Or just more drilling and trashing GM?
Last night I had a very disappointing dream. I was covering the LA Auto Show in the year 2050 and not only were flying cars not the norm, America was still dependent upon foreign oil. Fortunately, that nightmare could never come true.
Or could it?
There is a nasty little secret in the auto industry when it comes to US foreign oil dependence: the legacy effect.
With more than 250 million cars, trucks and SUVs on the road, it takes around 2 decades to entirely replace the current fleet. Consequently, if the US forced automakers to convert every vehicle sold in the US to be either a hybrid or plug-in vehicle, for example, the legacy effect ensures that gasoline vehicles would still outnumber such hybrids and plug-ins for at least a decade after achieving such a yearly output.
Yet, America is nowhere near such a revolutionary change in technology.
Consequently, if the battery is the key to ending foreign oil dependence, based upon even the most optimistic forecasts, foreign oil dependence is assured through at least 2040. Unfortunately, the rare earth and lithium supply chains to achieve such a forecast are entirely non-existent today. That doesn't mean such forecasts are impossible to achieve as technological breakthroughs could nevertheless drive these realities home, but it does mean these optimistic forecasts could be almost impossible to achieve, let alone be cost-effective.
Suddenly foreign oil dependence in 2050 doesn't sound that outlandish.
So, can the new Congress do anything to ensure that America is not foreign oil dependent in 2050? Even more interesting, is there anything that this new Congress could do to ensure that America is foreign oil independent by, say, 2030?
It seems entirely certain that “drill, baby, drill” will be a renewed focal point, yet the evidence seems to suggest that such a focus is futile, particularly if it's the cornerstone of any new energy plan. On the other hand, perhaps taking advantage of natural gas – another Republican issue – could provide an interim option along the path to electrification, even leading to quicker electrification.
Regardless, will the new Congress even care about foreign oil dependence?
This morning Reuters reported that the government didn't just pump around $50 billion into GM to save it from full bankruptcy, it also provided GM with a tax break worth as much as $45 billion – a number I guarantee will lead to a House investigation of the GM bailout with Republicans now in control.
Perhaps such an investigation is called for, but to what good can it really lead?
Let's just say that GM and Chrysler are indebted to America. So, why not use that debt to start a revolution? Let's parlay this bailout bet into a bigger bet to end foreign oil dependence, especially since the Big 3's future is NOT America.
That's right. GM, for instance, might be an American company, but it's future is not building cars for America. GM's future, like every other automakers, is emerging markets. Thus, why not use multinational corporations like GM to free America of foreign oil while they are in our debt?
Today, automakers claim that 60 mpg by 2025 will be more expensive and far less realistic than what the Obama administration contends, and there is a good chance they are correct, but that's almost assuredly based upon our current automotive business model that seeks one technology to dominate the entire auto industry.
For instance, studies have shown that some biofuels could have a significant regional impact. So, take advantage of biofuels in those regions as just a piece of a greater solution.
Likewise, other areas of the US already have significant access to natural gas, so take advantage. Force automakers to come up with cost-effective retrofits so that every vehicle in Southern California – since natural gas is already everywhere there – could become a natural gas vehicle.
Or, let's convert natural gas and biofuels into some form of synthetic fuel, such as methanol, a fuel that holds great promise via direct-injection spark-ignition (DISI) engines and even fuel cell vehicles. Moreover, methanol could be created from numerous sources such as biomass, America's abundant natural gas resources and in the future, sustainable methanogenesis.
Moreover, push Silicon Valley to utilize its computer expertise to develop software that makes even the smallest cars as safe as the largest trucks and SUVs, enabling greater small car acceptance as well as making the use of lighter materials in automotive production common.
Furthermore, keep pushing hybrids and plug-ins, even fuel cell vehicles, with R&D tax incentives, but with more focus on next gen possibilities since we know current technologies offer limited viability. For example, carbon fiber offers the ability not to just make cars lighter and more aerodynamic, but it could also act as a battery. Couple carbon fiber with some kind of photovoltaic paint/skin and the need for a trillion dollar super grid is no longer needed.
Such potential is not worth several billion in R&D funding?
Without any question, foreign oil independence is cost-effectively achievable by 2030. Certainly, in the short term such a goal would be less profitable and require significant government aid. Long term, however, it would return a golden profit for US economic and national security interests. The real question is, does Congress have the vision and the courage to achieve such greatness, or will it just be politics as usual?