Today, the future started to roll in. It parked on 7th Avenue.
We’ve been hearing about electric cars, alternative fuels, and the resurgence of biking for years. For the most part, though, that’s all we’ve been doing: hearing, not driving or plugging in or pedaling. In cynical moments, waiting for the transportation of the future can feel like waiting for the flying cars we were promised for so many years.
Just outside the main hall today at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Sixth Annual Meeting, several exhibitors set up on the street in midtown Manhattan to show off their exciting work on transforming transportation to make it cleaner and more efficient, and profitable.
What made the exhibits so exciting is that these were not pie-in-the-sky fantasies. The focus was on approaches designed to facilitate the transition to new transportation norms. Exhibitors displayed technology that will make it easier for consumers, corporations, and governments to partner in getting the rubber on the road, ASAP.
GreenTech Automotive (GTA) showed off models of their MyCar and Sports Hybrid vehicles. The former is a plug-in "neighborhood electric vehicle" (with no gas hybrid component), slated for production in 2011. Designed for short trips, the vehicle has a travel distance of 70 miles and a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour. The Chairman of GTA is Terry McAuliffe, who you may remember as the former head of the Democratic National Committee when CGI’s eponymous Clinton was President. In a private interview, McAuliffe highlighted the practicality of this car for everyday use—daily commutes, grocery store runs, and school drop-offs. In addition to making it practical, McAuliffe emphasized low pricing. "It’s not green," he noted, "unless it’s affordable." In a sense, then, the vehicle is low-risk for consumers: favorably priced, easy to use, and good for everyday non-highway driving. As a result, it has tremendous potential to transition consumers into using electric vehicles for much of their local driving.
Rental car giant Hertz was also on hand, touting its plug-in electric vehicle initiatives. Hertz’s Global EV Leader Jack Hidary has drawn on his years as a tech entrepreneur to lead the company’s efforts. He explained that electric vehicle technology is great, but it requires a different business vision and more consumer acceptance. With Hertz’s scale, Hidary hopes the company can lead the way in promoting and facilitating the proliferation of electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and Toyata Prius plugin. Hidary and Hertz are planning a network of charging stations to cultivate an "ecosystem of charging." Some stations would be Hertz owned; others might be owned by a retailer or corporation (e.g. your local mall). Furthermore, Hidary hopes that by providing customers a chance to rent electric cars, the company will stimulate demand among consumers reluctant to jump in and buy their own electric car. Finally, he hopes Hertz’s tremendous purchasing power can help grow the electric vehicle market. After all, the company buys around $7 billion in vehicles a year and turns over its fleet every couple of years. All told, by developing charging infrastructure, piquing consumer interest, and flexing purchasing muscle, Hertz is trying to increase adoption and expansion of electric transportation.
Cars weren’t the only green tech at CGI; Bigfish was there representing human power. The Bigfish bike folds from full-size to a more compact, rolling package in under 15 seconds. By making it easier to carry a bike, Bigfish hopes commuters will incorporate cycling into their daily commute: bike to the train or subway, fold the Bigfish, finish the trip by bike, then fold it for easy storage in the office. The company is developing partnerships with companies and cities to promote biking, for instance by giving buyers discounts on public transportation costs to encourage them to bring their Bigfish bikes on the train. While Bigfish is a for-profit, President Richard Rosen spoke passionately about "moving the mission" to promote cycling as greener, easier, and practical alternative. By focusing on the "last mile" of a commute, the company hopes to generate broader interest among those wary of cycling or who live far from the office.
Last, but not least, Solazyme displayed their algal biofuel programs, which were featured in this blog last week. Their work is also geared towards facilitating adoption. The oil can be refined for use in vehicles, like the big red pickup on display Monday. The company also uses different algae sources to produce oils for food products, like the oil in cookies Solazyme handed out. Moreover, no new industrial technologies or facilities are needed to prepare the oil. Solazyme uses existing technology throughout the entire production process. As a result, the oil is easier to produce and ready to go.
Each of these four companies, then, displayed an approach to promoting adoption and facilitating the transition towards greener transportation options. It’s an important lesson for nonprofits and businesses everywhere: the grand vision is critical, but you need to provide a way to get there. By combining more environmentally sensitive visions with near-term initiatives and for-profit business models, these companies are moving transportation tech forward.
I’m still counting on a flying car someday, but now I’m hoping it will be electric and algal oil-powered, rented online, and picked up by riding over on my folding bike.
(With contributions from David Korngold.)