The Fuse

At ACT Expo, Automakers Bullish on Landscape for Advanced Fuel Vehicles

by Matt Piotrowski | May 03, 2017

Everything from smart cities to connected heavy-duty trucks to autonomous vehicles (AVs) to electrification to energy policy were hot topics at the Advanced Clean Transportation (ACT) Expo in Long Beach this year. There’s clearly growing momentum in the alternative vehicle space that has vast potential to chip away at petroleum’s hold over transportation.

Altogether, speakers and attendees touted increased electrification, the opportunities of hydrogen fuel cells, how CNG can offer a long-term solution in trucking, and the great promise that autonomy holds not only for the future but also the present.

GM’s Maven city project, which includes users renting vehicles on a daily basis, is now operating in 13 cities and users say that the electric Chevy Bolt is their top choice of vehicles.

Alex Keros, Manager and Senior Project Engineer at Maven & GM, speaking during a panel on smart cities, noted the chances for growing electrification and car-sharing in urban areas as populations rise. With its Maven car-sharing projects, GM has seen growing success in this area. For instance, its Maven city project, which includes users renting vehicles on a daily basis, is now operating in 13 cities and users say that the electric Chevy Bolt is their top choice of vehicles. The Maven Home venture is an exclusive car-sharing project for closed communities in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and Washington, DC. Keros noted that there are plans for the car-sharing programs to expand to more cities, and Maven is also experimenting with renting vehicles to businesses on a short-term basis.

Keros highlighted that throughout these projects, he has seen growing enthusiasm for EVs from consumers who have never had experiences with them before. “Very quickly they learned how to use them and how to use the public infrastructure for their benefit,” Keros said.

On the same panel about smart cities, Joanna Wadsworth, Program Manager, Department of Public Works, Transportation Engineering Division, City of Las Vegas, touted her city’s launch, in January of this year, of the first electric autonomous shuttle on U.S. public roads. She stressed that Las Vegas and others cities need more pilot programs like this to advance autonomous technology. Pointing out that the program was embraced enthusiastically by the public (and even delivered pizza), more investments in infrastructure are needed, from both public and private entities, to make projects like the one in Las Vegas easier to deploy.

While the ACT Expo chiefly focuses on clean transportation and fleet management, the traditional automakers made a splash at the event. Steve Center, Vice President, Connected and Environmental Business Development Office for American Honda Motor Co., highlighted his company’s big plan for electrification with its Clarity line, which includes electric, plug-in hybrids, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Center said that the three different types of vehicles are vital in fighting energy and environmental problems and all need to be advanced, but emphasized that fuel cells have the “greatest long-term potential,” given their convenience with easy refueling. Speaking during the discussion on the policy landscape for clean and alternative transportation, Sandra Berg, Vice Chair, California Air Resources Board, highlighted her state’s push for more hydrogen vehicles and infrastructure necessary for them to bring about greater penetration. Just recently, Toyota announced that it was teaming up with California on a hydrogen truck project in the state to displace petroleum use in the heavy-duty sector.

Strong GDP growth, low inflation, robust consumer confidence, low interest rates, and relatively weak pump prices are all in the auto industry’s favor.

Mustafa Mohatarem, Chief Economist, General Motors Corporation, expressed how today is “an exciting time in the auto industry” and “change that’s coming is so amazing.” Not only is he and his company excited about new technological changes, but they are also motivated by how sound the fundamentals for automakers are right now. He said that the recovery seen in the industry has been supported by a number of structural factors that should underpin sales going forward. He noted how strong GDP growth, low inflation, robust consumer confidence, low interest rates, and relatively weak pump prices are all in the industry’s favor. Further, he punctured the myth that younger generations, or Millennials, do not want to be car owners. In fact, this group is buying cars at the fastest rate in the current market.

One issue that many at the Expo are worried about is the fate of fuel economy now that the Mid-Term Evaluation for efficiency standards has been re-opened by the Trump administration. This has created a lot of uncertainty that a rollback might be in store. Mohatarem tried to allay those fears, noting that no matter what any changes might be, his company is not just responding to U.S. regulations but also to rules throughout the world. Reacting to fuel economy standards in many different countries and markets brings about new options for the industry and will allow his company to bring innovation and technology to consumers that will be much more fuel efficient than in the past.

However, the industry’s missives should be taken with a grain of salt. Even as global efficiency standards tighten, if rules lapse in the United States, the auto industry will still lean towards selling vehicles, such as light trucks and SUVs, that are less efficient but have higher profit margins.

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