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To Use Less Oil, We Need To Think About Cars As Software Platforms

Should car engine technology be “unlocked,” so people could modify today’s fossil fuel cars to run on alternative fuels?

To Use Less Oil, We Need To Think About Cars As Software Platforms
[Photos: via Pump]

Some time in the future–perhaps a decade from now–we’ll all be driving around in electric cars (probably). Battery technology will have evolved to allow longer trips on a single charge, and they’ll be significantly cheaper than they are now.

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A decade from now, though? That’s a long way off. In meantime, we’re going to need other ways to reduce our dependence on oil–both because oil increases instability in the world (look at Russia’s current oil-fueled adventures) and because it contributes to climate change, a problem that really can’t wait.


The answer? According to a new documentary, called Pump, one possibility is to retrofit more of today’s vehicles to run on alternative fuels, like methanol and ethanol. It argues that this would have several benefits, and in fact isn’t nearly as difficult as many people believe. There are already nine million Flex Fuel cars on the road, and many of the rest could be converted through a combination of new chips and fresh programming.

One of the interesting points the film makes (we’ve seen an advance copy) is that a modern car is largely dictated by its software. The physical machinery is secondary to the code in the background. Therefore, retrofitting an engine is mostly about reconfiguring the car’s ECU (its operating system) rather than putting in a whole load of new parts. The clip here shows how one engineer–John Brackett from Colorado–does it. As you can see, it really isn’t too complicated.

The real problem is that most people don’t know they can hack their cars to run on different fuels. And what Brackett does is technically illegal. The Clean Air Act forbids engine modification and most vehicle shops won’t do it for you. Unless you’re a car enthusiast, and you’re prepared to bend the rules, you’re unlikely to do it.

The film features characters like John Hofmeister, an ex-Shell executive, who argues that oil companies have deliberately sought to restrict fuel choice. The documentary’s framing is to point out how the pump is a different from other shopping experiences we have. While we have hundreds of options for shampoos and stereo systems, the alternatives at the gas station mainly boil down to higher and lower grade versions of the same thing. In a sense, the fuel market today is a monopolized by a single product and a few (very rich) companies.


The makers of the film focus on choice because it’s a less polarizing topic than some other aspects of the future-of-energy debate. “The topic is loaded, because there are all these different aspects to our oil dependence,” says producer Eyal Aronoff. “The issue of choice at the pump was the best way. Because who can argue against choice?”

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Aronoff made his fortune in software development. The company he founded, Quest, was sold to Dell in 2012 for $2.4 billion. He’s since started the Fuel Freedom Foundation, which advocates for more choice at the pump and he’s currently lobbying the EPA to relax its rules on the types of fuels cars can use.

“What we are calling for is [engineers] to come up with better solutions than the car companies, because they don’t have great motivations to provide fuel flexibility,” he says. “Once people realize their car runs well on these fuels, we think two big things will happen. The first is that we are going to start a process where people will compete to build the best conversion technology. The second is, we’ll have a whole new generation of engine technology.”

The key conceptual leap is to see cars as technology platforms, rather than pieces of hardware. If we “unlocked” car technology the same way we’ve unlocked, say, smartphone technology, innovation would surely follow, Aronoff believes. We just need to push harder as consumers for change, and challenge regulators to loosen their enforcement.

“Our vision of the future is that you’ll be able to take your car to the shop or dealer, and they’ll modify your car with a chip or reprogramming and then you’ll be able to use fuels that are in your area,” he says. “We don’t need new laws or regulations. We just need the EPA to clarify how they’re going to enforce the [existing] regulations.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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