The race to build the “ultimate” electric car is heating up. Every month, it seems another electric car company joins the fray to offer a car stylish enough to attract the Tesla crowd, and affordable enough to meet the growing demand from China, the United States and Europe.
Here’s a transcript from today’s program, with some great insights from host Gareth Mitchell and BBC contributor, Bill Thompson. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity:
BBC Host, Gareth Mitchell: One event that did happen was the recent launch of yet another electric vehicle outfit in California. This is the Silicon Valley division of a Chinese startup called NextEV. The champagne flowed and the ribbon was cut – the digital ribbon – but our reporter Alison van Diggelen was most interested in the economics of it all. You don’t need to be an investor to know just how risky these ventures are as the technology gradually matures. In California and China state funding and tax breaks are all part of getting these businesses off the ground. Alison tracked down NextEV founder, former cattle herder and now big time entrepreneur, William Li.
Alison van Diggelen: At NextEV’s Silicon Valley launch, William Li confirmed that onNovember 21st, NextEV will reveal its first supercar in London. The electric car is expected to offer a 0-60 acceleration in under three seconds. Its Formula E racing team has used a dual-motor setup on its race car, and it’s likely to be a feature of the supercar. (The top speed of the sleek two-seater will be over 180 mph, and its price is likely to be equally extravagant!)
NextEV is late join to the electric car race. So how does Li intend to challenge Tesla and the dozens of electric car companies popping up worldwide?
William Li: Tesla is a great company, I respect them. But Tesla was founded 2003. Lots changed. It’s a mobile internet era. We can do better to communicate with our users, give our users a much better holistic user experience.
He aims to do for the car what Apple did for the smart phone.
He learned a lot about user experience from Bit Auto, a popular web portal in China and his first business success. He’s now built a global startup – with facilities in Beijing, Shanghai, Silicon Valley, London and Munich. The global workforce is 2000.
In Silicon Valley, its 250-strong team of auto and software experts is growing rapidly. U.S. CEO Padmasree Warrior – former CTO at Cisco – is hiring experts in artificial intelligence, voice interaction and user interface from the likes of Tesla, Apple and Dropbox. Warrior says they’re already working on affordable cars for China’s burgeoning demand.
Padmasree Warrior: In China, There’s a large shift happening … Environment issues are driving the government to look at electric vehicles as part of the solution… It’s healthier for the environment to drive an electric vehicle.
Similarly in Silicon Valley, a fleet of electric car companies has chosen to locate here, thanks to state tax incentives and the strong talent base. These include Tesla, Atieva, and Le Eco.
I spoke with California’s Director of Economic Development, Panorea Avdis. She explained how state policy is helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by focusing on the tech industry…
Panorea Avdis: The goal is to have 1 million electric zero emission vehicles on the road by 2020.
(Today, California has about 300,000 electric cars, about half of the nation’s total.)
Alison: NextEV secured $10M in tax credits. Tell me why that’s cost effective for the people of California.
Panorea Avdis: The return on investment…nearly 1000 jobs in the next 5 years, speaks for itself. California is leading the way, there’s no other state in the union that has this type of aggressive polices and it’s really inspiring this innovation in technology to come forward.
But making cars is notoriously hard. News broke this month that Apple is shelving its electric car plans to focus on self-driving software.
William Li knows it’s a tough road ahead. He gives his company just over a 50% chance of success.
As a boy, Li was a cattle herder in China. He’s come a long way and credits his grandfather’s wisdom:
William Li: [Speaks first in Mandarin ] The journey is more important than the result. So follow your heart….your original wish. Don’t worry about failure.
Like Tesla’s Elon Musk, Li is concerned about climate change and also the dense smog in Beijing and Shanghai. He blames polluting gas-guzzling cars.
NextEV’s brand in China is called “Way-Lye”
William Li: It means blue sky coming. That’s my original wish.
It’s an ambitious goal that could be a very long way off, especially in China’s congested and polluted cities.
Gareth Mitchell: That’s Alison van Diggelen reporting from Silicon Valley. So Bill Thompson – the journey is more important that the result?
Bill Thompson: The result is much more important than the journey here, because unless we get much cleaner public and personal transport, then we’re in big trouble. It’s really good to see another serious entrant in this market. It’s not sewn up yet by anyone. As we heard there about Tesla, there’s no first mover advantage because the technology is developing so quickly.
We know Padmasree Warrior’s reputation for delivering. She’s been on the show a few years back. She was senior at Motorola, then went to Cisco. They’ve got really good people.
