Thursday, May 31, 2007

Alternative fuel vehicles will be tough sell

Imagine a vehicle that runs on hydrogen or biofuels
and offers the same features, performance and price as today's
gasoline vehicle.

Will it capture half the market? Not likely,
concludes a new MIT analysis of the challenges behind introducing
alternative-fuel vehicles to the marketplace. Not even if it's three
times more fuel-efficient.

Among the barriers: Until many alternative fuel (AF) vehicles are on
the road, people won't consider buying one-so there won't be many on
the road. Catch-22.

The researchers' conclusions are not all gloomy, though. If policy
incentives are kept in place long enough, adoption will reach a level
at which the market will begin to grow on its own. But "long enough"
may be a surprisingly long time.

Given today's environmental pressures and energy security concerns,
we need to move away from fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. But repeated
attempts to introduce other technologies during the past century have
nearly all failed. Dethroning the gasoline-consuming internal
combustion engine (ICE) has proved difficult.

"The challenge is not just introducing an AF vehicle," said
postdoctoral associate Jeroen Struben of the Sloan School of
Management, who has been examining the mechanisms behind such market
transitions. "Consumer acceptance, the fueling infrastructure and
manufacturing capability all have to evolve at the same time."

Thus, consumer exposure to AF vehicles is just one feedback loop that
can slow adoption. Similarly, fuel suppliers won't build AF stations
until they're certain of future demand; but until the fuel is widely
available, consumers won't buy the vehicles. And manufacturers won't
be able to make AF vehicles cheaper and better until their production
volume is high; but high-volume production won't happen until such
improvements are in place to attract buyers.

And then of course there's the status quo to be overcome-the
well-established and highly attractive gasoline-ICE vehicle and the
fueling infrastructure, energy supply chain and other industries that
support it.

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