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David Friedman: On the Future of Transportation and the LA Auto Show

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David Friedman, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE), visited the L.A. Auto Show in November 2015. In this video interview, he shared his thoughts about transportation's future, the exciting technologies being introduced to the market, the role EERE plays in supporting research and development. Video courtesy Jeremy Kahn, Department of Energy.

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What is your impression of the importance of EERE and your role in this office?

It’s really exciting to be here at the Department of Energy, and especially in the part of the Department of Energy that really is paving the way to a future founded on the clean energy economy and all of the carbon and financial benefits and jobs that that will create. For me in many ways it feels like coming home.

I’ve spent most of my career working as an engineer at the intersection of policy and engineering, trying to make sure that policy is informed by good science and good engineering. And that engineering and science are directed at solving some of the nation’s biggest problems—like climate change, like our oil use. So it’s great to be here at EERE, it’s great to be working with a great team trying to change the world when it comes to clean energy.

What is the Los Angeles Auto Show and how do we participate in it?

Well, the L.A. Auto Show is one of three really big auto shows that take place in the United States every single year. And in fact because it’s in California, it has really been at the forefront of clean car technology. It’s often one of the auto shows where automakers roll out some of their latest and greatest fuel efficient and electric vehicles.

For me, I was there because actually I was already in town to speak at a symposium on hydrogen fuel cells, a great technology that we’ve been supporting and that has made a lot of progress. And so I decided well since the L.A. Auto Show is there as well, I’d love to take the chance to talk to the auto industry and have them update me on the latest and greatest clean car technology that consumers are going to be buying next year.

What were the highlights for you at the auto show?

I think to me there were two really big highlights. First was, it’s amazing to see how well the auto industry is doing these days. The auto industry is thriving after really nearly driving itself into a ditch. Thanks to the Obama Administration, the industry is now not only thriving, but is potentially about to hit record sales this year. You can really see that vibe and that energy at the L.A. Auto Show. All the car companies are excited about their new product offerings and excited about the future and potential for the industry. That was one great thing to see, how far the auto industry has come and how well the turnaround has taken place.

The other piece of it that I think is really interesting ties into that, because we had a lot to do with that turnaround both as an administration and as a department, here at the Department of Energy. We invested in a lot of technologies that the auto industry is now making and putting into cars and trucks that consumers are buying. So it’s fascinating to get to see all the cars and all the technologies that we helped support that are now on the auto show floor and next year are going to be on showroom floors.

A few examples of those: one is electric vehicle technology, whether it’s the Chevy Volt, the Chevy Spark or a new Cadillac plug in hybrid, General Motors is relying on battery technology that we supported development of at Argonne National Lab. They’re also relying on power control technology that we helped support and helped bring about. In both cases it was dramatically lowering the costs and increasing the performance of those technologies so that they could become the great consumer products that those vehicles are today. I saw the same thing with Ford. Ford’s new plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles are all using battery technologies that we helped support.

On the less sexy, or less exotic side of things from electric vehicles, there’s a lot more lightweighting going on. Automakers are investing more in stronger materials that cut weight, save fuel while maintaining or even improving safety. Here again we can talk about work we did with General Motors. How do you join steel and aluminum parts so that you can use more aluminum within that vehicle? We helped support technologies on how to join those two materials, and that’s starting to find its way into the marketplace.

We also helped them figure out how to combine carbon fiber with steel. In fact, their battery pack for the Chevy Spark is significantly lighter because of research we supported, on how to bring in some composite materials into a steel battery enclosure. So it’s great to walk around the showroom floors and see all that technology that we helped make happen.

Isn’t great to see the work of so many laboratories and scientists come to fruition?

Absolutely. If you look at the role of the Department of Energy and of EERE, at its core, we’re there to try to advance technologies that can deliver great benefits to taxpayers. We have to take risks to do that, we have to invest in projects that maybe industry wouldn’t do on their own, and it’s amazing to see that it works. This isn’t just something that happens in theory, this is something where we’re taking technologies all the way from the cradle of research and development and helping those technologies mature and come to the marketplace and save consumers money. Think about it. One of those battery electric vehicles from GM or Ford, driving one of those vehicles is the equivalent of paying about $1.20 [per gallon] for gasoline. That’s nearly half of what gas prices are today. So it’s incredible that now, thanks to our research and the work of industry and labs and scientists around the nation, consumers are now getting these great choices when they step in the showroom with EVs [electric vehicles] and they’re also getting great choices with plain old gasoline vehicles.

Another great technology that Ford is moving out with is "EcoBoost" engines. These are turbo charged downsized engines. Basically think of a V6 that delivers the performance of a V8 in a pickup truck but with 20-25% less fuel. That’s technology that, thanks to the Recovery Act, the Department of Energy helped support the development and the manufacturing capacity so that F150s and now even more vehicles can have fuel sipping engines instead of gas guzzling engines.

