This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. There are about a billion motor vehicles in the world today, and with the economic growth in China and India, we're likely to hit 2 billion by 2020. Our guest, Daniel Sperling, says if we keep driving gas-powered cars the way we have been, the planet just isn't going to be able to sustain us. Sperling also says that with American communities built the way they are, mass transit won't solve our transportation problems. Cars, Sperling says, are here to stay. But his new book with co-author Deborah Gordon says a combination of promising new technologies and innovations in the way we get around offer hope for a sustainable future, if our leaders have the wisdom and courage to embrace change.

Sperling is a professor of engineering and environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis. His book with Deborah Gordon is called "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability."

I spoke to Daniel Sperling earlier this week. Well, Daniel Sperling, welcome to Fresh Air. Now, one of the things that we're already seeing, of course, are hybrids. You know, the Prius is the most widely known one, which is part internal combustion gasoline driven and part electric. To what extent do hybrids represent a solution for the problems of sustainability?

Prof. DANIEL SPERLING (Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis; Co-author, "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability"): The hybrids are definitely on the path to a more sustainable vehicle, sustainable future. They really are the vanguard because what they're doing is they're putting an electric motor together with a gasoline engine, a combustion engine, in the same vehicle. And as we move into the future, we're going to emphasize the electric motor part of it more because the electricity is much more efficient, and of course, there's no emissions when you use the electricity on the vehicle.

So the hybrids are the first step towards this electric-drive future. And it's not exactly clear how this is going to play out in the long term. You know, it can lead to plug-in hybrids, where it's like a Prius except you plug it in and you get the electricity from the grid. It can lead to pure battery electrics, and it can lead also to fuel cell electric vehicles.

DAVIES: Let's look at the options, then, for manufacturing cars which don't have any - which don't use gasoline at all, that are purely electric. One option is a car which you plug into, you know, your electric grid, the wall outlet. How close are we to that kind of technology and what are the challenges it presents?

Prof. SPERLING: Well, the battery electric cars, they've been around. In fact, they were in a sense more popular and common than gasoline cars 100 years ago. What happened is that the batteries have not evolved as fast as is desired for a vehicle. So we have these battery electric cars that the technology is well known. Back in the '90s, General Motors built this car, the EV1, a little sports car, electric car. It was an outstanding vehicle.

It comes down to two things. It comes down to the batteries. The batteries keep getting better and cheaper, you know, we see that in our laptops. They're still not what we always want them to be, but they keep getting better.

And the other part is us as individuals, consumers. It's changing our behavior and adapting and getting used to the idea that a vehicle does have a more limited range. And we might have a household that has one car with a combustion engine or that can go a long distance, and another car that's an electric that we accept to have a shorter range.

DAVIES: Well, we talk about cars that we plug in - you know, a lot of people live in apartment buildings or they might live in urban areas where they don't have an external electrical outlet. Does this really work for people with garages or does - what about those who don't necessarily have that kind of electrical outlet?

Prof. SPERLING: Initially, the electric vehicles - both battery electrics and plug-in hybrids, are going to be more easily accessible to people that own garages and have houses. We've estimated that that accounts for well over 50 percent of the population, 50 percent of the households being able to use electric cars easily. But as we get beyond that, we do want to be able to make it accessible to others. So it's fairly easy to put a charging station in a parking lot by an apartment building or on the streets, for that matter.

So in fact, in Israel now, there's a plan by a company called Better Place that's building thousands of recharging stations all over the country, and it's working with Renault and Nissan to sell the electric vehicles there.

DAVIES: Let's talk about fuel cells. This sounds like truly futuristic stuff. How do they work to power an automobile?

Prof. SPERLING: A fuel cell is a device that converts hydrogen into electricity. It acts as a replacement, in a sense, for a battery. And because then you're still providing the electricity and you have an electric motor, so it's an electric vehicle, but in this case it's hydrogen converted into the electricity. And the the attraction of that is you don't have to deal with the problems of batteries. You don't have the cost of the batteries. You don't have the energy limitations with batteries. The fuel cells tend to be very efficient, and so it's a very attractive option.

The car companies have, over the last few years, have been much more interested in fuel cells than they have in batteries. Now they're more uncertain about it because with a hydrogen vehicle, not only do you have to build a fuel cell vehicle, but now you have to build up a whole hydrogen fuel infrastructure, which the car companies don't control.

DAVIES: And what are the obstacles? I mean, what are the drawbacks to the technology?

