Driving Change: An Interview With Mike Millikin

We can keep making and driving gas-guzzling cars, or we can have a sustainable energy economy. But we can't do both.

| Tue Sep. 13, 2005 3:00 AM EDT

"The global energy economy is on the brink of a fundamental and forced transformation, with enormous market opportunities for new solutions in energy and transportation." So says Mike Millikin, a former Internet consultant and now publisher of Green Car Congress, a web site dedicated to educating the public on the energy challenges -- and choices -- posed by climate change and our over-dependence on fossil fuels.

With global demand for petroleum pushing the limits of worldwide supply, most experts think the world's oil supply will peak – if it hasn't already – sometime within the next decade. What will happen as that limit nears, gas prices soar, and global competition for oil intensifies? What are the U.S. and the world doing to prepare for this looming crisis?

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Not enough, says Millikin. In large part this is because the public is only now waking up, albeit slowly, to the scope and gravity of the problem. With Green Car Congress Millikin has created a catalyst for change -- a venue where experts and consumers alike can keep pace with recent developments on a wide range of issues relating to cars and transportation butt heads over what the future ought to look like, and hone ideas and concepts with an eye to the needs of a (near) future in which producers and consumers alike will have to look beyond oil for their energy needs.

Millikin recently talked with Mother Jones about the future of the automobile in the face of global oil shortfalls, about the public's dawning awareness of global warming and the energy crunch, and about the array of promising transportation technologies that could wean us, however gradually, from our dangerous addiction to fossil fuels.

Mother Jones: You're clearly drawn to emerging technologies -- you were heavily involved with the internet in its early days. Now your focus is on cleaner automobiles. How come?

Mike Millikin: There are a couple of reasons. The two most immediately pressing developments facing society right now are climate change and dependence on petroleum-based fuels. You've got interests like national security types, who are worried about dependency on bad foreign oil, and hard core environmentalists all united on the issue.

Unlike power generation where you have coal, natural gas, wind, even nuclear, with cars petroleum-based fuel is all you've got. And we've got to be ready to accept alternatives. Not resolving this problem is going to force decisions and actions in ways that will be ultimately detrimental to what everybody wants, which is to have a good life.

MJ: What's your aim with Green Car Congress?

MM: I'm trying to present, in a detailed and factually grounded manner, recent developments, news, and policy discussion surrounding the entire issue. When you look at the discussions that develop, there's an incredible amount of passion. And that's great, but at a certain point it can get in the way and you need to take a scientific approach and look at reality. You have to look at the data and say, "Well, will it work?"

Really, the model for the site is like some of the early PC-based publications. In effect what they did was present emerging technical information to a growing audience of leading-edge buyers and consumers, businesses, and researchers. Seeing the flow of information helped accelerate innovation enormously.

MJ: And you're trying to do the same with automobiles?

MM: Yes. For example, one of the things I try to do is emphasize new engine concepts. It's very difficult to develop an engine, and it's hard for inventors and innovators to come up with something that can really make any headway. And so in at least one case – and I'll be doing this with other cases – I've thrown up a new concept on the site, and the inventor and the readers interacted and discussed it in great depth.

I've got the educated or leading-edge consumers, researchers from universities, engineers and developers from the auto companies checking in regularly. It's a good cross section. And I've been very pleased with the types of discussions and interactions that have developed. All I'm really trying to do is to get people learning and thinking and then taking what they've learned and doing more.

MJ: In your mind, what is driving the publics interest in alternative-fuel or hybrid vehicles right now?

MM: Most importantly, there is a recognition that we depend too much on foreign oil. We really haven't locked onto a solution yet, but collectively we know that this is a big deal.

Many people say the price of gasoline is going to drive change, but the price of gasoline I think is a bit of a red herring. Americans whine a lot about gasoline but compared to everyone else on the planet, it's actually very cheap. I think we could see the price of gas double, and it would hurt, but it's not gonna hurt that badly.

Most of the folks that have already bought or are ready to buy are doing it for the right reasons – ecology, sustainability, and so on. Very few of them are buying hybrids because of the rising price of gasoline mostly because the numbers don't yet add up.

MJ: A lot of people seem to believe that the automakers are holding back on efficiency and in fact already have the technology to make more efficient gasoline powered engines. Do you buy that?

MM: I don't believe that -- for a couple of reasons. One is that, if you actually look at the efficiency of engines, they have steadily improved over the years. In fact, just recently Honda announced new three-year targets for improving efficiency and outlined very clearly how they're going to get 15 percent from this technology and 12 percent from that and so on. Keep in mind, it's not easy to do that, it takes a lot of work.