So it’s more than just small vehicles?

The reality of the marketplace is different people buy and drive different things.  The technologies that we’re developing can help all of these vehicles. It wasn’t at the L.A. Auto Show, but one of the other areas we’re working on is a SuperTruck project with industry where we set out a target of working with industry to boost the efficiency of big rigs, 18 wheelers, by 50%. The project was so successful that two of the performers actually more than doubled the fuel efficiency of those trucks. So whether it’s the car you park in your driveway, the truck you use at work or the truck that hauls your holiday goods to the store or to your house, we’ve had a hand helping to cut fuel use and save people money and cut emissions in those vehicles.

It’s seems like a very slow, steady revolution.

And I think “revolution” is the right word. In fact, we have a whole report that we call ‘Revolution… Now’ that highlights how our investments have delivered benefits. Batteries are a perfect example of that. The Revolution Now report talks about how electric vehicles over the last few years, sales have continued to go up, there’s over 300,000 electric vehicles that have now been sold. Many of them use battery packs whose costs have dropped dramatically and whose performance has shot up thanks to research and development and projects we’ve supported at the Department of Energy.

What progress do you see coming in hydrogen and fuel cell technologies?

One of the interesting things for me with this trip was the confluence of events. I was in L.A. to speak at a conference on fuel cells and to participate in the commissioning of a new hydrogen refueling station. There’s an old joke that says fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen are twenty years away and they always will be. One of the exciting things was going to the auto show and seeing that tired old joke can be retired, because Toyota and Hyundai were showing at the auto show fuel cell vehicles that they are putting out for sale and lease today in California. Honda was showing a fuel cell vehicle they’re putting out next year. They’re soon going to be followed by companies like General Motors, BMW and Daimler. So that’s another technology that we literally helped create.

Back during the oil embargo, it was DOE research supported at Los Alamos National Lab that literally created the modern fuel cell technology that is now in the marketplace, and consumers can now buy that technology.

We’re not done yet. There’s still a lot more work to do. We need to keep doing research and work to drive down those costs, and we need to help get more hydrogen infrastructure out there. But it’s amazing to see this progress. We’re not talking about twenty years any more for fuel cell vehicle commercialization; we’re talking about today and marching forward. It’s great progress and, again, progress that we helped make happen.

In the past ten years, there’s been remarkable progress. We’ve gotten closer to the finish line and now technologies are crossing it…

Absolutely. We can see that finish line ahead. California has really stepped up to help get to that finish line. One of the big challenges is getting refueling infrastructure out there; California is investing in getting hydrogen pumps out there so that consumers who buy those vehicles can fill up with those vehicles. There needs to be more investment in that route but the future is very bright when it comes to electric vehicles, both batteries and fuel cell vehicles. More work to be done but I think the last decade or so has shown, if we keep that work up, it turns into real products for consumers.

What do you see happening with vehicle technologies in the next year? What will we see at next year’s L.A. Auto Show?

I think one of the interesting things, there will continue to be two paths that we see at the auto show. It won’t be as obvious, it won’t be as sexy or glitzy but pretty much every new car at the L.A. Auto Show is going to have better fuel efficiency than the ones that came before that. That is due in large part to a combination of research and development work that we’ve supported at DOE with industry and thanks to fuel efficiency standards that the Obama Administration has really been in the lead on. We’re targeted at doubling fuel efficiency by 2025 for new cars and light trucks.

So each and every year at the L.A. Auto Show, the Detroit [North American] International Auto Show, the New York [International] Auto Show and auto shows around the country, consumers are going to see vehicles that are going to cost them less and less to operate with the same or better performance and the same or better style and convenience. That’s a constant trend that maybe won’t be as obvious but I think is really exciting.

The other thing is, we are going to continue to see the march towards electrification. Just about every single automaker today has at least one hybrid, battery electric, plug-in hybrid or fuel cell electric vehicle on the market now. They’re starting to expand, though. It’s not just family cars or compact cars; they’re starting to offer small SUVs. Who knows? Maybe next year we’ll finally see the long waited-for hybrid or plug-in hybrid minivan.

But consumers are going to see a lot more choices at the next L.A. Auto Show when it comes to electrification, both hydrogen, batteries, plug-ins and hybrids.

The future certainly seems very bright.

I think the future is bright when it comes to sustainable transportation and clean cars, thanks in part to the work that we’ve done. To keep it bright, there’s a lot more work we have to keep doing. One of the things I love about being here in EERE is, one of the first jobs I did out of undergrad was to actually work on a DOE contract around the Partnership for [a] New Generation Vehicles, where we were using science to analyze how far clean car technology could go. And then the president and vice president went forward and championed that technology. That, to me, epitomizes who the Department of Energy is. It’s connecting science and engineering to real-world policy and real-world impacts.