Photos by L.A. Cicero Tesla roadster at electric and hybrid car conference

Participants in the electric and hybrid car conference huddled around the Tesla as sales advisor Nicole Süs talked about the roadster.

April 7 was an "electrifying day" on the Stanford University campus for lovers of alternative vehicles. For five hours, students heard from the manufacturers of cars powered by electricity and hydrogen, then had the opportunity to kick the tires a bit.

Regardless of the power source, the vehicles of the future won't look or feel like today's automobiles, and that's something consumers will have to get used to, said Lee Schipper, a senior research engineer with Stanford's Precourt Energy Efficiency Center and an organizer of the Electric and Fuel Cell Vehicle Showcase.

"Going from gas or fuel to electric drive is like learning a new operating system," he said. "It's not simply the same thing with a different black box."

The event at the Clark Center Auditorium featured representatives from leading vehicle manufacturers talking about the current state and future of sustainable transportation, followed by a hands-on display of eight electric-drive models – including a fire-engine-red Tesla Roadster that runs on electricity, and a less sporty Honda FCX Clarity powered by hydrogen fuel.

The showcase was a rare opportunity for students to get close to the cars, said Schipper, who moderated a discussion with representatives from Honda, Volkswagen, Toyota, Tesla and bike manufacturer Pi Mobility.

The event was held in conjunction with a course Schipper teaches on sustainable transportation and the weekly Energy Seminar at Stanford.

Alternative fuels
In recent years, car companies have set their sights on energy-efficient automobiles. But will the vehicles of the future zip along with electric, hydrogen, natural gas or hybrid power?

Manufacturers "have their feet wet in all of these areas, because we're still not sure what's going to win," Schipper said. During the panel discussion, participants weighed the merits of hydrogen fuel cells versus batteries. Each source of alternative power has its pros and cons, the panelists conceded. Lithium batteries, for instance, can only store so much energy and take hours to charge. According to Tesla, even its high-end Roadster taps out after about 230 miles.

At the show, students inspected vehicles from Pi Mobility. Founder and CEO Marcus Hays, right, was on hand to answer questions about the electic motor bikes he builds in Sausalito, CA.

At the show, students inspected vehicles from Pi Mobility. Founder and CEO Marcus Hays, right, was on hand to answer questions about the electic motor bikes he builds in Sausalito, Calif.

Drivers of fuel cell-powered cars, on the other hand, could take long road trips, said Volkswagen representative John Tillman. Fuel cell vehicles create electricity by jamming hydrogen atoms into oxygen atoms. The only emission spewing from the Volkswagen and Honda hydrogen-powered prototypes is water clean enough to drink, said Schipper, who has sipped the byproduct himself.

Just like gasoline-powered cars, hydrogen vehicles rely on fueling stations to keep chugging along. But there are fewer than 100 hydrogen stations in the United States today, according to the Department of Energy, and building a coast-to-coast hydrogen infrastructure would require a major public investment. "The real challenge for us isn't the technology but government policy," Tillman said.

The future may not be with hydrogen or electricity, but both, according to Tillman. He said that Volkswagen's goal is to design a car that runs on electricity for quick commutes and on hydrogen for longer jaunts. Ultimately, he said, drivers and not the government or even the automobile industry should decide the fate of energy-efficient vehicles. "We can't continue to incentivize technologies if they're not going to make it on their own," Tillman said.

Justin Ward, a representative from Toyota, agreed. "From a policy perspective, we want the market to choose the winner," said Ward, who displayed a prototype of a plug-in hybrid Prius designed to run on gasoline and electricity.

Public acceptance
Getting the public interested in energy-efficient vehicles isn't so easy, said Honda's Robert Bienenfeld. Car companies can't just sell automobiles. They have to sell Americans on a spartan lifestyle, too. He compared giving up a carbon-heavy lifestyle to going on a diet. "Making a small change is sometimes really hard," he said.

Money plays a role, too, said Tesla's Zac Edson. Americans, on average, pay dollars less per gallon of gas than Europeans, but this cheap oil doesn't reflect the "true cost" of fossil fuels, he said. According to Edson, if politicians increased the tax on fuel, Americans would begin to appreciate the environmental and social burdens of gasoline.

"It's something that Tesla believes in, and that's why we produce only zero-emission vehicles," he said. There's no such thing as a zero-emissions vehicle, Schipper countered, noting that while the plug-in Tesla doesn't run on fossil fuels, it does rely on electricity primarily generated from coal and natural gas.

For Marcus Hays of Pi Mobility, which manufactures electric bikes, the solution doesn't sit on four wheels. "We're all-systems-go at this stage," he said. "We don't see any reasons why we can't grow."

The Energy Seminar is sponsored by Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment and Precourt Institute for Energy. Future seminars will be held each Wednesday at 4:15 p.m. from April 14 to June 2 in Building 420, Room 40.

Daniel Strain is a science-writing intern at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.