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05.05.2020

“Charging and Fill-ups Will Be Equally Fast!”

Futurist Peter Schwartz has been active in developing future scenarios for nearly a half-century. What does he think about the path to electric mobility?

Peter Schwartz, you develop future scenarios for companies. What do companies tend to be more interested in: seizing opportunities or minimizing risks?

Both. It usually isn’t either/or. Some companies are just interested in assessing opportunities at first. But to do that, it is essential to consider various scenarios. Naturally, this is where the risks come in: What are the problem areas? Do we need to delay the introduction of a new product? 

What key parameters do you apply in your work? 

That depends on the company. But only regarding the particular weight of the parameters. The basic idea is that you have to broaden your view. We always take five categories into consideration: social, technological, economic, environmental, and political. Then we have to evaluate which category is the most important or represents the greatest uncertainty. 

Have the categories changed over the decades? 

No, but the circumstances change, of course. Just think about the dot-com bubble twenty years ago. The world has changed. It is more fragmented. But the categories that we worked out back then are still valid. 

 

Twenty years ago, there were basically three options for the alternative drive of the future: batteries, fuel cells and hydrogen as a fuel in combustion engines. Batteries won the race.

Peter Schwartz, Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning, Salesforce

What is the hardest part about developing scenarios for the future? 

To combine the basic analysis with the right amount of imagination. If you allow too little imagination to flow into the scenarios, your look into the future gets stale and is just an extension of the present. If you let too much flow in, you end up with science fiction. 

And what went wrong in 1999 when you predicted that in 2020 nearly every new car would be fueled with hydrogen? Was that too much imagination? 

I knew a lot about fuel cell technology back then. The main problem with the prediction was probably that I, along with other people, underestimated how costly and difficult it is to implement fuel cells on a practical basis. Toyota is the only manufacturer to ambitiously develop a model. The technology has been a much greater challenge than we imagined back then. 

Where did the challenge lie? 

In the core mechanism of the fuel cell. The problem was that, on the one hand, the materials are very expensive – we’re talking about components made of platinum and rare earths. On the other hand, hydrogen offers rather poor efficiency. In short, the input is very high and the output has been very poor for a long time. Batteries have proven to be more efficient. Look, twenty years ago, there were basically three options for the alternative drive of the future: batteries, fuel cells and burning hydrogen in a combustion engine. Batteries won the race. 

So is hydrogen no longer a factor as an alternative drive system?

It certainly is. But I see the greatest opportunity where hydrogen is easily available. Cities such as Hamburg and San Francisco have large numbers of refineries where hydrogen occurs anyway in their operations. That’s why we have hydrogen buses in San Francisco that use fuel cells. Hydrogen also seems to be ideal for vehicles that handle the last mile. Factories that already run their forklift fleet on hydrogen are another example. Companies can produce it themselves on their premises.

With regard to production: Not every energy source used in the production of hydrogen and electric batteries is green.

I really consider this to be a major issue. Lee Schipper, the now-deceased physicist and energy efficiency expert, once said that many electric vehicles are not, strictly speaking, “zero emission vehicles,” but rather “elsewhere emission vehicles.” In other words, the exhaust is emitted somewhere else, perhaps in a coal-burning power plant that generates the electricity. Vehicles are only really clean when they are in fact powered with electricity from renewable sources. Only then does it all makes sense. With its exit from nuclear energy, Germany in particular has set a high hurdle for itself. It is now even more dependent on coal.

Why have electric powertrains had such a hard time? After all, they have been around a long time. 

Humanity started out with electric mobility even before there was gasoline. In this sense, we’ve already been developing batteries for a very long time and have been trying to improve them – and the progress has been rather modest by this standard. While they still don’t perform great, they function fairly well at this point. Today, batteries are comparatively efficient because they can be produced in higher volumes. 

Charging speeds are going to be a crucial factor for the long-term success of electric mobility. How will this trend progress? 

Charging times will definitely come down. It will soon no longer matter whether a car is filled up with fuel or charged up. The methods will be equally fast. They will be at the same level in five to ten years. By contrast, I don’t think that the idea of simply replacing an electric battery with a new one when its energy runs out will work out very well. There’s also the fact that the charging infrastructure is getting better. Subsidies from government will be needed, but the trend will be quite linear. 

Does that mean we will soon see electric cars on the road everywhere? 

In a decade, at the latest, I think every new car will at least be a hybrid with a small internal combustion engine on board. But that doesn’t mean purely internal combustion powertrains will disappear from the roads. Trucks in particular will pose a challenge. Of course, there will still be older cars driving around. Singapore is the only country I am familiar with where you aren’t allowed to drive a car that is more than ten years old.  

Are city-states better suited to be a trendsetter? 

Some places will be faster than others, and Singapore is one of them. The city-state has no sources of energy of its own, and would rather get rid of private cars sooner than later. I think this will be achieved in the next twenty years. It will be the first country in the world where autonomous vehicles displace them and support local public transit. Norway is another exciting country. It primarily draws its electricity from hydropower and is pressing ahead with electric mobility. This is so fascinating because Norway, which is rather thinly populated, is the exact opposite of Singapore in some respects. But both are turning to electric mobility and new approaches. 

Is the Hydrogen Era Beckoning?

In 1999, Peter Schwartz and two co-authors looked into the future in his much-quoted book, “The Long Boom.” His focus: How was the world going to develop over the next twenty years? The Washington Post said the “future history” was a “challenge.” The authors forecast a long-lasting global economic boom, citing nanotechnology, hydrogen and innovations in information technology as the drivers. They even claim that hydrogen will be able to establish a new era. 

How will air and sea transport change?

That’s an exciting question. Shipping is a bit more straightforward. Here opportunities in liquid natural gas and fuel cells are conceivable. But aircraft are a real challenge. Because they fly so high, their contribution to the greenhouse effect is all the more serious. Their CO2 values continue to climb. Jet fuel may become cleaner with the addition of biofuels. But no more than that. There is still no scientific breakthrough in sight.

What is the bottom line for the large international automakers? 

They all understand that the shift to electric mobility is unavoidable. The question is how quickly they do it, how they do it, and who takes the lead. Many German manufacturers are limping along because they haven’t believed in electric cars for a long time. A number of Japanese manufacturers have a clear edge. Toyota started out more than twenty years ago. General Motors also jumped in early. It’s not that easy to catch up. But it’s also very clear: We wouldn’t do all this if we weren’t facing climate change. The more we feel its effects, the faster we’ll react. 

So people only react when a catastrophe is on the doorstep? 

Yes. So it appears, unfortunately. But we have a new generation now, young people for whom the automobile is no longer a ticket to freedom. That’s already a great change in mentality. Even today, the majority of New York City’s residents don’t own a car. It just doesn’t pay off. They would only spend all their time looking for a parking space. 

Peter Schwartz

Schwartz, an American born in 1946, is an internationally recognized futurist and business strategist. He has specialized in future scenarios and is an advisor to companies and governments. He is also the co-founder of the Global Business Network, and has worked as Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning at Salesforce, a provider of cloud-computing services, since 2009. Schwartz is also the author of several books and an advisor to screenwriters. 

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