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.
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.
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