UC Davis Professor Dan Sperling’s New Book Offers Strategies To Reduce Car Dependence

Prof. Dan Sperling

After being asked by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to lead, along with UC Berkeley Professor Alex Farrell, an effort to establish a Low Carbon Fuel Standard for the state of California, Professor Dan Sperling recently published a book, Two Billion Cars, that presents solutions to the litany of ills caused by the dominance of the car in American culture. As eleven Northeastern states recently a plan to implement their own version of the Low Carbon Fuel Standards, Professor Sperling’s work, as detailed in the following VerdeXchange News interview, is another example of the trendsetting efforts to reduce carbon in the Golden State.


VXN: You’ve recently authored a book, due out this month, entitled Two Billion Cars. What’s the message in your book, and why is it timely?

Professor Dan Sperling: Car companies are failing, oil prices are volatile, and our new president has vowed to sharply reduce greenhouse gases. The book points out that some very important energy and environmental trends are going in the wrong direction but that there is much hope for technologies, policies, and strategies that can create a more sustainable transportation and energy system.

VXN: The chapters of Two Billion Cars read like a litany of important global climate change conference agendas: “Surviving Two Billion Cars,” “Beyond the Gas Guzzling Monoculture,” “Breaking Detroit’s Hold on Energy and Climate Policy,” “In Search of Low Carbon Fuels.” What theme or objective ties these chapters together?

Sperling: Pundits and newspaper stories do a fairly good job of identifying problems, but they are less effective at understanding why those problems exist, and they are hopelessly simplistic at what to do about the problems. A very important contribution of the book is to create a more sophisticated strategy and way of thinking about what can, and should be, done.

VXN: One of the central assertions of your book is that electric drive technology is the principal solution for the problems caused by the expanding number of cars and their internal combustion engines. The Metro Investment Report recently interviewed California State Senator Alan Lowenthal. The Senator, who appeared in the documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car, shared that the movie would currently be called, “Who Resurrected the Electric Car.” Do you agree that the electric car is again now part of the solution mix?

Sperling: I like to use the phrase “electric drive vehicles,” which refers to battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, gasoline hybrids, and fuel cell electric vehicles. They are all having a resurgence at different levels. The automotive industry now understands that the future is in electric drive vehicles. When is that future? Until recently, most of the automotive industry was thinking about a vague, perhaps far off, future. Now there is an appreciation that the future can’t wait. There is an urgency to make our vehicles more efficient and less dependent on high-carbon petroleum fuels. There’s also an understanding that many electric-drive technologies are ready now, and many others will be shortly. We are starting to see battery electric cars and plug-in hybrid vehicles unveiled by the major car companies. Hydrogen fuel cells are still not quite ready, but they are hovering on the horizon.

VXN: In the forward to your book, Governor Schwarzenegger writes that you and co-author Deborah Gordon, “...paint a sobering picture of the challenge that confronts us, but there is also good news and cause for hope in these pages. In fact, Two Billion Cars is a refreshingly optimistic book that spells out what is possible when we all work together—local, state, national, and international governments; business and industry; consumers and citizens; and experts like the two authors of this book.” How did you enlist the governor to write this foreword, and what support does he offer the actions you advocate?

Sperling: I am pleased that the governor is a strong champion of climate policy and cleantech innovation. I first became acquainted with him when he asked Professor Alex Farrell from UC Berkeley and me to lead a team of researchers at the University of California to design a Low Carbon Fuel Standard for the state. I know he was quite pleased with our analysis and design. The governor believes very strongly in the need for aggressive actions to deal with climate change. Our book is about understanding what those choices are.

VXN: What were your team’s recommendations for the low carbon fuel standard?

Sperling: We made two sets of recommendations. First, based on a detailed analysis of costs and production potential, we recommended that the state begin the transition to low-carbon transportation fuels. Second, we designed the policy framework for a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), and recommended how the state could go about implementing it. The LCFS calls for a 10 percent reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy by 2020. The intent is to tighten that requirement in subsequent years. I am very proud of that two-volume report, partly because it was very well done, incorporating the input from a large number of oil and electric utility companies, and environmental advocates. We spent hundreds of hours working with these interested parties to design a policy that would be effective and acceptable. I am pleased to note that the Low Carbon Fuel Standard is about to be implemented by the state of California almost exactly as we recommended it, and that it is serving as a model for the Europeans, the U.S. Congress, and many other U.S. states and Canadian provinces, who all seem to be moving toward a Low Carbon Fuel Standard. It’s not the whole solution, but it’s a very important one because it provides a policy framework, a performance standard, that is durable and long term, and it sends a signal to the industry that they need to reduce carbon. It provides the framework they need to make investments in alternative fuels. Because it allows trading, it also makes sure that the reductions are accomplished in a cost-effective manner, and that a carbon price signal is imposed into energy investment decisions.

VXN: You have some interesting insights on consumers and travel behavior. Could you elaborate?

