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Study suggests policymakers need to move beyond alt fuels hype to decarbonize transport successfully

Policymakers who want to decarbonize the transportation sector will need to move beyond the hype that has characterized alternative fuels over the past three decades and find better ways to assess and sustain promising technologies and fuels, according to a study from Simon Fraser University, Canadian consulting firm Navius Research, and the University of California, Davis.

In the study, published in the journal Nature Energy, Noel Melton, Jonn Axsen and Daniel Sperling conduct a media analysis to show how society’s attention has skipped among alternative fuel vehicle (AFV) technology between 1980 and 2013, including methanol, natural gas, plug-in electric, hybrid electric, hydrogen and biofuels. They then make recommendations that governments can follow to move past hype to support significant AFV adoption and displace fossil fuel use in the transportation sector.

Media attention for all alternative fuel vehicle technologies for 1980–2013. Media attention skipped among numerous AFV technologies between 1980 and 2013. These waves of attention are indicative of sequential and repeated shifts in society’s focus from one emerging technology to another over time. Metlon et al. Click to enlarge.

To support objectives related to climate change mitigation, air pollution and energy security, numerous governments have set specific goals for the market adoption of AFV technologies. In the US, President G.H.W. Bush proposed regulations that would require 500,000 methanol vehicles by 1996; President G. W. Bush set a goal of commercializing cellulosic ethanol production by 2012; and President Obama set a goal of one million electric vehicles by 2015. None of these goals were achieved.

Fossil fuels still account for 95% of US transport energy use. As of 2014, the only two AFV technologies to achieve substantive new market share in the US are hybrid electric vehicles (3%) and ethanol flex-fuel vehicles (12%). However, both of these AFV types rely on fossil fuels, and in the US flex-fuel vehicles most commonly fill up with conventional gasoline (biofuels account for only 5% of transport energy use, mostly as a 10% blend). Thus, despite numerous promises, targets and funding efforts, AFV technologies have experienced relatively little success. And when a particular AFV technology has failed to meet initially positive expectations, society has turned its attention to another AFV type and a new cycle of hype and disappointment has begun.

—Melton et al.

For the analysis, the team used media coverage as a proxy for societal attention. The researchers drew on the sociology of expectations to describe and understand the repeated patterns of excitement, failure and disappointment for numerous AFV technologies covered over the past three decades.

The sociology of expectations, which considers the significance of expectations in science and technology innovation, has identified hype and disappointment as an important dynamic across numerous fields, such as medical techniques and information and communications technologies16. Hype can be defined as a period of rising public attention and expectations about the potential of a new innovation. This conceptualization differs from the colloquial definition of hype, which often implies the setting of implausible expectations, which is typically thought to be undesirable. In contrast, we are interested in identifying and describing patterns of shifting expectations, which may or may not have a net positive or negative effect on technological transformation.

—Melton et al.

Melton et al. chose the New York Times as the media source because of the paper’s national coverage, high circulation and reputation. The team defined hype as a period with a rising number of media articles containing a growing share of positive evaluations about a particular technology. They also developed a coding guide to help identify evaluative statements in each article—coded as positive or negative.

The sum of positive minus negative statements (that is, net positive statements) provides an indication of societal expectations, or hype. For each AFV hype, the team reviewed the relevant articles to identify key policy and technology events, including the implementation of or changes to policies that directly influence AFV development in the US, as well as industry announcements regarding the release of AFV models.

They subjectively selected the events they perceived to be accepted (among AFV researchers and policy analysts) as potentially influencing or being influenced by the observed hypes, disappointments or transitions.

They also used the amount of funding provided by the US Department of Energy for each AFV type as further indication of government action during these cycles.

Hype and disappointment cycles for select AFV technologies. Trends in societal expectations and innovation are indicative of at least one period of hype for each technology for which we have data, including plug-in electric vehicles (a), hydrogen (b) and biofuels (c). Societal expectations are measured based on the number of positive minus negative evaluations observed in the media (left axis). Vehicle prototypes are used as a proxy for innovation, which is shown on the right axis as well as research and development funding provided by the US Department of Energy. Key events are also included. Melton et al. Click to enlarge.

The analysis revealed numerous and repeated cycles of hype and disappointment since the late 1980s. Each AFV hype also aligns with the enactment of or changes to energy or environmental policy. Levels of government funding tend to align with trends in media coverage and innovation activity. Thus, the team concluded, governments participate in and contribute to hype and disappointment cycles through policy and funding and by making high-level political announcements, including the setting of AFV sales goals.

