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Larry Burns: Holistic approach required to achieve transformational change of transportation and the automobile; the power of “And”

Larry Burns, former head of GM R&D and strategic planning and currently Professor of Engineering Practice at the University of Michigan and Director, Sustainable Mobility at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, used his presentation at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit (EIS) in Washington to call for a holistic approach to the transformational change required for the transportation sector in general and the automobile in particular.

He also called the propensity to “sit around debating” which drive technology or energy source is better than all the rest as “premature and presumptuous”. Stressing the power of “and” rather than “or”, he asserted that:

The automobile is unsustainable without transformational change. There is a transformation opportunity surfacing. When we take the new DNA—electric drive, diverse energy sources, self-driving and driverless, connected and coordinated, vehicles with a specific purpose—we can put them all together to rethink the entire system.

—Larry Burns

Burns’ talk came one day after Bill Ford’s keynote at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, in which he outlined a plan for connected cars to help avoid a potentially unsustainable future of what he called “global gridlock—a never-ending traffic jam that wastes time, energy and resources.” (Earlier post.)

One thing missing this morning was a discussion of the consumer. The only solutions that will scale will be the ones that people want. The consumer value has to be greater than the market price.
—Larry Burns

Propulsion technologies will exist on a continuum ranging from 100% mechanical power (ICE) to mechanical with electrical assist; electrical with mechanical assist; and 100% electrical. All are important, all will play a role, he said.

As an exploration of an approach, he focused on the role of natural gas (which had received some high-level attention in the morning plenary sessions at the EIS) as well as reducing oil imports from OPEC nations (which had also received some high-level EIS attention). Burning compressed natural gas in vehicle offers little efficiency and CO2 advantages versus gasoline vehicles, he noted. Using natural gas to generate electricity and/or hydrogen results in nearly twice the distance with half as much CO2, he said.

When we look at it from a well-to-wheels perspective, it suggests that if we burn it, there is less benefit. All three [uses] are important. But when we look out into the future, if we get myopic about just compressing and burning, we will use it up twice as fast as we should.

—Larry Burns

Hypothetically, it would take 5.9 quadrillion Btu (quads) of natural gas in 2025 for the US to get off of OPEC oil for transportation, Burns said—an amount that is 22% more than current production. However, it would take 3.3 quads with battery electric and fuel cell vehicles—about 12% more.

From another perspective, to achieve the target of ridding the country of the need for OPEC oil would require some 80 million vehicles (CNG, battery-electric and fuel cell vehicles) by 2025—representing some 30% of the fleet in 2025, or 40% of cumulative new vehicle sales from 2013-2025. As a point of comparison, the California ARB ZEV regulation is mandating 15% compliant new production by 2025.

What if this natural gas is used in an integrated energy system in concert with renewable energy? Natural gas may be the best thing for renewables—it can deal with the intermittency problem. We can further position to get the US off OPEC oil through the power of “and”.

—Larry Burns

Burns also highlighted the future role of driverless, coordinated vehicles and the potential for a “mobility internet” that could manage each individual vehicle along is own space/time path through the city. Burns referenced GM’s ENV concept (earlier post) which, he said, is 15 times more efficient than an auto and uses 1/10 as many parts.

Burns recommended positioning the US to be a world leader in self-driving, driverless vehicles, and to get the mobility internet up and running.

The energy challenge is not due to a lack of resources or knowledge; the challenge is due to a lack of integrated systems. By combining abundant fossil and renewable energy with a broad portfolio of promising technology, we can excite consumers and reward investors. The power of “and” results from holistic thinking and acting. This will require innovative system design, proactive risk management and strong leadership.

The power of “and” promises a better mobility experience for people and goods at radically lower consumer and societal costs.

—Larry Burns



I said many time to do hydrogen by electrolysis of water for fuelcell cars and trucks, is it clear now ?


Larry Burns has just said what I have been saying on here for years.


A D - What's that got to do with this article about Larry Burns' views and convictions?

The most important point made here is that an electric drive: "Using natural gas to generate electricity and/or hydrogen results in nearly twice the distance with half as much CO2 ..."

Currently, Hydrogen is NOT a practical transportation fuel. Most likely, it will never be. Like it or not, we are bound by the laws of physics.


The power of AND is the main message.


"AND" as used by Larry Burns implies inclusion, Inclusion of far too much pure BS is what is preventing us from making any truly significant progress in getting off fossil fuels in transportation.

