to reconsider purchasing a larger vehicle.

>>Don Luke:
Manufacturers are offering huge incentives to purchase V-8 vehicles. Trucks for Dodge are up 150\% over same time last month. So with the drop in the fuel prices, and the huge incentives, people are shifting right back to the V-8s.

>>Nadine Arroyo:
Both dealership owners and experts agree, foreclosures, loss of jobs and high costs of just about everything is tightening the wide world of credit, making it difficult to purchase or make a vehicle trade for one of these.

>>Ted Simons:
Joining me to talk about alternative fuel vehicles is Jonathan Posner, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor in the Fulton School of Engineering at Arizona State University. Jonathan thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

>>Jonathan Posner:
Thank you for having me.

>>Ted Simons:
The market as we saw in that last piece makes a big deal when it comes to transportation and fuel and such. In the alternative fuel business, the market still a big player?

>>Jonathan Posner:
I believe so. There's several technologies that you'll be seeing in the near future over the next few years. Hybrid technologies you're already seeing. In near future I think you'll see plug-in hybrids which have gasoline in their engine and large batteries where you can do 30-miles of local driving or more on a battery. Charge up your car at night, pay your local utility bill at residential rate, then you'll get 30-miles of coverage. If you want to go more on mileage, 3 or 400 miles, then you'll have a gasoline engine that will allow you to do that. Then they'll have fuel efficiency let's say about 50 miles per gallon.

>>Ted Simons:
And mechanics right now can take Priuses and do pretty much anything?

>>Jonathan Posner:
For anything between $6,000 and $10,000 you can convert your existing hybrid vehicles to plug-in hybrid vehicles. Depending on whether it's cost effective or not depends on your budget and how much you drive as well.

>>Ted Simons:
Is society ready for alternative-fuel vehicles? And I mean just in general, just a mindset?

>>Jonathan Posner:
I think that people are. And I think that recent say dramatic increase in fuel prices has gotten the average person thinking about this more. I mean the sales of the hybrid Prius and other hybrid cars are really exploding. And I think that as new technologies are available, people will be adopting it. Americans are early adopters of technology. I think people are excited about it.

>>Ted Simons:
Plug-in hybrids that you were referring to earlier, how soon will those be on the auto mall lot?

>>Jonathan Posner:
I don't think anyone really knows that. I think you can make one today if you have a hybrid vehicle. But there is talk on the blogs and the internet about 2010 and seeing a plug-in hybrid. There's also talk about seeing just pure electric vehicles.

>>Ted Simons:
Talk about the future of electric vehicles. Because all the rage again in terms of looking for the future. We're back in the past we don't hear much about electric vehicles anymore.

>>Jonathan Posner:
Some people would consider the hybrid to be an electric vehicle because it has a drive train that can run off an electric motor. One of Chevy's new products they call it an electric vehicle because it has large batteries, but it still will have perhaps a small gasoline engine. So as battery technology improves, then the range of electric vehicles, the number of miles they can drive, how fast they can go, will increase. So some of this is technology driven as far as battery technology goes. But the other parts of its economics. So the current batteries that work very well are still relatively expensive. So some of that will be market and some of it will be technology. But the market and the technologies combine, because as technology gets better that same technology can be sold at a lower price.

>>Ted Simons:
Interesting. Hydrogen. We heard for awhile a lot about hydrogen. And again, I think with all the hybrid craze you're not hearing as much about hydrogen. Talk about the future there.

>>Jonathan Posner:
I hear a lot about hydrogen. I work on hydrogen fuel cells. And in fact, I think it's this week hydrogen fuel cell cars are being sold in Southern California. It's a new Honda FCX car called the Clarity. I think they are being sold or leased for $600 a month. So there's a lot of fueling hydrogen stations in California. But the issues of hydrogen will always be how do you produce enough, how do you deliver it, how do you store it and how do you use it best? And a lot of those issues, there's still bugs to work out.

>>Ted Simons:
I was going to say, how soon can those bugs be worked out? We've heard about that with hydrogen for quite awhile.

>>Jonathan Posner:
I would say that California is a good indication of what we'll see in the future. It's going to be a pilot program. They'll see how well the cars run, how easy it is to fuel their hydrogen cars and how difficult it is to either get the hydrogen to the stations or to produce it locally.

>>Ted Simons:
Do you see a future -- and I hate to use the old VHS and beta argument or the blue ray and DVD, HD whatever, but do we need one style of alternative vehicle in the future? Or will it be a la carte?

>>Jonathan Posner:
I think it will be a la carte. If American consumers have taught us anything it's that everything likes something different. Blackberry versus iphone, whatever it might be. Macintosh versus PC. So there's always going to be an interplay between what people want. Right now you can buy diesel vehicles, small Volkswagen diesel vehicles that get 60-70 miles to the gallon. So it's about choice and it's also going to be market-driven. So as fuel costs change then people will make different decisions.

>>Ted Simons:
Are people still experimenting with cooking oil in diesel engines?

>>Jonathan Posner:
Yeah. I would say that they are. I know some people locally who are working with that. Except that people are going to have to eat a lot more French fries if they're going to expect to drive that kind of biofuels.

>>Ted Simons:
That's the market again. The market says this sounds great but here are the consequences and precursors to it.

>>Jonathan Posner:
That's right. And I think there's different factors that play into what drives people. There's people's choices, there's the market, there's institutions, there's policy, and there's the environment. So there's a lot of different factors here. And everyone has to find common ground. And when there's common ground, then new technologies will emerge.

>>Ted Simons:
Including things like E-85 and compressed air. Throw those into the mix. Which of these formats, which of these ideas are most likely to go ahead and succeed and progress and which will kind of fall by the wayside?

>>Jonathan Posner:
Well, we already see lots of hybrids on the road. And there'll be more of those, I believe. And the next great thing you'll see I think is plug-in hybrids. This will be the next product which you can buy from dealerships. I mean, the fuel cell program is fantastic, but it's a pilot program.

>>Ted Simons:
Okay. Quickly as far as this plug-in hybrids though, is that going to be a drain on the system?

>>Jonathan Posner:
Current reports say it will not. There's a series of reports that have come out and there's been committee meetings in Washington, DC. That address. This and people believe the experts in this area believe that current power that we're producing at power stations will be enough. If you drive say 30 miles on a battery you're not going to be buying gas but buying electricity and powering your car overnight when most residences and commercial businesses are not using that power. So it's not so much a drain during the day.

>>Ted Simons:
So the grid will survive.

>>Jonathan Posner:
I believe so.

>>Ted Simons:
Okay. Very good. Hey, thank you so much. This was great. Thanks for talking with us.

>>Jonathan Posner:
My pleasure.

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