Although the observed AFV hype cycles have not yet led to widespread AFV adoption, we cannot conclude that hype has ultimately had a net positive or negative impact on innovation. Researchers suggest that hype can be positive or perhaps necessary in helping to stimulate interest and investment in new technologies, although excessively positive expectations that turn out to be impossible can contribute to more extreme disappointment.

Regarding the latter effect, we observe some actions by US National and State governments that may have contributed to establishing excessive expectations and thus negatively affecting innovation, namely by publicly announcing what proved to be unattainable sales targets, followed by changes in policy and removal of funding support. Furthermore, governments have continually shifted their attention and policy focus among different AFV technologies across the three decades of our study period, a pattern that can contribute to the delay or reversal in technological learning (that is, negative learning).

In effect, governments seem to be contributing to at least two major system failures that can hinder technological transformation: directionality failure (lack of consistent vision, policy and funding) and reflexivity failure (an inability to deal with uncertainty). We thus reason that governments can take steps to improve their role in AFV development and commercialization, including the manner in which they contribute to hype.

—Melton et al.

The team’s principle recommendation for policymakers is to improve the institutional capacity to conduct balanced, science-based technology assessments. If these are cross-disciplinary, participatory, ongoing (that is, regularly updated), and ultimately grounded in scientific evidence, they can contribute to the creation of reasonable shared expectations, effective coordination among key stakeholders, and the design of adaptive (reflexive) policy.

The team called for a source of science and technology policy advice for the US federal government, a function formerly provided by the Office of Technology Assessment.


  • Noel Melton, Jonn Axsen & Daniel Sperling (2016) “Moving beyond alternative fuel hype to decarbonize transportation” Nature Energy 1, Article number: 16013 doi: 10.1038/nenergy.2016.13



Transition from polluting liquid fuel gas guzzlers to more efficient HEVs, PHEVs, BEVs and FCEVs may not be a simple question of government's political goals.

People have to be convinced/educated and prepared for the technology change involved. Secondly, most of us have to be reminded of the monetary or health gains.

Education should start in the kinder gardens, all schools, teachers and media people. Governments should buy more publicity as part of the general education programme.

Goals should be replaced with mandates and strict pollution standards to achieve by fixed dates. Reduced fleet consumption standards together with reduced pollution by Km/miles travelled should be introduced and duly applied for all vehicles including trucks, locomotives, planes etc.


We are all still awaiting BEVs with closer ICEV parity. That means cost and all areas of performance. A 200 mile range $35,000 BEV won't do for the masses. Battery tech has to catch up and fast if we are to eliminate fossil fuels from our lives and clean up the Planet before we all die from the poisoned atmosphere.


The Renewable Fuels Standard was passed but neigther Congress nor the Executive Branch ever DID anything to actually make it happen. Actions speak louder than words. The private sector will not do what is right for the country, they will do what is right for their company.

Account Deleted

The problem with relying on battery tech to improve in order to make a 20k USD 300 mile range four seater BEV is that it will take many decades for that to happen and the planet can’t stomach many decades more with combustion engines. The only realistic solution is to make fully autonomous cars running as Uber style taxi services. That could be technically and legally feasible by 2020. After that we only need 10 more years for the auto-industry (or perhaps we should say the tech industry) to ramp up production of these robo cars to do all the mass transportation we need door to door. The auto industry will be forever changed. Brands will disappear. Car ownership will become niche and perhaps less that 5% of the population will opt for privately owned cars and most people will never take a drivers license.


Sounds good; can't wait


The reason alternative fuels never took off was that gasoline was so cheap. The opposites would be ethanol in Brasil and diesel in Europe.
Additionally, most alt fuels don't reduce CO2 that much. Hybridisation helps, but only up to a point.
What you need is some class of electrification, be it PHEV or BEV, and a low CO2 elecricity supply. There is little point in electrifying if you are generating your electricity from coal.
PHEVs tend to be expensive, but you could encourage the use of a cloud PHEV where people own medium range EVs (like Nissan Leaf) and have access (at low cost) to ICEs (or HEvs or whatever) as required.
This does not require ANY new technology, just some bureaucratic streamlining to make it cheap to operate a car (or insurance) swap / ICE rental system.

I do not think you need autonomous EVs to achieve this at all. All you need is a mixture of (for instance) Nissan Leafs and Ford Focuses and an application to make swapping them easy.

