November 2nd, 2015


Environment and Energy Communications Manager, General Motors

Liao-Cho Professor of Engineering; Director, Institute of Transportation Studies, UC Berkeley

Member, California Air Resources Board

Vice President of Business Development, Tesla Motors


In 1955, Disneyland introduced “Autopia,” designed to evoke the thrilling future of car travel – dozens of shiny cars zipping around a multi-level expressway.  Disney’s vision hasn’t entirely panned out; today’s urban motorist is more often stuck in gridlock, engine idling and carbon spewing.

The transformation of transportation is a big part of Governor Brown’s plan for fighting carbon pollution in California, strengthened by the recent passage of SB 350.  At a recent forum on all things automotive, Hector de la Torres of the state’s Air Resources Board explained that there are multiple ways the state plans to make that happen; through “reducing vehicle miles traveled, making communities more sustainable, easier to walk, bike, etc.”  Another important piece of the puzzle? Policies that help support the use of zero-emission vehicles.

But Californians are known for loving their driving experience.  Will they take to a car with an engine that doesn’t roar? Tesla VP Diarmuid O’Connell says it’s more than government regulations that’s driving sales of their Model S.

“[Customers] find when they get behind the wheel of an electric vehicle, and especially ours, that it’s more fun,” he reports. “It’s a high-performance vehicle, it’s safer, the handling is better, and of course, it’s got the zero-emissions profile.”  

And the old guard is getting into the EV market as well. General Motors’ Shad Balch says that the Chevrolet Volt is having success akin to its well-loved Corvette and Camaro models, and is “by all accounts, the most successful vehicle we’ve ever done.”

“The direction of the company in Detroit has fundamentally changed,” says Balch. “There are scientists and engineers in labs inventing things on the daily that are going to be put in vehicles that either use little gas or no gas at all.  That is where we’re headed.”

Electrified cars are all well and good, says Alex Bayen of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies.  But replacing gas-guzzlers with EV’s doesn’t solve another issue: traffic congestion.  “There was a time when, yeah, maybe you could regulate how cars were sold, which cars were sold and how a traffic light can be used to make traffic better,” says Bayen.  But the advent of new technologies such as mobility apps and autonomous cars limits the ability of government to control traffic patterns.  Private driving services such as Uber and Lyft are changing the way mobility and demand are managed; even public transit is changing.  

“So I think that this is very much part of the equation,” he concludes, “but I think when it comes to energy efficiency for transportation, we really also have to look at the broader picture of these technologies, and the notion that the government might completely lose control on how to regulate them.”

Bayen pictures driverless vehicles sitting in traffic jams, spending hours on freeways or circling the block to pick up their passengers – not exactly Autopia.

“What does that do to energy, and what does that do to even your quality of travel?” he asks. “It’s going to be horrible, right?  So I think that sooner or later…the regulator will have to kick in so that these smart systems that we're building right now become effective with that new technology.”

It might have to come sooner rather than later - both GM and Tesla have self-driven cars in the works.  In fact, O’Connell told the audience, he had driven his Tesla from their Palo Alto headquarters on “autopilot,” only occasionally touching the steering wheel and with his feet off the pedals.

The promise of autonomous driving will come about, O’Connell believes, “because it is of value to the drivers.  And how that value manifests itself in the future is unclear, but certainly one can imagine.  

“I mean, we’re the generation that were promised flying cars, right?” he continued. “So it seems at least a modest advancement that we should be able to drive and conduct other business, probably much more safely than the fashion in which we do it right now, toggling our iPhones and having a cup of coffee and trying to keep our hands on the wheel.”

Collaborating with Apple, Google and other technology companies could add a whole other dimension to driving, whether it’s integrating entertainment systems, setting up car sharing platforms or winding your way through traffic. Both Balch and O’Connell are enthusiastic about the potential driving innovations coming out of Silicon Valley.

“What's really important here is that we’re entering a new ethic in mobility, whether it's mobility services or the technology that's in the vehicles,” says O’Connell.  “It's fantastic.  I mean it is the most exciting time to be in this industry that I can possibly imagine, excepting perhaps when the industry was kicked off at the beginning of the last century.”

It remains to be seen whether flying cars are in our future – but at the very least, perhaps a true Autopia is.


Related Links:

EDF: California makes clean energy history with passage of SB 350

2030 Greenhouse Gas Reduction Goals

UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies

Road & Track: The hard truth about autonomous cars


- Anny Celsi
November 2, 2015
The Commonwealth Club of California
Photos by Ed Ritger