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Transcript: Wednesday, Feb. 4, 11 a.m. ET

Green Car Technology

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Ron Cogan
Editor and Publisher, Green Car Journal
Wednesday, February 4, 2009; 11:00 AM

Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of the award-winning Green Car Journal auto enthusiast magazine and editor of GreenCar.com, was online Wednesday, Feb. 4, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the auto industry's evolutionary path toward greener vehicles.

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Cogan has documented the auto industry's drive toward "greener" vehicles for the past 17 years and has been instrumental in producing the Automobiles and the Environment conferences at the Los Angeles Auto Show and the Green Car Summit in conjunction with the Washington Auto Show for many years.

Read more about the 2009 Washington Auto Show, opening today at the Washington Convention Center.

The transcript follows.

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Ron Cogan: Good morning everyone! I'm Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of the Green Car Journal and editor of GreenCar.com. 'Green' cars are my specialty. I've been focused on this since 1990 when I was feature editor at Motor Trend magazine. I launched Green Car Journal on my own as a newsletter in 1992 and followed up with our magazine launch in 2003. I am a die-hard auto enthusiast. I also feel strongly that a love of cars and care for the environment needn't be mutually exclusive... and that drives my passion for this subject. Check out GreenCar.com to see more of what we do and also see GCJUSA.com to get information about the magazine.

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Spokane, Wash.: What is the one technology that still needs further development... the one technology that is holding up the production of the "greenest" motorized transportation? Drive train? Batteries? Tires? Safety?

Ron Cogan: Without a doubt, the greatest and most frustrating challenge is the battery. I began reporting on electric vehicles back in 1990 and have followed advanced battery efforts regularly since that time. Back then, there was great hope that the ideal battery, offering the required energy, performance, and cost would emerge 'just around the corner.' It's 18 years later. We're still looking for that corner.

That said, the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in battery research and development by companies and government agencies around the world have paid off, to an extent. We've gone from advanced lead-acid batteries to nickel-metal-hydride to various types of lithium batteries for the most advanced electric vehicle applications. Lithium is today's battery of choice because of its energy density and ability to very effectively power electric cars. But these batteries remain extraordinarily expensive and that must be overcome to make mass market electric cars feasible.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I understand that 30% of imported oil is used to fuel America's 18 wheeler truck fleets. How expensive is it to build trucks that would use natural gas in place of diesel? And how long would it take to add natural gas pumps along our interstate truck stops so these natural gas trucks could be fueled?

Ron Cogan: An increasing number of natural gas trucks are on the highway, encouraged by companies like Clean Energy Fuels, the largest provider of natural gas for transportation in the country. Major big rig manufacturers are now making natural gas trucks. There's a huge push at the Ports of Los Angeles and San Pedro, California to incorporate thousands of natural gas 18 wheelers into operations there to make a huge decrease in emissions. That, of course, also saves lots of petroleum. This is also happening elsewhere.

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Manassas, Va.: Mr. Cogan, which is greener? As available technology, we don't have enough "stations" for cars like the Clarity by Honda. That leaves us with clean diesel, full hybrid (like the Prius), not full hybrid (like other cars), plug in hybrids, Or ethanol? Personally I don't like the plug in Hybrid idea, although the battery may be lighter. If you live in a townhouse or condo, you can't plug in too easily. Thanks!

Ron Cogan: 'Greenest' is in the eye of the beholder. Really, this depends on your specific needs. If a condo or townhouse doesn't have ready access to electrical outlets, then you're right that a plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV) is a problem. This would be something that works itself out over time, though. If PHEVs become a mainstream product then you can count on charging outlets being provided by businesses, malls, and government buildings as a way to exhibit their 'greenness' and proactively support this clean transportation technology. Certainly, some new condo and townhome developments will do the same by providing charging access points, although issues with paying for the electricity will need to be worked out. It doesn't cost much to charge an electric vehicle or PHEV, though, which is why you find a lot of chargers at malls and other locations in EV-friendly states like California offering free charging stations. It's good PR and encourages shopping at the retail locations that offer these.