Then you could do 80-90% of the driving on the Leaf and the rest on another car type.


The RFS was passed in 2007 afterward the price of oil and gasoline went up. Cellulose ethanol was not done because the private sector refused to do it. Until the four companies in the mid west did it a few years ago, no one was going to do it. It was profitable, but not as profitable as other uses for their money, like hedge funds and off shore investments.


Most of the AFV stuff prior to EVs was fakery by the politicians so that they could look as if they were doing something about high gasoline prices. They never chose what might actually work or even wanted it to work. Ethanol is usable but it is not possible to get the volume needed at this time. Methanol is toxic and bio diesel is a niche. In fact the main issue with the bio derived fuel is that the source is diffuse and dependent on collection of waste materials which vary highly in makeup.

The GOP pushed fuel cell cars too, because they knew it was highly unlikely to work and even if it did the hydrogen production and distribution would be controlled by the same people who sell us oil. Meanwhile we would still be using the oil that makes them and their true constituents rich. Hydrogen, it's the fuel of the future and always will be.

The media is not independent from the moneyed powers. Their hype is the hype they have been told to perform. They are simply propagandists.

Some hype is created by small companies hoping to get funding. They would subsequently pay themselves large salaries and then pretend that they are "just so close" to making the final discovery that will change everything. It's a living that many researchers pursue. It's a good scam because there are also legitimate companies with every intent to make real discoveries who look and sound the same. It's very difficult to know the difference.

EVs work. The only thing left is mass production to reduce costs, but this requires investment which must come from those that own oil investments (they have most of the money because that was the single most profitable industry in human history). EVs have also suffered from Obama's support. Everything that Obama supported became the enemy of the right wing. Thus much of the hype about some of the inevitable issues that surrounded the recovery act funding, the loan program and even the R&D work having to do with batteries was a mischaracterization of the actions or at least the severity of malfeasance for political reasons. The GOP cannot let anyone who is not lead by them succeed. They can talk about solyndra and A123 all they want, but an honest evaluation of the programs that funded these shows that the programs were largely successful. However, being 99.9% successful in the government is still failure because opposition focuses on the rare failure and the media sells hype and the people are stupid (many anyway). I would direct you to venomous media hype surrounding LG Chem and their plant in Holland Michigan. They were vilified in the media, but yet, as far as meeting the goals of building a viable US manufacturing base in the US they have been very successful. The hype at the time when the GOP needed to oppose Obama on EVs was very negative toward LG Chem, and while they did have some issues, these were corrected and actually minor in scope given the size and ultimate goal of the project. So, Obama has supported EVs and thus at least a good portion of the population hates EV simply because of that.

The loan program is government choosing winners. It is of course a GW Bush program, and prior to Obama it was fine for the loan program to pick winners, it only became problematic when Obama's administration would pick them, and of course they did. The rate of success with the loans is higher than the best venture capitalists and in fact because the interest is not too low, it will actually make money for the government and tax payers. That's a boring story for the media and they are also told not to make that point.

So, this study fails to address many of the real issues surrounding the topic they chose. Just more media spin, although, this one looks as if it want to make the whole topic academically boring so as to put people to sleep. They say nothing real and blame most of it on policy makers, which is code for politicians, but they take no side either liberal or conservative and there really is a big difference. You can find instances of failure on both sides, but only one side wanted the tech to fail and only one side wanted it to work. If you think that is not true, you are wrong.


Hear, hear Bk4.


In this century it does appear that EV (BEV, PHEV, FCEV) and autonomous vehicles will happen much like how the ICE automobile took over transportation in the twentieth century after 1930.
For autonomous vehicles, read the Bob Lutz tweet by MMillikin or http://www.roadandtrack.com/car-culture/a28092/the-end-of-the-automobile/. Autonomous vehicles requires government regulations and preferably infrastructure changes that allow inductive charging on freeways eliminating any refueling problems even for large trucks. This will probably take at least two decades.
EV will happen much sooner, read Bloomberg Business about how "a shift is under way that will lead to widespread adoption of EVs in the next decade" - see http://www.bloomberg.com/features/2016-ev-oil-crisis/.


"..government choosing winners.."
Perhaps, but without that there would be NO players. Investors put the money in hedge funds building skyscrapers in China.


I don't think EVs will really take off until Gasoline gets expensive, and even then only in developed countries.

