September 26, 2018 - From the September, 2018 issue

Global Climate Action Summit: Innovation at the Nexus of Energy & Transportation

At the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco this month, innovation at the nexus of energy and transportation was explored by a cross-sector panel that included: Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, New York 'energy czar' (officially the state of New York Chairman of Energy and Finance) Richard Kauffman, Microsoft executive Shelley McKinley, and Uber policy head Justin Kintz. Moderated by Energy Innovation CEO Hal Harvey, the discussion covered what cities can do to prepare their grids for electric mobility options, their roads for autonomous vehicles, and their governments for regional and public-private partnerships. TPR is pleased to present an excerpt of this panel.


Gov. John Hickenlooper

"There’s a mistaken belief that, politically, you need an enemy. What it’s really about is getting an alignment of self-interests." —Gov. John Hickenlooper

Hal Harvey: Governor Hickenlooper, you recently supported a call by the Colorado Office of Public Health & the Environment’s for the state to adopt California’s stringent vehicle pollution standards—although not necessarily its electric vehicle mandate. Why did you do this, and what does it mean? 

John Hickenlooper: Colorado has the highest average elevation of any U.S. state. Air quality is critical to us. We have fought constantly, for the 15 years I’ve been in public service, for clean air. So when the federal government wanted to roll back its agreement on low-emission vehicles—which Detroit had agreed to—we were quick to say that we wouldn’t go, but that we would stick with the stricter standards of California and 11 other states.

Electric vehicles are a trickier question for us. We are a state of mountains, and 75 percent of new vehicles sold here are SUVs. Current battery technology is not quite able to support SUVs yet, and the vehicles in their present configuration don’t have the range to drive up and down mountains. But I think that’s going to change in a couple years, and my full expectation is that Colorado’s next governor will adopt electric vehicle mandates.

Hal Harvey: Justin, why did Uber buy the electric bike company Jump, and what are you going to do with it?

Justin Kintz: We made a big bet that people are going to want alternatives to cars and to car ownership.

People often say that Uber’s competition is taxis or Lyft. But we see our competition as personal car ownership. And we don’t want the replacement for car ownership to be yet another car; we want the smartphone to be the competition for personal car ownership.

We’re trying to give consumers a choice and become a true mobility platform. Why can’t what was once just “hit a button, get a car” become “hit a button, decide which way you want to go?” Maybe it’s a scooter, maybe it’s public transit, or maybe it’s a bike. That’s why, within your Uber app today, you can select how you want to get to a place—UberX, UberPOOL, or an electric Jump bike.

Now, this is scandalizing our core business. But we see a vision of where transportation is going, and it includes things like pedal-assist bicycles, electric scooters, and public transit. After all, if we do convince people to drop personal car ownership, Uber drivers can’t bear the brunt of that new customer base. It’s way more people than we’ll ever be able to handle. So we need to figure out more efficient and more environmentally friendly ways to get people where they want to go. 

Hal Harvey: Richard, suppose you’re called into a meeting with Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill DeBlasio. They say, “You’re now in charge of the subway system—and of reducing congestion.” What do you do?

Richard Kauffman: The first piece of this problem is that New York has old infrastructure. It’s not just the subways, the roads, and the bridges—it’s also the electrical system. These are all related problems, and part of our tremendous infrastructure costs.

We can imagine—and in fact, it’s already happening—that an increase in ride-sharing will reduce the number of people using the subway. The more we enable other alternatives, the more the people who can’t afford those alternatives will wind up carrying the costs of our degrading infrastructure—and they’ll be sharing those costs over fewer and fewer people. That’s true for the energy system as well as for the subway system.

Here’s another issue. People often say that electric autonomous transportation will improve capacity utilization of our roads. But we will need an electric grid that can accommodate all those cars. Not everybody will be able charge their cars at the same time. In a highly concentrated and grid-constrained city, we need to think about electric transportation in the context of reimagining the electric grid, utility compensation, and incentives. That’s a complicated problem.

We have to view all these problems in a systemic way; it’s hard to pull out one piece without thinking about it all.

Hal Harvey: Shelley, companies like Google, Apple, Uber and a lot of start-ups and OEMs are exploring autonomous cars. Where’s Microsoft in this picture?

Shelley McKinley: We’re not a car company, but we have a big role in solving this issue. This isn’t a one-company problem or a three-company problem, or even a 20-company problem. It’s a multi-stakeholder discussion.

Where Microsoft fits in is that we are fundamentally a platform of tools: We make technology that enables others. Fundamentally, what we are interested in for the future is the possibility of a whole connected system of cars and how that could provide efficiency.

