It’s not easy being green

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Like many of you, I read the news that the UK has placed a ban on new hybrid cars in 15 years and it raised a lot of questions. The first thought was that banning something doesn’t always mean that a viable and equivalent alternative will materialize due to placing a termination date on the current systems or technology.

Upon reading a few articles regarding the ban, I was looking for realistic alternatives for all facets of commerce, leisure, emergency support vehicles and yes, even motorsport. Apparently I wasn’t alone in those thoughts as Formula 1 bosses, Chase Carey and Ross Brawn, both weighed in on the ban over at Autosport, and not in very glowing terms.

“I don’t think we necessarily know where we’re going to be honest,” Brawn told Autosport.

“I think that governments need to look at the whole picture. I think we need to look at the dust-to-dust carbon impact of personal transportation.

“I think picking on a specific technology is crude. For me as an engineer it doesn’t make sense. [It should be] this is where we are now, this is where we want to be, what’s the best solution in that process.”

It’s always a risky game to place yourself as the entity who picks winners and losers and in this case, that would be the UK government picking losers. Ross is correct in that the future solution may come from variables and seek marginal gains that cumulate into large gains.

Chase Carey also sees the challenges and also recognizes the danger of manufacturers finding less relevance in investing in F1 hybrid engine technology.

“I’ve read a lot of experts, so to speak, on the environmental issue, and I think the wide majority recognise that you’re going to have an array of solutions, there’s not a silver bullet,” he told Autosport.

“Electric has become a little bit of a silver bullet. There are environmental issues around electric, there are infrastructure issues, there are cost of electric vehicle issues.

“It will be part of the answer, but I think the answer is going to be a number of things.

“In many ways, a combustion engine with synthetic fuels and other types of technology and energy recapture, they will be the most important element to the solution.

“There’ll be a reality, when electric becomes less of a political dream and more of a market reality. Other solutions will come to the forefront and be recognised as being a very important part, if not a central part of how you achieve the goals everybody wants for the environment.”

I don’t think either of them are being purposefully obtuse, I think they believe F1 has a role to play in the development of new technologies and for Brawn, the lowest hanging fruit is synthetic fuels.

“If the FIA say ‘right it has to run on sustainable or synthetic fuels, and that’s the only way you can compete in F1’, you can be sure that that will drive that technology,” he said.

“And all the oil companies will be involved with that because they know they’ve got to find alternative streams in the future. So we can be the catalyst behind changing these things.”

I do agree that the current engine formula in F1 is an incredible piece of technology and because of that, it is very expensive. Too expensive I might argue as I have seen the impact it’s had on the teams.

I also find it interesting to note that I have read several pieces about the four manufacturers making significant gains in performance and I rarely read that it is being found in the electric portion of the engine. Most of the articles I’ve read say they found more performance in the internal combustion engine (ICE) and some of that may be understandable as the output of the electric portion of the hybrid is capped.

Could they produce more electric power? I am sure they could but will they? My concern with much of the call to arms over issues such as these is that when you look at the arc of innovation, it progresses, improves, increases speed, reduces size, reduces costs (over time), and performs better than what it is replacing. Not in all instances, sometimes disruptive technology is there to create a reduced version of something grander at a reduced and accessible price.

The issue with mobility is that the entire world, and the lives in it, depend on reliable, safe transportation. The UK may find the ban feasible and one would hope much research has gone in to the ban and the impact it may have on the lives of those the government is sworn to protect.

In the US, the distances are quite different and our infrastructure operates on a very large scale. It would be rash to ban ICE’s in 15 years because there is no viable alternative for every portion of our infrastructure to make that change in that small amount of time. Our entire farming community will not be using a phalanx of batteries to harvest crops over a 2,000 acre plot in just 15 years.

If you’ve ever traveled through Kansas during harvest time, you’ll know there are companies that have multiple semi’s loaded with combines who freelance and harvest thousands and thousands of acres of crops.

If you consider the simple math that there are 141 million semi-trucks (think Lorries for our UK friends), with nearly one third of them in California, Texas and Florida, and traveling over 140 billion miles per year, you get an idea of how it is much easier to say, “we’re banning diesel and ICE in 15 years” than it its to do. They carry 80,000 lbs and 240 gallons of fuel is a part of that 80,000 lbs. Fully loaded they weigh 62,000 lbs. Over 70% of all goods in the US are delivered by semi-trucks. Is it feasible to say we’ll just ban them and is electric a viable option for these 141 million trucks? The short answer is no.

Also, you have to consider that 90% of international trade is managed by over 100,000 cargo ships showing just how reliant the world is on merchant shipping. Can we ban their diesel engines in 15 years and hope an electric motor will suffice?

My point is, banning something doesn’t simply beget an alternative that is a direct replacement or better. It will take time and to Ross’s point, surely newer technology may reveal itself. It takes a lot of entities working together and independently to advance mobility technology and perhaps F1 can be a part of that development but simply banning hybrids is not helping the technology innovation and evolution curve, it is artificially stunting its growth.

Hat Tip: Autosport

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