There is no single answer to your question. Natural gas vehicles are great and cheaper to operate than gasoline vehicles, so a Honda Civic GX is ideal for those who live near public natural gas stations or are able to install a home CNG refueler in their garage. Clean diesel vehicles offer 30% better fuel economy and a similar decrease in CO2 greenhouse gas emissions and these don't require any special accommodations at all. Hybrids work well for many people, especially if a lot of city driving is done because this is where they get the best mileage.

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Washington, D.C.: What is the best zero emissions car technology for the long run, electric or hydrogen? And what is your time frame for fully implementing a zero emissions auto requirement.

Ron Cogan: That's a tough question. I believe we are heading toward a hydrogen economy, and so hydrogen fuel cell and/or hydrogen internal combustion vehicles make sense for the long run. And this is the long run because we are clearly a decade away from mass commercialization, at least. It's not just developing less expensive hydrogen fuel cell cars, but also building the fueling infrastructure and figuring out how to make cost-competitive and 'green' hydrogen.

Electric vehicles make sense in the short term if we can figure out the battery challenge. They may also be a long-term answer, but only if we have greater electrical generating capacity than we do now as millions upon millions of these vehicles are made. Hopefully, that will come from 'green' renewable resources. But given the trending we're seeing today, that could also come from nuclear power.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: What is the major limitation of lithium ion technology for average U.S. pure electric car commuters and what is the likely solution and schedule for its widespread adoption?

Ron Cogan: That's easy. The major limitation is the very high cost of lithium batteries. The answer that logically follows is the development of cheaper advanced batteries, lithium or otherwise. We're already seeing lithium batteries being introduced in independent auto manufacturer efforts with the Tesla Roadster and Fisker Karma. The Chevrolet Volt will launch in late 2010 as a lithium battery powered, range extended electric vehicle. That car is a game changer.

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Ballston, Va.: Electricity in the U.S. is not produced by green power plants. Greens are to blame because this country should have more nuclear powered generating plants. More cars using the grid for power means high electricity costs for everyone and more pollution.

Ron Cogan: Given all the activities we're seeing now, it seems likely that we will see much more electricity being produced by wind/solar and also by nuclear.

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Clifton, Va.: What the green zealots don't realize is many of us use our cars, SUVs and trucks for our hobbies. We can't afford multiple cars so we have one Suv to haul our dogs to herding trails or our race car to races. My sister if you see her during the week, she is a lone commuter in a 07 Tahoe but she hauls her three SAR dogs in it during the week too. And no mass transit works for her schedule as a Fed.

Green cars, trucks and SUVs must work for many of us in a variety of situations not just our commute. Many Americans do not want a hybrid diesel plug in Smart size car because it is not safe and doesn't work for anything but commuting. And yeah the Smart passed the govt. safety test but what happens when that Vintage Suburban hits you. You are crushed.

And finally let the market place decide not the Federal or state govt. If folks don't want green cars then the govt. should not force us to buy them.

Ron Cogan: I believe we should all have freedom of choice in the vehicles we drive. This is America, after all. Automakers like GM are addressing the issue of larger vehicles with models like the Chevy Tahoe hybrid, which gets the same city fuel economy (21 mpg) as a much smaller Toyota Camry. More efficient conventional gasoline and diesel pickups are being made. The goal should not be to legislate specific types of vehicles off the road. It should be to make all classes of vehicles much more efficient than they are now.

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Freising, Germany: I once discussed the future of electric automobiles with someone who believed that electric cars wouldn't become popular until a fueling infrastructure was built that could automatically recharge cars in a matter of minutes, similar to filling up a car now with gasoline. What are your thoughts on this? Also, what are the current ideas for a fueling infrastructure for hydrogen powered cars with fuel cells?

