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1366RE: [hreg] Hydrogen-based transportation

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  • Robert Johnston
    Jan 10, 2002



      There is usually more than one side to a story, and witnesses to the same event often portray it in very different ways, depending on their perspective.  I hope you’ll not mind if I share a perspective a little different than your own.


      First, the auto industry (Big 3 etc) will be profit-driven else out of business.  If they are to be profitable, they must offer what consumers will buy.  That involves various tradeoffs in cost, quality, safety, fuel efficiency, liability, etc.  It may in fact be true that Nader pushed them towards safety, but it may also be true that they were already improving cars continuously.  There was a lot of difference (e.g., improvements) between a Model T and even the early Nader-era cars.  One could make the argument that the conservatism of the auto industry towards innovation (using explosive hydrogen, for example) may in fact be partly driven by the liability concerns Nader helped create.  In the face of huge lawsuits, one is inclined towards sticking to tried and true formulas, not taking the risk of a new technology.  In the grand scheme of things, Nader may in fact have unintentionally done the environment a disservice in this regard.  The fact that innovation continues at all is a testament to the powerful motivation of competition and profit motive.


      Second, your comments about innovation don’t reflect the auto industry I’m familiar with.  My company sells raw materials (rubber materials) to the auto industry.  I read publications and attend conferences that describe the many innovative developments within the auto industry, including the Big 3.  The auto industry has been championing innovation in materials, design and production for as long as I’ve been familiar with it.  The huge changes in materials and design have enabled cars of substantially reduced weight.  Aerodynamics innovations have increased efficiency and comfort.  Tire innovations (recent Firestone quality issues notwithstanding) have increased safety (skid resistance) and fuel economy (green tires) and economy/waste disposal (higher mileage).  Plastics have improved safety and comfort and cost throughout. Numerous innovations large and small have contributed to the 100,000 mile car where little service is required.  (Remember when you used to have to get a tune-up every 20,000 miles or so?).  Some of the innovations that are going on that are not being “fought” by the Big 3 (e.g., they aren’t being forced) include the “drive by wire” technologies, “smart wheels”, and collision avoidance systems.  When these technologies hit the market over the next few years, I hope you’ll give credit where credit is due, and not attribute them to Nader or the government.


      I’ve listened to researchers describe their work on airbags and other safety features with emotion; at least some of them believe in what they are doing, and they are passionate about saving lives.  They aren’t dragging their feet to work everyday as they study crash dummies.  Just as an example, several companies are actively working to replace PVC passenger-side airbag covers with alternative materials like polyolefins.  Why?  PVC embrittles when cold.  Thus, in a cold car, airbag deployment could lead to PVC shrapnel-like film pieces cutting the passenger.  The trick is finding a material with the right balance of low temperature flexibility, UV and heat resistance, colorability, processability, cost, etc.  This change will happen.  As often happens, once someone comes up with the technical innovation to make it possible, the government may mandate it in all vehicles.  This may cause environmentalists to claim that thanks to the government, Big 3 automakers replaced chlorine-containing PVC with a polyolefin and improved safety in Alaskan cars, but the credit really should go to those “foot dragging” automakers and their industry suppliers whose research and process implementations made it all possible.  It may have taken a few years to do all the research because of the many technical challenges involved, but that is hardly foot-dragging.


      Hydrogen and fuel cells are a massive change for automakers.  A true paradigm shift.  These are once in a generation or two type changes that don’t happen overnight.  Fuel cells have been in spacecraft for years, but so have nuclear power plants.  Where consumer liability and cost concerns are minimal, these things can be done.  But where do you honestly think Nader would be if automakers rushed to put hydrogen fuel cells in cars, and Exxon and Shell had rushed to put hydrogen distribution systems in cities and neighborhoods throughout the country, and then an accident and massive explosion happened?  Would Nader be in there defending industry for their environmentally friendly rush to implement innovative but unproven and buggy technology?  Or would he be suing them on behalf of consumers?  I don’t think Nader is a model for how to increase risk-taking behavior and innovation in corporations, and fuel cells need more work before they are low risk, economical solutions for consumer transportation.


      I know it feels good for a Green to dump on big corporations, and what better target than the Big 3?  But I encourage you to consider both sides of the coin before criticizing them next time.




      Robert Johnston



      -----Original Message-----
      From: ChasMauch@... [mailto:ChasMauch@...]
      Sent: Thursday, January 10, 2002 11:56 AM
      To: hreg@yahoogroups.com
      Subject: Re: [hreg] Hydrogen-based transportation


      There was a version of this article in today's Houston Chronicle. I notice they say this will EVENTUALLY help reduce dependence on imported oil and end vehicle pollution, talk about LONG TERM results, and say that this vision spans SEVERAL DECADES. Environmentalists note that the parties to this (the big 3 auto makers) have been fighting increases in federal mileage standards for years and have continued to shift more and more of their production into gas thirsty trucks and SUVs.

      They talk a good game but their actions indicate no interest at all in fuel economy unless forced in that direction. Merceds Benz has been saying they will have a fuel cell car in production in 2 or 3 years, but most of the industry will probably continue to drag their feet as long as possible while putting out press releases like this.

      The auto industry historically fought such simple safety features as air bags, padded dash, collapseable steering wheel column, breakaway rear view mirrors, safety glass, stronger door hinges, and everything else until forced by Ralph Nader and other consumer adovcates to apply the simple technology that had been available for years.

      These guys have zero credibility with me. They don't care about safery or reducing our reliance on foriegn oil imports or pollution or anything else but their bottom line. Maybe I'm too hard on them but if history is any guide - and I think it is - they are still blowing smoke, after all these years, stalling for more time, and expecting us all to buy it. I don't.

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