Talking Future Fuels with MIT Professor John Heywood (Part 1)

09.22.16 | Podcast | By:

Last year MIT released its “On the Road in 2050″ report, summarizing the results of an ongoing research program that essentially focuses on future fuels and vehicles both in the U.S. and globally. It assesses the extent to which improvements and changes in powertrain and vehicle technologies, and fuels changes, could reduce the fuel consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of light-duty road vehicles.  The report addresses topics related to the evolution of vehicle technology and its deployment, the development of alternative fuels and energy sources, the impacts of driver behavior, and the implications of all of these factors on future GHG emissions in the United States, Europe, China, and Japan.

Recently I talked to Dr. John Heywood, the Sun Jae Professor of Mechanical Engineering emeritus for MIT and the lead researcher for the project for my “Fueling the Future” podcast. We had such a great and lengthy discussion, I decided to split the interview into two parts.  We discussed the study, the fuel economy standards mid-term review, the future of octane in gasoline, “Dieselgate” and electric vehicles, among other subjects.

Improve, Conserve, Transform: There’s No Silver Bullet

One of my first questions concerned the three important paths forward for light-duty vehicles (LDVs) discussed in the report:

  1. Improve the existing system and technologies for shorter-term benefits,
  2. Conserve fuel by changing driver habits for nearer- to longer-term benefits, and
  3. Transform the transportation system into one that is radically less carbon intensive for longer-term benefits.

The report notes that each element is separately important, but must collectively be pursued aggressively to achieve necessary emissions reductions. More research, development, and demonstration studies are needed to lay the foundation for such a long-term transformation. The study notes:

From the ever-growing body of research by our group and many others, it is becoming increasingly clear that no single technology or approach can deliver the magnitude of emissions reductions required to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of GHGs at acceptable levels.  Moreover, the technologies that can deliver the deepest reductions are in the early stages of deployment. Their long-term cost and performance are uncertain and it will take decades for their full benefits to be realized, if they are realized at all.

I noted to Professor Heywood that perhaps there needs to be a mindset change with policymakers, who tend to set policies thinking they’re a silver bullet and I noted the hype in transport policies of the past, such as biofuels and electric vehicles.  I asked if he has observed the same and how policymakers could respond? Here’s part of what he had to say in response:

There’s a lot of reasons why we tend to hang on to something that sounds fantastic and really might solve our problems. Often we don’t know enough about whether that’s an appropriate way to approach this or whether we should be a bit more cautious and the important thing there is, that we can’t escape real life. Reality as life evolves imposes itself on us and particularly in this consumer business. Light-duty vehicles are largely purchased by individuals and used by individuals, not fleets and companies. So we’ve going to bring the consumer in. Is the consumer willing to buy in to what the new technology options offer us? And as yet with electric vehicles we don’t fully know the answer to that question. We’re still speculating, guessing and we’re getting data that helps us address that question but then the recession and the recovery and less optimistic economic times currently, they impact those consumer decisions significantly, so that’s why it’s very complicated.

Will the Fuel Economy Standards Be Delayed?

I also asked him about  the auto industry’s ability to meet proposed fuel economy standards, which are now being reviewed by EPA-NHTSA. The report states:

Our studies of the feasibility of meeting these 2025 mid-forties miles per gallon CAFE targets using available technology indicate that this is unlikely without some fallback and other vehicle attributes such as acceleration performance, the major improvements in fuel economy/consumption will still be realized. This discussion indicates that the required 2017 review of the 2025 CAFE standards and the inherent complexity and the relevant miles per gallon numbers and what constitutes compliance complies in major public education and communication challenge for both government regulators and auto-companies.

I asked him whether he thought the standards could be relaxed and he responded in part:

Our assessment suggests that we don’t think the technology, better engines and alternatives including electric vehicles, turbocharged engines instead of natural aspirated gasoline engines. We don’t think the technology, it can be ready on that time scale. And so we think there will be a short fall…And I think what we might see depending on how this 2017 study of the prospects and the availability of technology and how that comes out, we might see a recommendation that these standards be delayed.

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