Ron Cogan: Fast-charging stations are a great idea, but such rapid recharging really diminishes a battery's useful life...and that's a problem. Ten years ago, I also thought rapid charging would be the answer. It won't be until rapid charging issues are worked out with regard to battery longevity and also engineering out costs in the rapid chargers themselves. I don't believe this is required to make electric cars popular, though. I drove a GM EV1 for a year in the late 1990s and loved the fact that I could recharge overnight at home. I believe that most people will find this kind of charging an acceptable way to keep electric cars fueled up and functional for their lifestyles.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Ron, I graduated from an engineering masters program (industrial engineering) 3 years ago and have been working at an investment bank in risk management since. I'm still gainfully employed (amazingly) but my true passion is to go work in alternatives and transportation. Projects like Better Place and the Volt are really the true objects of my interest.

How do you think I can enter this industry? I'm willing to relocate, take entry level positions, etc. I just want to work somewhere that I'm proud to be working. Thanks.

Ron Cogan: That's a tough one because I don't know if there's a central place to reference that could give you a quick pathway. If I was in your situation, I would do plenty of online research to determine who all the active companies are in this field that interest you, and I'd contact them directly to share your interest and credentials. Be persistent. I would also ask for direction from programs like Clean Cities, regional advanced transportation consortia, and other industry groups. There's no lack of places to ask for a job in this field because it's growing. You just need to invest the time. Good luck with your search. There's nothing better than working in a field that also happens to be your passion...I know that personally.

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Anonymous: Are there any auto manufacturers of family type cars that are coming out with or seriously working on all electric cars?

Ron Cogan: Yes, there are. Almost all major automakers are working on this now but most aren't ready to talk about it. Nissan has said it will market an electric vehicle in the next few years. You can bet that Toyota and Honda are working on this as well. The Chevy Volt, while not a purely electric car, really offers what most people will want because it has a 40 mile all-electric range (80 mile round-trip if you're using it for commuting and plugging in at work). If you need additional range, its small and efficient internal combustion engine-generator comes on to provide additional needed electricity to power its electric drive.

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McLean, Va.: Recently I read an article where energy can be extracted from radio waves (which surround us). Would it be feasible to explore the possibility of using radio waves to power small cars?

Ron Cogan: I haven't heard about this, but it sounds interesting. Let me know if you recall the source and I'll check that out.

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Rockville: What ever happened to the "flywheel car?" I remember an issue of Scientific American that showed one on the cover. I share your frustration with batteries and thought that one of McCain's best ideas was a prize to the person who invents a really good battery. Can Nano technology or even superconductivity help?

Ron Cogan: Flywheel batteries -- which use a flywheel spinning at very high speeds (maybe 50,000 rpm or more, as I recall) within a vacuum housing were a great hope for generating power about a decade ago. They never figured out how to make it work in commercial applications. Among other things, you have great rotational force being created that can negatively influences a vehicle's handling and dynamics. My bet is that it just couldn't be made affordably, as well.

Nano technology is already playing a part in lithium batteries. I'm sure that superconductivity could as well but I'm not current on that.

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Arlington, Va.: You mentioned hydrogen as a major fuel source either directly or in fuel cells. This ignores that the major source of hydrogen is from natural gas or petroleum and that it takes a lot of energy to produce it. Getting hydrogen from water is even worse regarding energy consumption.

Ron Cogan: The issue of how to create 'green' hydrogen is very real, as you point out. Greater use of wind and solar energy in creating hydrogen will go a long way toward resolving this. That said, recognizing everything that's happening in this country regarding energy diversity and especially energy security, I believe we will see increased use of nuclear energy. Nuke plants don't shut down at night, which means abundant electricity will be available for electrolyzing water to produce hydrogen.

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Rapid Charging: Isn't the answer battery exchange? Of course, that would be doable only if the manufacturers could agree on a standard battery...

Ron Cogan: Battery exchange is a great idea in principle...sort of like swapping out a barbecue's empty propane tank for a full one at a local market or home department store. But the logistics of how you do that with batteries in a vehicle is no small thing. This has been discussed and tried multiple times over the past 15 years. I haven't seen this come to fruition yet but there's always hope it can be worked out. And yes, it would require a standard battery pack. This is a huge obstacle. Automakers couldn't even agree on a single standard for electric vehicle charging stations back in the 1990s...

