Q&A: Green Cars Expert John O’Dell on the Auto Industry

One auto expert’s take on the future of cars.

While reporting my piece on BMW’s i3, I talked to a number of automotive experts. John O’Dell, a former reporter for the Los Angles Times, now serves as a fuel efficiency and green cars senior editor for Edmunds.com. When I called him, he confessed to knowing “a bit” about the car, but without too much prompting launched into fascinating series of riffs on the future of the car industry. Here are some highlights from our lively conversation:

A Dying Mythology “The whole idea of a car has changed from when I was a kid, when it was all about having the biggest V8 and how much rubber you could lay. Now it’s about how many of my friends can get inside and how many of my electronics can I hook up to it? Can I text and receive e-mails while I’m going to and from, because driving has become much more of a chore than a pleasure. BMW has seen the future and understands that they probably can’t sustain a large and growing company just on the pure joy of driving. I’ve talked to people who predict, somewhere off in the future, the end of the high-performance car, except in really limited niches.”

The Emissions Equation “The conventional car has been cleaned up phenomenally in recent years. Sometimes I think, ‘Jesus, the regulators have found a pony to beat to death here.’ But there are so many cars that even a .001% improvement adds up to a lot when you’re talking about 250 million vehicles.  So making them cleaner is still worthwhile, and one way they do that and meet their societal goals is to introduce electric drive or electric augmentation systems, which is what hybrids are.”

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Crystal Ball Gazing “I came into this very wide-eyed, thinking that electric drive and fuel cells were going to be the future. After years of really immersing myself in the subject and talking to people on all sides of the equation, I think we’re looking at a mixed bag. We’re looking at continued incremental improvements in the internal combustion engine.  We’re looking at the replacement of some, if not all, petroleum fuel, someday with bio-fuels. We’re going to see various degrees of vehicle electrification, going up to and including hydrogen fuel cells, and god knows we may see something we don’t even know about yet, so it’s all going to come into play.”

Range Anxiety “The biggest impediment for electric vehicles (EV) is time for recharging. If you only drive 30 miles or 40 miles a day and you have a 70-mile electric car, you don’t care how long it takes to charge it. You plug it in when you’re done driving and let it charge overnight. But if I want to drive that car 300 miles and if I have to stop every 80 miles and charge for 6 hours, that’s not practical.  If you’re going to use EVs for distance travel, you need infrastructure. “

Paradigm Shift “All of these car sharing arrangements make a lot of sense for a lot of people, but they don’t make sense for everybody all the time. People like to compare us to Europe. ‘Well, in Europe everybody drives little cars, why can’t we do that?’ Europe was built before the car. Much of this country was built around the car. They already had all their cities and their narrow streets. They had mass transit and they’ve continued to improve it. They have taxis and trolleys and trams. We don’t have all this stuff. We have cars. It will be a long time before we replace the personal vehicle as the most common form of transportation for most Americans. But what we are seeing is a monoculture—buy a car, fill it up, drive it, don’t share it with anybody, pay for it even when it’s parked—we’re seeing this big monolithic thing breakdown.”

The Problem with Regulation “We have an incoherent energy policy that changes from administration to administration. Some would say we don’t have a national energy policy. But you could argue that we do have one—and it’s to have an incoherent policy! Under the Obama administration, for example, we’re looking at an 80% reduction in green house gas emissions by 2050. To get there, you have to have policies put in place. The problem is, if and when Obama is out of office, even if he’s replaced by another Democrat in four years, there could still  be a whole other agenda there. So policy makers set up policies, and then the next group doesn’t honor them and we keep throwing babies out with the bathwater.”

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