Care for a few examples?

Fuel Cells
Solar Panels

At this time these are all Ponzi schemes.

We need a unit of value based on energy. Then it would quickly become apparent how far down the wrong road we have been led.

Chad Snyder

And you're the debater crowd Lucas.

In the 70's the heavy duty trucking industry moved from gasoline to diesel in about 6 years. There is no reason that a conversion to natural gas couldn't be achieved in the same amount of time -- that's a huge chunk of US fuel consumption, around 20 - 25 percent if I'm not mistaken.

The electric drive is no where near offering a solution like that today.

As SJC said, it's about AND.

Using natural gas wisely in the short term could significantly reduce OPEC dependence faster than any other option. That will fire up the economy and strengthen consumer confidence -- which is needed to support a big push towards electrification in the general population -- based on the latest Pike data posted on GCC just yesterday.

The idea that the electric drive can save us is pure nonsense. Just because electrification is the long term solution doesn't make it the smart interim solution. Just ask First Solar or the rest of the solar companies that have lost 75 percent of their value over practically over night. Green tech will eventually win, but not before its ripe.

Didn't we learn that during the Internet bubble? Rushing to be first doesn't automatically make one a winner.

In the interim -- which is still a few decades -- we'll need more than just electrification. We need "And" solutions.

BTW -- The idea that physics precludes the possibility of cost-effective hydrogen is pure science fiction. Battery-powered electrification might prove more cost-effective but hydrogen will give it a run for the money, especially when distance is required.


Well stated Chad, use what we can and build towards the future instead of putting up with it and arguing about THE solution.


It may take 22% more NG than current production for the US to get off of OPEC oil for transportation but Canada already produces enough NG to get off oil. In fact it was once calculated that, if America stopped importing Canadian oil we could;
- take the NG we now use just to upgrade the oil we pipe down to the US
- instead use it(the NG) in our own cars
- and it would fully displace the gasoline/diesel we're now using in them.

Or at least that's what I read. I don't have the source anymore so I can't verify that it's true.


We can make synthetic gasoline from natural gas, it has been done on a huge scale and can be done now for less than it costs to refine gasoline from expensive imported oil.


All the discussion around "and" is good, but will not overcome the stalemate on payback.
1. Regulations (eg: tighter GHG rules) or
2. Extreme market conditions (eg: fuel price)
will be needed to force adoption of technologies. Since 2 is out of (politically) out of government control, 1 needs to be on the table as a viable means to push sustainable mobility. Painful as it is in the short-term. Take the plunge or be left behind as China ramps up the 'electric vehicle capital' and supply chain leader in the world.


"Larry Burns: Holistic approach required.." could translate 'now steal taxpayer grants and subsidies for ALL energy sources and market NOTHING', as with all decades of hydrogen fuel cell "research" vehicles.

This former head of GM R&D and strategic planning, with accomplice wisdom,"holistically" bankrupted the largest car firm on earth, crushed EVs, and charged it all, $50 billion+, to taxpayers, investors, and unpaid vendors.

Meanwhile, Toyota doubled gas mileage with their hybrid technology.

Meanwhile, for that 'truck' in all of us..


I would start with synthetic gasoline made from natural gas and use more biomass as time goes on. Eventually a significant portion of our gasoline is no longer refined using imported oil.


This may drift toward the ownership of holistic voices, but the EPA Wyoming study above provided over forty(40) pages of chemical figures, percentages, diagrams, etc. confirming polluted ground.

The frackor, Encana, responded with two(2) pages and NO numbers contradicting the EPA measurements.

"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged by Congress with protecting the Nation’s land, air, and water resources." yet the proven pollution continues.

Truck this ground water to Encana officers, families, and investors for fair play - since there's no problem.

As long as it holistically supports oil interests perhaps..


We know we are not going to get enough FC/EV cars soon enough, that is obvious. This is why we need an AND approach.

We will need synthetic and biofuels NOW while we work on hybrids and EVs. This such a practical way, I do not see how anyone can argue.


I frequently see anti-fuel cell arguments such as this:

"Larry Burns: Holistic approach required.." could translate 'now steal taxpayer grants and subsidies for ALL energy sources and market NOTHING', as with all decades of hydrogen fuel cell "research" vehicles."