But the really interesting part of this is what happens in China. In China because they have much more control over what people can do. The government can actually mandate a move to electric vehicles much more easily than they ever could in California and that gives a great market. So NextEV may be getting money and expertise over in Silicon Valley, but it’s what happens in China that’s really interesting.
Gareth Mitchell: I was interested in the economics side of the piece: the reliance partly on state funding to get these businesses going.
Bill Thompson: Occasionally state funding helps. You might have heard of this little thing called the Internet, kicked off with defense department funding from the US. It did pretty well by being able to rely on that funding for a critical period while it developed and then was able to be used by the private sector. One or two of these examples of it actually working…
On Thursday, May 12th at 3 am PST, the Solar Impulse plane leaves Phoenix, Arizona on the 11th leg of its journey, bound for Tulsa, Oklahoma. Solar Impulse is attempting to fly around the world, powered only by solar energy. It’s now completed over two-third of the epic journey. As well as breaking records for solar flight, this odyssey shines a spotlight on the many business opportunities that clean technologies offer.
“I never have enough of flying that plane…when you see those four electrical motors that put the plane in the sky with no noise, no pollution, it’s like a jump into the future. The world cannot continue on combustion engines, badly insulated houses, incandescent light bulbs, outdated systems to distribute the energy…this is last Century. You don’t have to be ecological anymore, just logical!” Bertrand Piccard
Piccard is Co-Pilot, Explorer and Solar Impulse Chairman. He’s also a psychiatrist, and a United Nations Environmental Program Goodwill Ambassador.
“We had to build an aircraft that was extremely energy efficient. It’s all about energy efficiency. This efficiency is extremely important on the ground as well. If we would use the technologies now on board this airplane, we could reduce our energy consumptions by at least 50%.” Andre Borschberg
Andre Borchberg is Co-Pilot, MIT Engineer and Solar Impulse CEO
Here’s a transcript of the discussion (edited for length and clarity):
BBC Host, Fergus Nicoll: After an unexpected nine-month delay, a solar-powered aircraft aiming to complete a round-the-world voyage is back in business. Check out their website … it’s got a snappy update for you on the front page – “We are in Phoenix!” Alison has prepared a report for us – talking to the two pilots who’ve been steering this epic journey so far. – so Alison before we play in the piece, set the ground for us – where did you meet the team – what have they achieved so far – and why the big delay?
Alison van Diggelen: It’s a very interesting story, especially if you cover clean tech. Last Monday, I got up at 3 am to watch the Solar Impulse take off from Moffett Field here in SV, bound for Phoenix AZ. I talked with the two pilots who take turns on each flight. They’re attempting to fly around the world, powered entirely by solar energy. They left Abu Dhabi in March 2015, and are two-thirds of their way around.
Bertrand Piccard, one of the pilots told me: you don’t change the world with just an idealistic approach, you change the world if you have practical & profitable solutions. So they’re really pushing this clean energy, energy consumption message. They say we could reduce our energy consumption here by over 50% if we used the clean energy and energy efficiency techniques on that airplane. One of biggest potential business opportunities is solar powered airplanes replacing satellites in the sky…
BBC Report: Solar Impulse Plane Brings Clean Tech Message Around World
Alison van Diggelen: The propellers are starting very slowly, but they’re about to take off…you can hear the propellers….It’s in the air…
Elke Neumann: It’s in the air. Woo hooo hooo!
Alison van Diggelen:All we can see is a line of lights in the sky and it looks like it’s barely moving, just floating there, about 1000 feet off the runway.
Last week, the Solar Impulse plane took off from Moffett Field in SV. Its mission is to fly around the world, powered only by solar energy. It’s now completed about 2/3rds of that journey, flying from Abu Dhabi across Asia to Hawaii last year. The team plans to reach NY by June and cross the Atlantic this summer.
The plane has the weight of a family car, but the wingspan of a 747, covered with 17,000 solar panels. I talked with Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss explorer and one of the two pilots who’s taking turns in the cockpit.
Bertrand Piccard: I never have enough of flying that plane…when you see those 4 electrical motors that put the plane in the sky with no noise, no pollution, it’s like a jump into the future. Thanks to new technologies, the future is already today.
Alison van Diggelen:What for you is the biggest game changer?
