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Combustion engine stalls in inaugural Silicon Valley Energy Summit debate

From left: Justin Ward of Toyota, John Boesel of CALSTART, Drew Baglino of Tesla Motors, Mark Plastron of BMW i-Ventures. Not pictured, moderator Jeffrey Ball of Stanford University.
July 2, 2015

“Cheaper and better always wins.”

At the first debate ever presented by the Silicon Valley Energy Summit, that was the winning argument made by Mark Platshon, half of the team contending that the internal combustion engine has no future in California. Platshon is a senior advisor to BMW’s i-Ventures fund and a partner with Birchmere Ventures.

His teammate Drew Baglino expanded on the theme, contending that electric vehicles provide what people want: cheaper operation and maintenance, better for the environment, faster acceleration, and more room for people and luggage.

“If we imagine the future we want, it will come,” said Baglino, director of engineering at Tesla Motors. “We all have work to do, but I think we’ll get there.”

The distance between that vision and the present situation was outlined in opening remarks by debate moderator Jeffrey Ball, scholar-in-residence at Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy & Finance. Californians are four times more likely than other U.S. residents to buy electric and hybrid plug-in cars, yet 98 percent of new cars sold in California run on gasoline, said Ball, previously a reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal on energy and the environment.

The team arguing that the combustion engine certainly does have a future in California built on that introduction.

“We believe in providing customers choices to meet their own needs,” said Justin Ward, general manager of Toyota’s powertrain system control department for North America. “Some driving needs will be met by electric vehicles and others by fuel-cell cars, but people want the perfect vehicle solution. Electric vehicles don’t provide the range. That’s a showstopper for some customers, and that’s not going to change.”

The California Air Resources Board, charged with slashing the state’s emissions of greenhouse gases, forecast combustion engine vehicles through 2050, Ward noted.

His teammate John Boesel argued that combustion engines keep getting better and that they could be fueled in the future by low-carbon fuels. “Today, trucks running on landfill gas have a much lower carbon footprint than electric vehicles,” said Boesel, president of CALSTART, a non-profit organization that promotes clean transportation technology.

But Platshon countered that the combustion engine’s decades of incremental improvements now face diminishing returns.

“You’re up against the law of thermal dynamics. There’s a limit to how far you can go. That dog is dead,” said Platshon as the entertaining debate heated up a bit. “And the idea that we’re going to drive on biofuels given our current water situation is just lunacy.”

In response, Ward gave a peak at a major advance Toyota is working on: a free piston linear generator, in which the piston is not connected to a traditional rotating crank. Instead of creating propulsion, the piston makes electricity and eliminates much of the inefficiency of friction losses.

When asked if electric cars can survive without the government subsidies they now enjoy, Baglino said that Tesla’s plan for its new, moderately priced model coming out this fall ignores government subsidies, because they do not want to bank on politics.

“We don’t need it,” he said. “People buy our cars because they want them, not because the government is encouraging them to do it.”

The debate was Oxford style, so the 450-member audience voted for or against the resolution, (“The internal combustion has no future in California.”), before the debate. After the speakers made their arguments and answered questions, the audience voted again. In Oxford style, the team that converts more voters to its side wins.

Baglino and Platshon swayed 17 votes to their side, while Boesel and Ward changed four minds. However, the initial pool of “con” voters, i.e. the combustion engine does have a future in California, was much larger than the “pro” group, so Baglino and Platshon had far more potential converts than Boesel and Ward.

Silicon Valley Energy Summit participants come from the world’s largest IT companies, Silicon Valley startups, investment funds, utilities, government, environmental organizations and research institutions. SVES explores the latest energy technologies, corporate practices, market trends and emerging government policies, while also building a community focused on sustainable business.

Media Contact: Mark Golden, (650) 724-1629, mark.golden@stanford.edu