Where we're getting into problems is that that improvements in efficiency are not accompanied by a downsizing in the engine. In other words, what's happening is that the same size engine is delivering more power or bigger engines are delivering even more power. And that's a buyer problem.

MJ: So although efficiency has steadily improved, Americans are opting to use that for creating more power rather than using less gas?

MM: Right, and it's not just Americans. If you look at buying patterns globally, SUVs are still gaining. If you look at Asia, SUVs are still going quite strong despite the fact that fuel prices over there are harsh and the GDP per capita is way lower than it is here. People are still buying them. Now, why is that?

So it's important to focus on buyer and consumer understanding because that's really where change is going to have to happen. A new environmental survey came out recently from Public Policy Institute of California, which found that 83 percent of respondents said that automakers should deliver more fuel efficient vehicles. 73 percent said they should deliver more fuel efficient vehicles even if the vehicle costs more. It's great that there's an understanding there, but what's fundamentally wrong is that it still takes the onus off the individual.

MJ: Hybrid sales are on the rise, yet they're still a very small proportion of the market. A lot of new models are due to hit the showrooms soon, and some might call this a great success. Your thoughts?

MM: I think it is a great success. But it’s a step along the road. Again, there's this downside with what's happening with the hybrids right now -- they're geared for power rather than efficiency. And I think the ultimate example of this is going to be the Lexus that's going to come out in a year or two. It'll be a hybrid and use less gasoline than if it were just a combustion engine, but its not gonna be a green car, let's just put it that way.

I think that what we could soon see is hybrids begin to cluster at the middle, perhaps even the high end of the market. After all, we're still looking at a multiple thousand-dollar price increment there. On the lower end of the market, I think we're going to see renewed interest in compacts and sub-compacts with very fuel-efficient gasoline and diesel engines.

MJ: On the road the other day, I saw an old Geo Metro, with a bumper sticker that read, "My car still gets better fuel economy than your hybrid."

MM: There you go! [laughs] Size, weight, power, it all factors in. Even if we took the hybrid completely out of the equation, we could do much better as a nation in regards to fuel consumption if we just drove smaller cars. It's kind of a no-brainer, but the basic fuel efficiency of the U.S. fleet is much worse than that of the European fleet, and one reason is that the European autos are much smaller, and also more highly diesel-based – diesel engines are more efficient than gasoline engines.

MJ: The new diesels have yet to hit America. What kind of potential do they hold for us?

MM: A lot. But there are two barriers here. One is the public psychology barrier. We had a bad experience with diesels about 20 years ago. The other one is the emissions barrier. The EPA has very stringent requirements on emissions, more stringent than the European requirements. But both the automakers and the truck makers are stepping up and in 2006 and 2007 we'll see the so-called clean diesels begin to hit the market.

There's also a lot of innovation going on with new combustion regimes – new ways to control the combustion within the cylinder – that will make these engines even more efficient and less polluting. The truck makers are really focused on that, because they have to use diesels and meet emissions requirements.

The Department of Energy is also heading up some major innovation projects. Earlier this year they put $6 million into developing new ways of converting heat back into electricity. Today's diesels convert a little less than half of the energy they burn into power; the rest is lost to heat. If you could recapture all that heat energy there's a huge potential for increasing overall efficiency.

MJ: What about purely electric cars? They take a lot of flak, and are viewed largely as cramped commuter cars with no real everyday potential.

MM: No, they have great potential. A hydrogen fuel-cell car for example is an electric car, it just generates its electricity onboard with a fuel cell instead of plugging in. These cars are going to be there, but it may take some time.

A great interim step is the plug-in hybrid. With the plug-ins you rely much more on the battery and the motor than you do on the combustion engine, and you can get perhaps 100 mpg because you don't use your engine nearly as much – you merely plug-in whenever possible. The more, the better.

Sitting back and looking at this from my great throne here, the plug-in hybrid makes a ton of sense. It gives us that order of magnitude increase in fuel efficiency that we need and which we're not going to get going down the path we're going down right now, even with all the other technological advances we've already talked about.

 

Don't get me wrong, everything that we do in terms of reducing consumption is very helpful. I never want to come off that these aren't worth doing, because they absolutely are. But if you look at an engine getting 25 mpg and lets say we generate an additional 15percent efficiency from it, it's still not that much.

MJ: There are definitely competing visions of the future. For example, President Bush has taken a lot of heat for what many consider an overly narrow focus on hydrogen. Of course, we do need to be thinking about the far future, so what kind of technological balance do you think we should we be investing in?