Bertrand Piccard: The world cannot continue on combustion engines, badly insulated houses, incandescent light bulbs, outdated systems to distribute the energy…this is last Century. It’s not only about protecting the environment, it’s a lot about making money, new industrial markets, economic development, profit, job creation. These clean techs can be used for electrical mobility, LED lights, smartgrids. It’s a complete demonstration of everything we need in our society…. Maybe Solar Impulse is a way to try to overcome the resistance of the dinosaurs who have not yet understood where the future is.
Bertrand Piccard:What do you say to these naysayers?
Bertrand Piccard: I tell them: be really careful because innovation does not come from inside the system. It’s not the people selling the candles who invented the lightbulb. What you’re doing now will be replaced. If you want to innovate be a pioneer… change your way of thinking. Dinosaurs disappear, they were the strongest one, but the less flexible one to adaptation.
Alison van Diggelen: Andre Borschberg, piloted the Japan to Hawaii flight, an epic 5 day, 5 night journey. He explains that Solar Impulse is like a “laboratory in the sky” and is excited about its multiple tech spinoffs.
Paige Kassalen is part of the Solar Impulse ground crew and works for Covestro, one of the clean tech companies developing lightweight, high efficiency solutions for the “flying laboratory.”
Borschberg: What we have today is an airplane which can fly day and night, a week, a month, non stop …It’s totally sustainable in terms of energy, the limiting factor is the pilot… If we make it unmanned, an airplane can fly in stratosphere (above the bad weather) for 6 months, potentially replacing what satellites are doing, but cheaper in a flexible way…no pollution of space.
Alison van Diggelen: What made the journey even possible?
Andre Borschberg: We had to build an aircraft that was extremely energy efficient. This efficiency is extremely important on the ground as well. If we would use the technologies now on board this airplane, we could reduce our energy use by at least 50%. As it continues on its journey, the Solar Impulse team is striving to change the world, not just of aviation but of energy and communications too. You could call it a Kitty Hawk moment for the 21st Century.
Fergus Nicoll: I want to pick up on one or two of these ideas, the spinoff tech…start off with this amazing idea: the solar drones, solar powered unmanned vehicles in the stratosphere, a kind of neo-satellite…
Alison van Diggelen: That’s right. It was amazing to re-think satellites. Satellites cost up to $100M to produce, and then to launch them, it’s another $50M. So if you could do the same with a solar powered airplane, then there are huge cost savings available. Not only cost, but flexibility. These satellites go up for 7, maybe 15 years maximum, but two years into their journeys, the technology is old, whereas these solar powered airplanes could come down after six months and get repaired if necessary and get the latest technology fitted to them. So there’s all sorts of applications like GPS navigation, communications…observations: deforestation, climate change monitoring. They’ll probably have to make these solar airplanes even bigger to carry the massive payload.
Fergus Nicoll: Are other companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere watching this…to see what they can spinoff themselves?
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, in fact the solar panels – the 17,000 panels – on the planes wings are made by a Silicon Valley company, and I know of at least one other Silicon Valley solar company that would rather be on the wings. So I think this whole project is a catalyst for companies to say: hey, we want to be the No. 1, the most lightweight, the most efficient solar panel. The “flying laboratory” is stimulating other companies because it’s shining a spotlight on these clean technologies.
In announcing a massive, unprecedented investment in solar power by a private company, Apple’s Tim Cook said yesterday in San Francisco,
“We know in Apple that climate change is real. The time for talk is passed…The time for action is now.”
Here are three reasons the $850 M solar deal with First Solar makes sense:
1. Money saving: Apple signed a 25 year purchase power agreement which will guarantee the tech company a fixed price for solar power, under the market price for energy in California. Solar prices have declined dramatically in the last 40 years (today’s panels are 100 times cheaper than in 1977) and Apple has timed its agreement to profit from this trend.
“We expect to have a very significant savings because we have a fixed price for the renewable energy, and there’s quite a difference between that price and the price of brown energy,” Cook said.
2. Green Halo Effect: Not only will Apple benefit from a “greener than thou” reputation from their existing fans, but will inevitably attract more environmentally conscious consumers, especially Millennials who care deeply how their tech gadgets and the cloud’s data centers are powered. This will help in its battle with arch rival Samsung which it ridiculed last year in a hard hitting ad campaign.
In addition, in the race to attract and retain the top tech talent in Silicon Valley, Apple’s “green reputation” will be powerful.
“Other Fortune 500 CEOs would be well served to make a study of Tim Cook,” Greenpeace said in a statement.