Prof. SPERLING: The fuel cell technology is, in a performance sense, is already here. In fact, I've been - at my university, we've had a few fuel cell vehicles that one of the companies has provided that we've been using for six years already, and we've been driving them regularly. They really perform extremely well. The challenges that are left are, one, to make sure the fuel cells really are going to last a long time. And the other is learning how to manufacture them at a lower cost. Now they're built essentially by Ph.D.'s in a laboratory.

DAVIES: But you can carry around enough hydrogen to power a car, I mean, and take it significant distances with significant acceleration and speed?

Prof. SPERLING: Yeah. The vehicle I've been driving is a small SUV. It gets about - it goes about 300 miles on a tank, and the tank just fits under the back seats. And you have all the same luggage space you normally have in the vehicle.

DAVIES: So how soon do you think - how long will it be before we see commercially sold fuel cell vehicles?

Prof. SPERLING: Well, it's possible to do it very soon. Part of the problem with hydrogen is it's been oversold in the future. You know, George Bush anointed it as the fuel of the future a few years ago, and in some ways, that was not good for hydrogen because there was a lot of backlash, you know, because of who was supporting it.

General Motors was promoting it. It had full-page ads a number of years ago saying that this was the fuel that they were going to bring out shortly. So it's been oversold.

But on the other hand, there are some companies, Honda in particular, GM, Mercedes, Toyota, they're going to be coming out with - they've been leasing them on small numbers already. We'll be starting to see them show up probably in the showroom in three, four, to five years is what's likely.

DAVIES: And they are emission free?

Prof. SPERLING: They are emission free, yes.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Daniel Sperling. He is the author with Deborah Gordon of the new book, "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Daniel Sperling. He's the author with Deborah Gordon of the new book, "Two Billion Cars."

Well, I want to talk about some of the behavioral changes. And we've been talking a lot about car technology and fuel technology. But let's talk about some changes in the way we live and work and conduct our lives. Now, you say in the book that mass transit won't solve the world's energy and climate problems, at least not in the affluent nations of the world. This is a disappointing conclusion for a lot of mass transit enthusiasts. Why not?

Prof. SPERLING: The first observation is that mass transit now only serves about 2.5 percent of the passenger travel in this country. It's essentially been vanquished by the car, except for in some of the dense cities of our country. You know, we need to come up with some better way of doing it.

The other part of it is that because the buses are not heavily used and - the average bus passenger is responsible for emitting the same amount of greenhouse gases as the average occupant of a car. Now of course, if we had more people in the buses, you know, that wouldn't be the case. But that is the reality.

DAVIES: One of the alternatives you advocate is something called Smart Para-Transit. Now, I think most of us think of para-transit as, you know, kind of buses and jitneys that serve folks that have disabilities. What do you mean by Smart Para-Transit? This would be for everybody, right?

Prof. SPERLING: Yeah. Well, you might also think about it as the airport shuttles, as well.


Prof. SPERLING: So it's the idea that why not have these vans and these vehicles pick us up where we live or where we're going and drop us off? It's not that we all prefer to drive our own vehicles and get stuck in traffic and worry about parking. I think most of us would prefer to be chauffeured, and yet we don't have that option. And if - with the modern information technology, we can create these kinds of services. And the problem is the startup, you know, how do you get this thing started? But the benefits are potentially huge.

DAVIES: So in other words, in a lot of the communities we live, it doesn't make sense for us to all jump onto bus lines. But if you had a lot of these small jitneys and buses dispatched by a very sophisticated mapping and communications system and there were enough people using them, you could get a sort of an in between kind of transit system in which somebody relatively quickly stops by your house and you get on with a dozen other people and get pretty close to where you're going inexpensively.

Prof. SPERLING: Yes, exactly. And let me sketch out a little more because it's more than just these smart jitneys. It's also can include smart carpooling. So for instance, many times there are many people going to a university or going to an office, and they're all driving their own car, going to a ballgame. Why not have people coordinate? And we don't have any mechanism for doing that. At colleges, they have little bulletin boards, but why not make it electronic? And there are some companies, actually, starting to offer that service in a few cities.

Another innovation is smart car sharing. And so car sharing has started appearing in some cities, but we can do it on a much larger scale. And it comes back - again, this is something better for people. You know, sometimes we might want to have that SUV to go up into the mountains with four-wheel drive. Other times, you might want a sports car. Other times, we might want a pickup truck to carry something somewhere. The idea of car sharing is you have access to that when you need it, and you have different vehicles so you're not stuck with the one or two vehicles that you have in your household.

