Will Hybrids and Electrics Benefit from Demise of Internal Combustion Engine?

You would think that to the extent the old-fashioned car powered by an internal combustion engine comes into disrepute, because of its noxious emissions and oil consumption, the obvious beneficiaries will be the hybrid-electric and all-electric vehicle. But you might be wrong, to judge from the New York Times's second annual "energy for tomorrow" conference, which was devoted to "Building Sustainable Cities."

Last year the Gray Lady knocked the ball out of the park with a conference sharply focused on a single theme, the radically stronger U.S. position in energy—a development little noticed then that has become a virtual truism in the meantime. A repeat performance was not to be expected this year. But even so, "Building Sustainable Cities" delivered some startling perspectives too.

Most shocking, perhaps, was the level of hostility expressed by many speakers to the automobile as such. Jaime Lerner, a former mayor of Brazil's Curitiba, known for the work he did there introducing an integrated mass transportation system that has been copied the world over, expressed the belief that cars some day soon will be seen as noxious as tobacco is today. "The car is going to be the cigarette of the future," Lerner said.

The distaste Lerner and others expressed had to do not merely with pollutants and gasoline but, first and foremost, with congestion and what you might call human equities. Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, said his transportation reforms emphasized wide use of mini-buses (like the VW "Volksbus" seen ubiquitously in Mexico City), which after all emit pollutants and consume hydrocarbons too. The decisive factor for Penalosa is the amount of urban space consumed by a bus, as compared with a private car. "If we are all equal before the law," he said, then "a bus carrying 100 people should be entitled to 100 times as much road space as a private car."

More important than replacing regular cars with hybrids or electrics, argued Lerner, is replacing them with vehicles that are much smaller and lower-performance as well.

To the extent electrics and hybrids will gain from the growing unpopularity of the private car, some conference participants suggested, it is going to be the hybrid and electric bicycle, not the hybrid or electric automobile. (Fortune contributing editor Mark Gunther pursues the same theme in a recent article that can be found on Yale's environment.360 website.) There are an estimated 150 million electric bikes on the China's road's today, noted Hal Harvey, CEO of Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology LLC. (That was a trend Spectrum spotted eight years ago in its special issue on China's tech revolution.)

There is at least one city, said Harvey, that does not let automobiles enter when it is deemed "full." And while that may sound startling, it is actually nothing new. The imperial Romans had "time of day" entry restrictions that aimed to curtail chariot congestion, observed Anna Nagurney, director of the Virtual Center for Supernetworks at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Regulation not only of incoming cars but, even more importantly, of trucks carrying freight, is considered a planning priority in cities in many parts of the world.

Using parking regulations and restrictions to control urban congestion is another regulatory tool being considered globally, several participants noted.

All this is not to say, of course, that there will be no benefit to hybrids and electrics from urban restrictions on gasoline-powered cars. Some cities--Houston, Texas, for example--are working hard with local utilities to make themselves more hybrid-friendly. But the benefits to electrics, to judge from the Times conference, may not be as great as their proponents have hoped.

Photo: Imaginechina via AP Images

This article was edited on 9 May to correct the spelling of Curitiba and the estimated number of bicycles in China.

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