Sperling: Part of what we have created, especially in the United States, is a transportation monoculture in which people don’t think about doing anything but walking out the front door and getting in their car in the morning. We need to create more choice for travelers. Conventional transit does not meet the needs of most people, and we need to come up with a transportation structure that provides other mobility services, such as smart carpooling systems, smart jitneys, and smart car sharing. Our current system is perhaps the most expensive and inefficient system imaginable. Do we all really want to be pinned behind a steering wheel, stuck in traffic, searching for parking? Wouldn’t most of us prefer to be chauffeured? With clever use of advanced information and communication technologies, coupled with reformed transit operators and transport financing, we could provide more service at less cost. In the book we go into a bit of detail of these new mobility services and what types of reforms are needed. We also need to deal with sprawl—land use itself. California’s new law, SB 375, just passed this fall, starts the process towards managing land use and reducing vehicle travel. The idea of carbon budgets for our cities is one of the innovative ideas we’ve put forward. Cities must start taking account for the carbon impact of the decisions they make.

VXN: This is a great segue to discussing your leadership of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies and your acting directorship of the Energy Efficiency Center. What is the focus of the Institute and the Center?

Sperling: These are applied research institutions, formed with the idea that there is a lot of research and a lot of science being developed, but we need to do a much better job of getting it into the policy arena. At these two research centers, we’re developing new techniques and new ways of thinking about transportation (and energy efficiency more broadly). We are developing life cycle techniques to measure the full greenhouse gas impacts of different fuels and vehicles. We’re developing the models and tools to analyze policy strategies government might follow and business strategies that industry might follow. We’re performing a wide range of research and connecting that research to industry, government, and environmental communities. We’re providing education and training the future leaders of California, America and the world. We’re also doing public education. We conduct conferences and workshops that disseminate our insight and findings. We author books, such as Two Billion Cars.

VXN: You’re joining the VerdeXchange Green Marketmakers Conference in late January with Mary Nichols. You’re on a panel entitled “AB 32 and Low Emission Transport: Exactly What is Coming and Exactly When.” Could you share a little bit about your interaction with the implementation of the scoping plans for AB 32?

Sperling: I hold the automotive seat on the ARB board, and I’ve studied energy since graduate school. My focus with ARB is on vehicles, fuels, and transportation. I’ve tried to support Chairman Nichols and the ARB staff in developing this transformational program. ARB is taking leadership and working with the Legislature, other agencies, and industry. The Scoping Plan is, in a sense, the grand plan of how we get from here to there, to a future state in which we significantly reduce greenhouse gases. It identifies where we have large amounts of carbon emissions in California, and it specifies specific policies and strategies for achieving reductions, many of which are covered in my book. The Scoping Plan represents a huge intellectual, institutional, and political challenge. And it is important not just because of what it means for California. It is also important because the rest of the nation, and indeed much of the world, is looking over our shoulder. We are a model and leader. We can’t afford many missteps.

VXN: Last year the federal government passed new CAFE standards, with one of the casualties of the political process, for now, being California’s AB 1493 standards. Can you talk a bit about those CAFE standards, what California is doing with vehicles in the scoping plan of AB 32, and what our new administration must confront in the area of fuels and transport?

Sperling: The federal government did take a step forward, finally, last December and adopted more aggressive fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks. But in the view of California and myself, it didn’t go nearly far enough. California’s Pavley law (AB 1493), part of the AB 32 Scoping Plan, has more aggressive standards for vehicles. There are about 14 or 15 other states that have adopted the same California standards. The auto industry has sued California to block adoption of those standards. California and Vermont won both major lawsuits against the auto industry, but then the federal government—the EPA and the Bush Administration—refused to provide the necessary waiver allowing California to proceed, so California sued the EPA. President-elect Obama indicated during the campaign that he would reverse that decision. We’re hopeful that will happen, but there’s no guarantee. I would note that many people believe that AB 32 is going to be good for not only the environment, but also for the economy. It will stimulate innovation in ways that fit very well with California. We have the Silicon Valley; we have venture capital; we have some of the best universities in the world; we have some of the most innovative companies in the world. There’s tremendous opportunity to do things better, to use energy more efficiently, to have better technology, and to make our cities more efficient so that we don’t travel as much. California, by taking this leadership role through the AB 32 Scoping Plan, is positioning California to be very successful in the future.

VXN: Let’s close with reference to your last chapter, “Driving Towards Sustainability,” which references GM’s “futurama” exhibitions in 1939 and 1964. You raised the question: since those two transportation visions have failed to realize their vision, what should the new vision of the 21st century be for transport? Can you elaborate?

Sperling: There are two important underlying principals: innovation and choice. We need to create the incentives, policy environments, and business environments for industry and households to be innovating and investing in a more efficient and lower carbon future. That means more choice, more types of vehicles, and more services so that we don’t have to depend on our single occupant car to get wherever we are going. We can do it in more efficient and cheaper ways. The other part of the vision is coming up with more choice in terms of the types of vehicles that we do use. Our cars now reflect a monoculture. Most of our cars operate on one type of fuel; they serve all purposes, on all roads. All roads serve all vehicles. We need more specialization. That’s part of the choice concept. Neighborhood cars, car sharing—all of these kinds of services can lead to a better transportation system. Then of course we need the lower carbon, non-petroleum fuels. That includes mostly some mix of electricity, hydrogen, and biofuels. Of course, we can make conventional vehicles more efficient as well as converting them to electric drive propulsion. We need a transportation system that uses much less energy, has a much smaller environmental footprint, provides more choice for users, and provides a very buoyant group of industries that are investing in advanced technology.

VXN: When will Two Billion Cars be released?

Sperling: The book was released in December. It is available on Amazon.com and other websites for early purchase, and will be in most bookstores later in December. •••