DAVIES: And car sharing are these very short-term rentals that you're saying, right? There are a few companies that have sprung up, particularly in the East Coast, where parking is a problem. Is that what we're talking about?

Prof. SPERLING: Yeah. They're mostly in the major cities right now. They're in the West Coast also. They're more popular in Europe. But another version of that, actually, is bike rentals. And so I'm in Washington, D.C. right now, and there's many of these bike rentals where you just swipe a card and you get a bike, you drive it somewhere. Paris pioneered this, actually, a few years ago. Now there's these bike stalls everywhere in the city, and you actually get the bike, you get a - I think it's 30 minutes free, and then you just leave it somewhere, and after that you pay more money, and it's all - goes right to your credit account.

And so I'm trying to tell this story that we've created this transportation mono-culture in the United States where we just have our own car, we drive it, and we don't have any choice. We have very few choices. And we can expand out these choices that are available, and then we won't need the cars so much. We won't need all of our cars that we maintain, which are very expensive - and they're expensive to produce, they're expensive to operate, they emit a lot of carbon emissions and create a richer transportation system.

DAVIES: You have a chapter in the book called "The Motivated Consumer, " and it gets to this question of why we behave as we do, and you've noted that, you know, a significant number of people have bought a Prius or another hybrid because it makes the statement they want to make about who they are. I mean, they do it even if it costs more because they want to be somebody who cares about the environment.

How far can you take that? To what extent can you count on people doing the right thing because it's the right thing, and to what extent do you really need rules and incentives to get the kind of mass behavior change you need?

Prof. SPERLING: I think we can count on people to some extent, but we really need leadership on the policy side. You know, there aren't simple solutions. You know, people want to say corn ethanol, or they want to say plug-in hybrids, that's the solution, or raise the gas price. You know, each of those are parts of it, but we need to put in place some process. You know, like, for instance, provide a price floor for gasoline so that the consumers don't see the prices going up and down and get confused about how they should make decisions about what kind of vehicles to purchase.

DAVIES: A price for gasoline. Gasoline can only be so cheap at the pump, right?

Prof. SPERLING: Right. And so it reduces uncertainty - so people have, you know, a sense that the prices are going to stay high and therefore they should be willing to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle or consider some of these alternative modes that we've been talking about. And we also, on the industry side, we need to come up with a better long-term framework.

And cafe standards - fuel economy standards imposed on car - on vehicle manufacturers are a good approach because we can keep tightening that over time. We need to be doing something similar to that with the fuel suppliers. There is something called a low carbon fuel standard that's being adopted in California. You know, we can't keep changing the rules and the policies and letting, you know, market prices go up and down.

You know, it's not a perfect market out there. It's not a - you know, there's a lot of flaws. You know, now, with the financial crisis, we're becoming a little - having a little more faith that government - there is a role for government in this, and I think that's appropriate in the energy sector, as well.

DAVIES: You end the book with a vision of a world with sustainable transportation, and you kind of compare it to the futurama exhibits that we've seen in world fairs in the past. And so you paint your own futurama - futuristic vision of a world in which we've really changed how we do things. Briefly describe it for us.

Prof. SPERLING: Well, this discussion we've been having, I've been very optimistic. You know, there's lots of reasons to be depressed. But there are lots of opportunities to think that we can transform our vehicles, transform our fuels, and transform mobility as we know it.

And so this vision of the future is one where the vehicles operate with electric drive. That means they're battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and fuel cell vehicles. That they operate on fuels - on renewable fuels and on low carbon fuels, and so that would be on electricity and hydrogen, mostly, and some bio-fuels.

And the third leg of the stool, the mobility and individuals. That's where we would have this larger set of mobility choices, these new sets of mobility options. And also, part of it, I should say, has to do with land-use. We've allowed sprawl to occur through the whole 20th century, and we've got to rethink how we manage land-use in this country. And there is a - actually, there's a new law in California that sets us on that path, and I think other sates and the federal government might think about how to create incentives for cities to manage their land-use better.

We do have more density around the conventional transits so that rail transit and buses can be more successful, that we can integrate these other options into it. And in the end, we've got a much more sustainable system that can be - have a much smaller carbon footprint, use much less oil, be less expensive and provide better service to people.

DAVIES: Well, Daniel Sperling, I think we're out of time. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Prof. SPERLING: It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Daniel Sperling is professor of engineering and environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis. His book with Deborah Gordon is called "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability".

Coming up, Ed Ward considers the pop music from Ardent Studios of Memphis. Most of it never left the city limits. This is Fresh Air.

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