3. Pioneer forClimate Change: Last year, Tim Cook famously told climate skeptics at an Apple shareholder meeting to “get out of Apple stock” if they don’t like his clean energy strategy. His visible passion on the issue revealed how strongly he feels about climate change and his commitment to reduce Apple’s carbon footprint.
“I want leave the world better than we found it,” said Tim Cook.
Under Cook’s leadership, Apple has forged ahead strongly with plans to get 100% of its energy from renewable sources. A massive data center in North Carolina is powered by huge solar farms and Bloom Energy’s fuel cells. I anticipate that Silicon Valley’s Bloom Energy will also be part of Apple’s new clean power strategy in California (check back soon for updates).
Apple’s trend-setting, clean energy market making reputation is already impacting other tech companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon, although Google gets the greenest star for its early action and massive investment in clean energy of over $1.5B.
Read more about Apple’s Green Halo and its battle with Samsung (BBC conversation)
It’s amazing who you bump into at Silicon Valley conferences! Last week, it was Harry Hamlin of Mad Men fame. Turns out he’s a huge fan of Tesla Motors and Elon Musk. I put my Mad Men zeal aside and we talked internal combustion vs electric cars; the need for clean energy and why he thinks nuclear fusion, not wind and solar, is the answer. (Here’s a little primer on nuclear fusion if, like me, your physics is a wee bit rusty).
“I will never buy another internal combustion engine car,” says Harry Hamlin. The Mad Men star is completely enamoured by his Tesla Model S, and says it outperforms any car he’s ever driven, and he’s driven them all during his long and tumultuous acting career: from Aston Martin to Ferrari and Lamborghini to Porsche.
We discuss his vision for a clean energy future and he gives us a lesson from Einstein on nuclear fusion. You may notice a big smile on my face when he launches into an explanation of E=MC Squared. It was one of the most surreal moments in my eventful interviewing career. Hamlin may be a pretty face, but he’s also quite the intellectual.
He eschewed questions about his investments in clean energy, however Michael Kanellos of Forbes has written about the secretive company, Tri-Alpha Energy, with which Hamlin is connected. Kanellos also points out, that although nuclear fusion offers a tantalizingly abundant source of clean power, it’s not that easy to produce at scale. Hamlin may find it easy to “drive green” but the green energy bit is still a work in progress.
In other news, Hamlin confirmed that Mad Men is “an ongoing project,” so I think we safely can conclude he survives this weekend’s series finale. He also told me about his upcoming independent movies:
“The Erotic Fire of the Unthinkable” – in which he plays “the anti-hero.” Hamlin claims it’s not as X-rated as his sounds.
“The Fourth Noble Truth” – This movie about Buddhism recently won a prize at the Sonoma Film Festival.
Let’s face it, President Obama is struggling to get anything through Congress right now, never mind a national energy policy, but here’s a big idea from Berkeley’s Jennifer Granholm to create more clean energy and clean jobs… from the bottom up.
You may remember Jennifer Granholm as the Governor of Michigan (2003-2011), the TV host of “The War Room” or the passionate speechmaker at the DNC 2012; but perhaps her most lasting contribution to the world will be this big idea: a Clean Energy Race to the Top.
Leveraging her experience in Michigan, where she attempted to transform the state’s “rustbelt” image to “greenbelt” by investing heavily in clean energy and green jobs, she’s seen the strategy’s economic impact and is eager to keep the momentum going. This time, on a national basis.
Modeled after the Education Race to the Top (RTT), her clean energy idea is to offer a pot of money to incentivize all 50 states to compete and raise their clean energy standards to 80% by 2030. Just think: The Amazing Race for Clean Energy.
Her budget? A cool $4.5 Billion. By her calculations, that’s less than one tenth of 1% of Federal funding (and close to the RTT budget for education), nevertheless in today’s economy, funding prospects look grim.
Granholm’s Clean Energy Race to the Top sounds like a smart idea, but in these times of brutal belt tightening and sequestration, securing that funding looks like mission impossible. It will be fascinating to watch the debate unfold here and at her TED talk; and see if she gets any traction for it during this congress.
It might not be perfect time for a Clean Energy Race to the Top, but don’t expect the idea to wither and die. Granholm may be keeping a relatively low profile as a law professor at UC Berkeley these days, but if there’s another Clinton (or Obama) in the White House in 2016 or beyond (I’m talking Hillary or Michelle), we may see Granholm taking a cabinet role. She’s earning her stripes for a position as Energy Secretary, and that could one day make her big idea a reality.
This Fresh Dialogues interview took place at the Claremont Hotel, Berkeley on February 21, 2013