Implying that the money used to fund fuel cell research is an extravagant amount. It can only be pointed out that in terms of the progress made for each dollar spent, FCs are very cost-efficient to fund for R&D - they've made incredible advances for fewer relative $$$.

"The Department of Energy has spent over $2 billion (roughly 1% of the total DOE budget) during the last 10 years on fuel cell and hydrogen research, development and demonstration. This is less than 2% of the global investment in the solar, wind and biomass industry in one year alone."

This is much less than the money given towards ethanol, and less than what has been given to battery research in just the Obama administration.

Rick Crammond

The time has come to simply stop the burning of all fuels. According to the UN, particulates from burning cause 4.5 million deaths per year in the world, with millions of folks sick and disabled from the effects as well.

With plasma-based personal reactors and generators coming on line, the necessity to burn fuels will be over. According to MT Keshe, a nuclear engineer, independent inventors will soon be fabricating cheap fuel-less plasma reactors in their garages.

At roughly a million-to-one ratio in increased efficiency with the new technology, old fossil-based technology is uncompetitive, and hence will be obsolete within a few years.


Say whaaaat?

The idea that the electric drive can save us is pure nonsense. Just because electrification is the long term solution doesn't make it the smart interim solution.
When do you get the supply chains built and ride down the cost curve?  Do you wait until you HAVE to have something... like we postponed PNGV cars in 2001?  When the 2008 oil-price spike rolled around, they weren't there.

This is the kind of disingenuous stuff that comes out of oil-industry propaganda mills.  If you listen to them, there will never be a good time to electrify.

We can make synthetic gasoline from natural gas
At 45% chemical efficiency and several $/gallon cost, this is a fool's errand.

Pao Pien

A reciprocating internal combustion engine exchanges internal energy E with the surroundings by heat flow Q or work done W. Heat flow takes place by a combustion process within the cylinder. A equation of state E2/E1 = (V1/V2)k-1 has been derived to relate state variables E and V. Based on internal energy balance, indicated fuel conversion efficiency 1 – E4/(E2 + Q) of all reciprocation engines has been developed. Utilizing the newly derived equation of state and the new expression of indicated fuel conversion efficiency, performances of constant-volume combustion process, limited-pressure combustion process, and constant-pressure combustion process cycle engines have all been analyzed. I have been greatly surprised that the constant-pressure combustion process engine is a dream engine which can reduce fuel consumption and GHG to 42% and thus also downsize to 42%.


The MTG and Core methods are more than 45% efficient and if "fools errand" is your opinion then fine, but it is not a valid point.


Why do so many insist with 30% efficient ICE polluting units while much cleaner electrified units can offer 80+%.

The solution to USA's liquid fuel shortages is NOT to produce more of it BUT to consume less of the dirty stuff. We've have been brain washed to always believe that the solution to all our problems is to increase production instead of increasing efficiency and reducing consumption.

PHEVs with 100+ mpge would negate the need to produce more corn ethanol. BEVs with 200+ mpge would eliminate crude imports and could generate local jobs for the production and installation of cleaner e-power production facilities.


When are we going to have 200 million of these PHEVs on the road and what harm comes while we are waiting for all of them and have no alternatives for the cars already here?

I have no problem running PHEVs on synthetic gasoline made from biomass and natural gas, in fact that is a good way to go, but we need a transition plan and waiting for all PHEV/BEV with no other source of liquid fuel but oil is not a good one...IMO.


SJC...a high percentage of the current fleet could be modified or upgraded to consume a lot less imported crude, while creating a few million welcomed jobs, with :

1. low cost stop-start units.
2. low cost micro and/or mini add-on hybridization units.
3. affordable NG consumption mods.
4. A bonus-malus registration fees system to convince monster owners to have their vehicle modified.
5. A special liquid fossil fuel tax to finance the national vehicle upgrade-modification-exchange program.

Of course, subsidization of HEV-PHEV-BEV would have to be maintained and even increased to cover the full cost of locally made on-board batteries up to $20K or $25K.


I agree with kelly. This looks like intentional diffusion of resources so that the status quo can continue. Since when did the rejects from a failed automobile company become the bearers of the holy energy message. Nonsense.


US fuel cell research had a 'blank check' during the 1960's space race and defense funding for forty years, besides the Hydrogen Initiation "funding for hydrogen and fuel cells from these programs exceeds $2.7 billion from 2001 through 2010" DOE report.

Perhaps what's most telling is that Hyundai had none of this funding, yet:

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