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U-M Researchers Developing Interactive Tool to Assess Viability of Transportation GHG Reduction Technologies and Policies; PHEVs as Test Case

Researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) are launching a project to develop a Web-based, interactive modeling tool that can be used to analyze the likely impact and potential viability of proposed technologies and policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the light-duty vehicle sector. As a test case for the development of the tool, the researchers are using President-elect Barack Obama’s proposal to put a million US-made plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) getting 150 mpg on the road by 2015.

The U-M Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute is providing $365,000 in seed money for the project, which is an adjunct to a four-university, $1.9-million project funded though the National Science Foundation MUSES program (Materials Use: Science, Engineering and Society). The goal of the MUSES project is to produce modeling tools and methods that can be used to analyze changes in materials flows that would result from policy instruments aimed at reducing GHG emissions from passenger cars and light trucks. (Earlier post.)

The outcome of the MUSES project is the development of an analytical tool called CAPA (the computational automotive policy analysis software program) that will integrate models of market decisions and technological performance with life cycle assessment and materials flow analysis.

Steven Skerlos, director of the U-M Environmental and Sustainable Technologies Laboratory, who is one of the leaders of the MUSES project, is also heading the new U-M project.

We are at an environmental precipice and have to get our policy right the first time. We want to develop a user-friendly, yet academically rigorous approach to make sure policymakers and the general public have information that will lead to a more informed debate regarding how and when to reduce the climate change impacts of the automotive sector.

—Steven Skerlos

Skerlos is working with Panos Papalambros, mechanical engineering; Rich Gonzalez, psychology; James Jackson, Institute for Social Research; Meredith Fowlie, economics and public policy; Duncan Callaway and Greg Keoleian, School of Natural Resources and Environment; and Walter McManus and John Sullivan, U-M Transportation Research Institute.

“There is no systemic, objective framework to study these problems that simultaneously accounts for realistic design decisions driven by market behavior subject to regulation. There are loads of agendas yet not enough science in the debate.”
—Steven Skerlos

PHEVs have gained a lot of attention for their potential to tap into the electric grid to reduce greenhouse emissions and increase energy security. Skerlos notes that PHEVs come on the heels of other energy-saving favorites such as hydrogen fuel cells and biofuels. He sees that in the past, technologies have been lauded and discounted by discussions heavy on politics and multiple agendas.

The immediate goal is to create an interactive website-based model where users can explore scenarios for future automotive and electricity grid performance and costs. The model will also examine market conditions subject to regulation, and visualize the time-scales over which PHEVs will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The website will also present measures that will aid in assessing the quality of simulation outcomes for society and the realism of the input scenarios.

The questions are from many fronts. Some are technical, such as miles per gallon and battery power. Some are based on performance, some on cost and incentives, and others on regulatory concerns, such as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations or emissions trading. Skerlos notes that the novelty here lies in informing economic models with technological and regulatory design options, while presenting complexity in an accessible and transparent form.

We are building a simulator that estimates future greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector and reflects the socio-economic, regulatory and technological realities that all come to bear on the problem. Then we will be able to ask ‘which future would you like us to test for PHEVs?’

—Steven Skerlos

From there, Skerlos sees being able to extend their current capabilities to test other technologies such as biofuels and hydrogen vehicles.

Too many proposed solutions to the energy crisis have crumbled because of unintended consequences, and we do not have the time to break our addiction to fossil fuels with another well-intentioned idea that can’t make it in the complicated real world. We need to find a way to transform innovations in energy into reality with an unprecedented level of speed and efficiency.

From lead in gasoline—that seemed like a great way to improve fuel efficiency, but ended up poisoning children for an entire generation—to corn ethanol, that was touted as a great renewable energy source, but then was reviled for its unintended impact on global food prices, we need to build a tool that will answer big questions for us quickly and accurately. We are finding our way to that tool.

—Gary Was, director of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute at U-M

Was emphasizes that the Energy Science, Technology and Policy Award is intended to jumpstart these innovations, and that once the Skerlos team demonstrates the efficacy of the strategy on the PHEV test case, significant outside funding will be required to realize its full promise.

Our intent is to show the world what is possible, and to show some of the enormous and exciting potential a modeling tool could bring to critical decision making. We see a future where people can hear a campaign pledge, a proposed policy or a promising new technology and have a way to start applying facts from the real world to test them and make good decisions. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s an important first step on the path to solving the energy crisis.

—Gary Was


  • Environmental Policy, Auto Design, & Materials Flows (MUSES project website)



It would be nice to see in advance the viability of the different types of technology. I have always believed that we must use caution in deciding what technological path we go down. It is certain in these times we cannot afford a mistake. This is good news. Now make a copy and send it to me..... only joking. Although it would be neat to play with.


Many have arrived at the conclusion that various size flexible PHEVs will be the best technology for 2010 to 2020+ period. Around 2020, pure BEVs with improved batteries, will take a larger part of the market, specially for smaller vehicles.

Either way, pure ICE vehicles (and hybrids) will lose market shares to PHEVs and BEVs from 2010/11 and onwards.

Will the transistion rate be at 2% or 5% or more a year? An agressive Malus-Bonus program could change the tempo. Let's see what the new Administration has in mind.

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