Gasoline can get expensive for two main reasons: expensive oil or high taxes. IMO, Taxes are a better way to do it because your government gets the money, not some guys in the middle east.

Perhaps "they" could ban diesel for cars in cities - that would push people to Gasoline or EVs and the reduction in pollution would make the city a better place to live in.

Either way, some degree of electrification gets my vote.


EVs will take off becuase they are mandated to do so. Sensible policymakers have already realized that the health care and environmentals costs of using the atmosphere as an open sewer is really bad for business. Everywhere. Business leaders I talk to are adamant: regulate it. Regulate us. They're not kidding. They want sensible policy as much, if not more, than everyone else. The whackos that really don't care about environmental quality tend to be not very well educated. They're usually not the one's running the show, US Republican presidential candidates notwithstanding. (They probably will not be running anything soon, except failed branding exercises).

CARB/section 177 mandates double in 2018. Those cars will start to be sold in 2017. The numbers ratchet up every year thereafter intil 2025 (and likely thereafter).

Account Deleted

Another way to regulate to get rid of dirty cars without creating undue problems for people is to gradually ban registration of new cars that are polluting a lot but otherwise are street legal. For instance, large cities could start by banning the registration of car ownership for diesel cars for people living in these cities. So they start buying the gasser and hybrid alternatives. Subsequently when the robocars arrive in large numbers (after 2020) you start banning registration of any new car in large cities that has a combustion engine. This is an easy way to create a demand for less pollution cars. It does not put a burden on tax payers and it hit exactly where we need to start; the largest cities.


Oh yes, our politicians will ban the use of ICEVs in city cores etc. Our Supreme Courts would be overloaded with claims from 1001 lawyers for many years/decades.

Our PM and the 15 Provincial and Territory Premiers took 2 days in Vancouver to agree to put together a group of experts to try to come up with a plan to deal with CO2 emissions and Pipelines by end of October 2016. That experts' plan will be reviewed and downsized during the next general (PMs) meeting at the end of 2016. Of course, the oil producing Provinces (Alberta, NFl and Sask) will never agree to a plan that would increase oil cost and/or curtail production unless compensated.

The trade off (or final deal) may be national progressive carbon fees versus approval of Pipelines to the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts to transport Alberta and Sask Oil to the market places.

Meanwhile, 4 Provinces with 80+% of the Canada's population will have some sort of Carbon fees by mid-2016. A standardized National CF may never see the light unless it is ridiculously low.

Account Deleted

Harvey I wrote nothing about banning use of ICE in city cores. Only banning the registration of new ICE cars for people who live in city centres. Big difference. The point is to drastically and gradually reduce the number of ICE cars in city centres not to ban them.


A hybrid running renewable fuel can be done today, it does not require a major retrofit of any kind.


Unfortunately, where machine guns cannot be banned, ICEVs registration bans will be difficult or impossible to do?

The top/best ways to accelerate the switch from ICEVs to electrified vehicles may be with:

1. Improved 120+ kWh (**) lower cost (under $100/kWh) batteries (by 2020/2025)
2. More improved quicker charging facilities (under 10 minutes with 800+ VDC)
3. Lower cost EVs versus equivalent ICEVs (subsidies equivalent to 100% of on-board batteries cost would be required)

The same could be said about FCEVs.

(**) The TESLA Model S-100D will be out before end of 2016 and Model S-120D about one year latter.

Meanwhile, many more extended range (700+ Km) FCEVs will be available at competitive price.

Roger Pham

The ZEV mandate (Zero-Emission Vehicle) by California and followed by many other states is working, to ensure that the transition toward 100% ZEV will arrive on a predictable schedule in due time. With this momentum gathering steam, the rest of the country and the world should follow with similar ZEV mandates.

At the same time, a Renewable Energy (RE) mandate based on similar principle as the ZEV mandate, can be instituted for ALL forms of energy, so that we will be free of fossil fuel in 40-50 years or so. These type of mandates already have track record of being politically feasible, UNLIKE proposed carbon taxes and high fossil-fuel taxes that will be much more difficult to enact politically.

Cellulose ethanol was not done because the private sector refused to do it.

Cellulose ethanol was not done, despite EPA mandates that oilco's buy and blend it, because the private sector could not make it work.  Several efforts went bust, including Range Fuels (remember them?).

Some things are inherently difficult.  Breaking lignocellulose into sugars and fermenting them to EtOH is one of them.

Also, what BK4 and ECI said.

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