Reinvigorating Transportation in the Third Industrial Revolution

09/26/2011 01:21 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2011

In the automotive marketplace, a car sold today, with modern quality standards, has a warranty of generally 100,000 miles, and can be reasonably expected to be in service for at least 15 years.

After 15 years, consumers buy new cars, and the old cars are discarded. But the car is only one element in our nation's larger infrastructure. Replacing the entire national infrastructure would take much more time, money, and political will. But just because it will not be easy, doesn't mean we shouldn't try to get there.

Making a transition from where we are today to Jeremy Rifkin's Third Industrial Revolution will take many decades to accomplish. But we shouldn't forget that TVs, personal computers, cell phones and the Internet also took decades to roll out. And it was only through the insights of visionaries Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and roadmaps likes "Moore's Law" for integrated circuits, that we even had any idea where we were going.

The major strength of Jeremy Rifkin's Third Industrial Revolution (TIR) framework is that it ties together, in a synergistic and coherent fashion, technologies that are already beginning their introduction into the marketplace. This is especially true in Pillar 5, with the emerging "electrification" of the automobile.

Electrification is the replacement of internal combustion and mechanical drive with vehicles driven by electric motors, powered either by electricity stored in batteries, or fuel cells, which create electricity from hydrogen stored on board. The hydrogen fuel cell is particularly critical as it combines the critical need for storage (Pillar 3) with intermittent renewable energy, such as wind and solar (Pillar 1).

With this in mind as a starting point for the discussion of the electrification of transportation (Pillar 5), let us take the auto company executives at their word. They are individually spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and cumulatively multiple billions, as they research, develop and deploy electrified vehicles.

They also stand to lose very large amounts of money on early generation vehicles -- it typically takes three or so generations of products to refine the technology, have a fully capitalized supply base, and develop/capitalize full mass production capability to become profitable.

So, when the CEOs of major auto company OEMs make pronouncements/commitments (not to be confused with PR hype), they do not do it lightly. There are billions of dollars in play. So, for the purposes of discussing a TIR, we should acknowledge that vehicle electrification is coming. Vehicles like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are already in the market, and soon will be followed by many others.

Because batteries have limited ability to store energy, are heavy, large and costly, such battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are generally understood to be limited range, inner-city vehicles. In short, range-extended EV's like the Volt and others are likely transitional because of the high cost of carrying two propulsion systems. Although they have a place today, they will only be displaced as fuel cell vehicles reach mass production and achieve their ultimate cost potential.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are coming, and they will be in the market on or by 2015. The following quotes illustrate the commitment Auto CEOs have to this technology:

"The time for electric vehicles with fuel cells has come. Now, the development of the infrastructure has to pick up speed." -- Dr. Dieter Zetsche chairman of the board, Mercedes-Benz.

Calling fuel cells, the "ultimate technology," Akio Toyoda, recently revealed plans to introduce an "affordable" fuel cell car by 2015 by cutting the costs by "90 percent" from current prototype, early production models.

"Our ultimate goal is to build fuel-cell vehicles, and make them available from 2015" said Steve S. Yang, president and chief executive of Hyundai.

"People will embrace fuel cells when they realize battery limits" said Honda CEO Takanobu Ito.

These vehicles are real, full performance, and are gaining real-world on road experience and customer enthusiasm today, and are now being prepared for serious market introductions in the 2015 timeframe.

One of many examples is GM's "Project Driveway," which began in 2007, when it put 119 fuel cell Equinox SUV's -- fully NTHSA certified and crash tested -- in the hands of typical customers. The fleet has now accumulated over two million miles (with some vehicles now over 50,000 miles) of real world experience, over 6,500 drivers, 24,000 hydrogen re-fuelings and four full winters of service, (including non-garaged winters in New York and Michigan).

Bottom line, these vehicles and those like them in similar tests by other automobile companies are performing exceedingly well and garnering strong positive reviews from drivers worldwide. What's more is that the vehicles coming in 2015 will have ranges of at least 300 miles, and will provide the full mobility we've come to expect from current gasoline combustion automobiles.

So the vehicles are coming, which brings us to the discussion of hydrogen as a fuel.

A massive hydrogen industry exists today. Today, over 40 billion kilograms of hydrogen are produced, distributed and handled safely world-wide. That's enough to fuel 130 million fuel cell vehicles. 53 percent of the hydrogen produced in the United States is used in oil refineries. That hydrogen is used in refineries because "heavy crude" or "tar sands" have lots of carbon, but a deficiency of hydrogen.

Since over 75 percent of the energy released in combusting gasoline is from the hydrogen making water, versus the carbon making carbon dioxide, and since auto fuels need to be liquid and clean, hydrogen is created separately, stored, and is then piped to a typical refinery as part of their normal processes. Hydrogen as used in refineries is stored in underground caverns in quantities that approach the volumes needed by renewable energy storage from wind and solar.

Under cities like Houston, along the 405 freeway in California and under Rotterdam, just to name a few, hydrogen is piped between generation sites and refineries. Most experts agree that such storage and distribution will be necessary by the time renewables reach between 15 and 20 percent of the electricity the grid... which is the target of many nations worldwide by the 2020 timeframe.

What is so important and timely now is that The Third Industrial Revolution gives us a realistic vision for where we're headed in the realm of ENERGY and THE ENVIRONMENT... the next destiny of our collective journey if you will. For the last 40 or so years, energy policy worldwide has been basically a disjointed set of individual initiatives. And even worse, such initiatives have been generally unrealistically short-term, jumping from administration to administration to fit the two to four-year political cycle, versus the four to six years for new automotive product/powertrain, and the much longer cycle of mass production, mass consumer acceptance, and profitably( perhaps as long as 15-20 years). No wonder it feels like we've been running in place. In general, this is what we have been doing, as we lurch from one "instant gratification" scheme to another, synchronized by "on my watch" politically driven policies and sound bites.

With this in mind, The Third Industrial Revolution gives us a way to judge our short-term choices. T. Boone Pickens pushes natural gas as a "bridge," but rhetorically asks "a bridge to where?" noting that, "For 40 years our country has had no energy plan, none, zero."

Now we have a direction for his bridge and a framework for our energy plan. In Pickens' natural gas case, for example, we will certainly use some of the natural gas directly in power plants and as a direct fuel for cars. But, we should also use some of our natural gas windfall to support fuel cell fueling via "reforming" (stripping hydrogen catalytically from natural gas to create hydrogen and carbon dioxide,) at the filling station. Mainly because the efficiency of a fuel cell propulsion system is two to three times that of a combustion engine/transmission.

And even though the reforming is only approximately 75 percent efficient, the net greenhouse gas reduction is at least 50 percent when compared to directly combusting the natural gas. So we achieve less petroleum usage and lower greenhouse gas emissions, all while building the fuel cell vehicle car inventory, displacing gasoline cars ,and more importantly, accelerating the construction of a more robust car manufacturing, materials and component supply base, and build jobs which are directed towards the future.

Bottom line, The Third Industrial Revolution is beginning to happen, and is being driven by industry and supported by real commitments (read dollars). No doubt, it will take time. But the beginning stages are happening.

A 2009 study by the National Academies of Science and Engineering on the use of hydrogen as a fuel concluded that by implementing an orderly transition to hydrogen fueled vehicles, U.S. gasoline consumption could be cut from the currently mind-boggling 140,000,000,000 gallons per year to essentially zero, and Green House Gas emissions to less than 20 percent of current levels.

Yes, it will take time, but we are probably not as far away as you think.