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Boston, Mass.: I've read about a company in Australia that has developed a high pressure fuel injection system for diesels that increase power, mileage and torque up to 30% over a regular diesel engine. I think the company is called "Green Diesel Corp". Have you had any contact with this company or seen this technology in a truck or auto application?

Ron Cogan: I haven't heard of that. However, Bosch and other companies have been working with major automakers on advanced clean diesel injection and have made amazing strides. That's why you have vehicles like the VW Jetta TDI that get 41 mpg or better on the highway while also meeting stringent 50 stage emissions regulations, without any extraordinary measures other than just a great diesel engine and emissions system.

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Higganum, Conn.: Where do nickel-metal-hydride batteries fit in as a short term solution for the battery issue?

Ron Cogan: Nickel-metal-hydride battery technology is being used in almost all hybrid vehicle applications worldwide, plus it's being used in many electric vehicles as well. Most feel it's not the greatest battery technology for plug-in hybrid vehicles although it can work. Smaller, lighter, and more powerful lithium-based batteries are much better...but they're also much more expensive.

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Wilmington, N.C.: What is it re lithium batteries and cost? Is it low demand or the cost of the materials/availability or other components? Thank you.

Ron Cogan: High materials cost and this is being worked on feverishly. Low demand also means that the benefits of true mass production are not being realized. The mass production issue will pass as electric drive vehicles become more popular and manufacturing increases. GM just announced that it is building a lithium battery production facility in Michigan for the Chevy Volt. Other companies based in Asia are also planning much greater production of lithium-based batteries.

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Morris Plains, N.J.: I have been hearing about a dual-mode hybrid Vue from Saturn that was supposed to be released in Fall '08... you only get vague answers from dealers about it, and there is scant info to be had on the internet... are there problems with the technology, and is this technology really an improvement over the current hybrids.

Ron Cogan: There was a 4 to 6 week delay from what we understand. It will be out sometime this quarter.

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Montrose, Colo.: In November of 2007, a "Green Motor" was introduced at the Bali conference that reduced emissions 38% to 98% for the various emission pollutants, as well as offered improved fuel efficiency, including diesel in trucks, by 60%. When diesel was hitting over $5.00/gal, that would save over $97,000/diesel truck per year, plus offer the advantage of greatly improved emissions conditions. What happened to that "green motor"? Thanks.

Ron Cogan: I've seen "ideal technologies" or "ideal fuels" come and go a lot over the past two decades. Mostly, they never really come...they're just talked about a lot. I don't know anything about the 'Green Motor' but I'm always willing to listen and research.

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Bonifay, Fla.: Comments on Jatropha seeds (recent TIME article biodiesel)? As another dog fancier who needs a big van/SUV, anything in the future whose total cost (vehicle, unintended consequences) will be less?

Ron Cogan: Jatropha seems very promising because this oily plant can be grown almost anywhere and isn't water intensive. Simply, it makes a lot of sense. Automakers like Daimler are actively pursuing this.

Clean diesel seems like it would be a great short term answer for you. You'll get better fuel economy and the engines also last seemingly forever. Plus, you can run biodiesel in the vehicle. Just be sure to check your owner's manual to make sure you'll get warranty coverage if you do run biodiesel. You don't want any surprises there.

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Expense: Ron, green cars will not sell until the price on some of the cars are in the $15000 - $20000 range. With all the hoopla on green cars (Volt for example with an estimated cost of over $40,000), I will continue with my Toyota Yaris and its $14000 price tag and 40mpg.Hopefully one day I can buy one electric car for commuting with plugging into a regular outlet at a reasonable price and have one car for long trips.

Ron Cogan: Because of the cost of the technology, advanced 'clean' vehicles are in the upper price ranges at first. All automakers are working on this to come up with affordable cars for everyone that use 'green' technology. Really, it's coming because this is where the profits are for automakers and dealers.

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Ron Cogan: Thanks for your participation in our 'green car' chat today. I'll look forward to doing this again. Remember to check out GreenCar.com and GCJUSA.com.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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