MM: I do think we need to look at the hydrogen research, but it's not going to happen in the timeframe that's bandied about. The National Academy of Sciences has been very clear about that. But if you could produce hydrogen from a renewable resource and use it to fuel your transportation, wouldn't that be great?! I'd love to be able to pour a pitcher of water into my car and take off! So I think it needs to be researched, and studied. I don't think it should be positioned as the panacea and that we can do business as usual until the hydrogen fuel cell car comes down from the heavens and off we go. It's not gonna happen.

To me, the big downside for hydrogen is not that it’s a bogus thing, it's that nothing else will be done on the premise that in ten years, this will be there… and that just doesn’t make sense. Which is why the plug-in hybrids are so important because they could be done now and buy us a lot of time.

MJ: I don't mean to seem like a cynic, but it seems it's going to take an ever-worsening supply problem to drive the sort of change you're pushing for.

MM: Well, I agree. The big danger here is that the oil balloon will go up and there will be further disruption in the system someplace either because the fields are in decline or they'll blow up a Saudi facility or something, and we'll get pushed into a hot war over a resource which isn't going to be there in 20 years. And to me that is insane.

That's why I think we need to address this before it gets to the point of that major crisis where there is no other option except packing up the troops and sending them off. Even then, the whole notion of going overseas to stabilize oil supplies is ridiculous. I mean, look at Iraq – their production is lower than its been in twenty years and insurgents keep attacking the infrastructure.

MJ: If you were President, what would you do?

MM: Number one, I would establish a national education program, one that calls for conservation. It would have to be done well; it would be very expensive to do it right.

MJ: So you're talking about a major public outreach effort, like, say, "Got Milk?"

MM: Exactly. The government is good at that, or it can be good at it if it wants to be. Number two, we need a massive push on plug-in hybrids.

MJ: Push from whom?

MM: From the government. We need tax credits and research funding. There needs to be a commercial cushion so that companies don't go under while they're trying to develop the new technologies. The sad thing is that you look at some of the small innovative companies that are trying to work in the electric space and even in the fuel-cell space; man, they're struggling. They are having a very difficult time. And if they go out of business, that's not good. That's the feedstock for the future, so to speak.

Third, on the biofuels side, we shouldn't just rely on corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel, there should be a push for some of the innovative biotech-based processes that are emerging.

MJ: A little background here might be helpful.

MM: Well, here we're actually talking about a lot of things. What people consider biodiesel now is basically the result of a chemical process that works with vegetable oil and converts it to a chemical which can be used as a substitute for diesel fuel. And it's usually blended with traditional diesel.

But there are other ways to get non-petroleum diesel fuel. One of them being a biomass-to-liquids technology that creates synthetic diesel that actually burns better and cleaner than what we think of as biodiesel. The difference is, that's an intense large scale process, whereas with the regular biodiesel you can crank up in your own backyard – if you're of the mind.

One of the issues is how rapidly the production of a given fuel can be scaled up: how much do you need to use of a feedstock? How do you distribute it? And so on. There's a school of thought that says, if we could incorporate biomass fuel production into our existing refinery infrastructure, that would help deploy the fuels a lot better. That sort of thing that needs to get worked out. But all we're doing right now is laying everything on one particular path.

MJ: How much potential is there in biofuels, say, as a percentage of all the automobile fuel we use?

MM: Between ethanol and biodiesel, it could be anywhere from 25-33 percent. The DOE and the Natural Resources Defense Council both agree on this, which is not something you see everyday. And if you're using smaller cars, and smaller combustion engines in a plug-in hybrid, the number is going to be much higher.

MJ: In Austin Texas, they're talking about creating a municipal fleet of somewhere on the order of 1000 plug-in hybrid vans to replace the current fleet. Austin generates a good portion of its electricity from wind, which is of course renewable. On the other end, if the combustion were from renewable sources like the ones you've mentioned, a model like this seems to hold huge potential, doesn't it?

MM: Yes!

MJ: How far out might we have to go before a vision like this could be realizable?

MM: Well, that depends. That gets back to your question about the government. A major push from the government could make that happen now. The interesting thing about that approach is that basically all the pieces exist. By pushing implementation now, the rate of technological refinement could be greatly accelerated. Again, that's how the internet got so good so fast: It had rapid deployment and a built-in improvement cycle based on actually using it. That's what we need to see here.

MJ: So getting back to your presidential missions then, you've got education, plug-ins and bio-fuels. You're doing your own educational push already, which at this point in time is arguably the most critical step in the process.

MM: I think it’s a key element. It's in the context of increasing understanding I think that we can accelerate what we do.

MJ: If I wanted to buy a car in the next year or so and I wanted to make it go as far as it could to further conservation, what should I do?

MM: I would recommend to you one of two things – either [buy] a hybrid that's optimized for efficiency rather than performance or I would recommend a diesel and suggest you burn biodiesel in it. At the moment, that's the best approach.

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