We are also very active in the last-mile problem—in the energy field. We worked with an energy company in Norway, for example, that was finding that they were getting more energy on the grid from solar power, but also more energy taken off of the grid through electric cars. They wanted to manage those peaks and valleys without building new fossil fuel energy systems, so we helped them understand, through big data and machine learning, how to optimize their energy resources.

Hal Harvey: Governor, the metropolitan area surrounding Denver includes nine counties or city-counties and 42 cities. Even with the most progressive ideas, how do you get all these jurisdictions to optimize anything?

John Hickenlooper: When I ran for mayor of Denver, my platform was that the future success of the city and county of Denver—which made up about 20 percent of the whole metropolitan area—was going to be based on the success of the suburbs.

Everybody told me, “You can’t say that.” But I said it anyway. Then they said, “You’ll never get reelected.” But I got reelected with 87 percent of the vote. At that time, there were 34 different municipalities in the metro area. And I went to the suburbs and said, “We’re never going to be a great city without great suburbs, and I’m going to do everything I can to make you the greatest suburbs in America.”

As a result, we passed a 0.4 percent sales tax increase to fund FasTracks, which called for 122 miles of new track—at that time, the largest transit initiative in the history of the country. And it was supported unanimously by all 34 mayors, two-thirds of whom were Republicans or conservative independents.

There’s a mistaken belief that, politically, you need an enemy. But if you’re willing to get past the attack ads, it’s a lot easier to go and build relationships. It all comes down to listening to people’s objections, then listening harder, and then going back and listening again. What it’s really about is getting an alignment of self-interests. It’s hard, but it’s possible. 

Hal Harvey: Richard, is there opportunity for collaboration and system optimization in NYSERDA’s work?

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Richard Kauffman: The electric system is not only energy inefficient, but also financially inefficient. There are a lot of winners to making the system more efficient. If we could improve average capacity utilization, we could save literally billions of dollars a year that could go into customer savings or to building out a cleaner energy system.

There are a lot of infrastructure improvements we need to make, but this also means that there is an opportunity to get business groups, environmental groups, and innovative energy companies on board. That’s why we’ve been able to make as much progress as we have.

People often criticize government for not getting things done. The reason it’s tough to get things done in government is because, in contrast to the private sector—and I was in the private sector—you have lots of stakeholders. But if you can align stakeholders to agree on things, you can do some big things.

Hal Harvey: There are profound opportunities, not only in last-mile connections, but in connections for the last 10 miles. But what policies and public infrastructure do we need to make it work?

Justin Kintz: Infrastructure is a big challenge, not only for last-mile connections, but for all transportation improvements. It’s like building a plane in the air. Hopefully, public-private partnerships can help get us to a future we want more quickly.

A company like Uber can do a lot—and we want to—but we’re just a small piece of the puzzle and the ecosystem. We’re very dependent on public infrastructure and other partnerships to realize our vision of being the preferred platform for transportation. We would like to be for transportation what Amazon is for retail, but we can’t get there alone.

Uber has a reputation that we earned while we were growing so fast for trying to do things by ourselves and not partnering well. That has changed. We’ve realized that we won’t get where we want to go unless we work together with government, and that’s what we want to do.

We are really supportive of physical infrastructure improvements. Safer bike lanes, for example, would absolutely drive up interest in using bikes and scooters. We’ve seen in places like Denmark and Amsterdam that infrastructure drives usage, and usage encourages people to drop their car—it’s that fly ball effect.

Connectivity is important as well. In Pittsburgh, where Uber has our self-driving experiments, we’ve seen that we need to know where the construction zones are. We need to know what infrastructure, like traffic lights, might not be working at the moment. Conversation with governments and law enforcement is critical to making the whole thing work, and we can share our data with local governments as well to improve the overall system.

Shelley McKinley: Public-private partnerships are crucial because both public data and private data are important resources for solving problems. So is understanding the geography of an area.

I just came back from living in Amsterdam, where I rode my bike every day—not for working out, but to actually get somewhere. That was a huge cultural difference. In Seattle, I wanted to take the bus to work. To get down the hill from my house to over the floating bridge to the bus stop was just impossible on a bicycle, and not great walking either. I ended up taking UberPOOL because it cost less than paying the tolls over the bridge.

Ultimately, the time involved to get anywhere on public transportation today is unacceptable for many people. I think we really have to focus on that.

Hal Harvey: Governor, when you were mayor of Denver, did you build bike lanes?

John Hickenlooper: Yes, we went all in for bikes; Metro Denver now has over 1,000 miles of bike trails.

We made an economic development decision to imagine that we were all 35-year-olds, and make our capital investments based on what would be attractive to us then. There are now more live music venues in Denver than there are in Austin.

This notion of ride-sharing to enhance public transportation is part of that. We really pushed the FasTrack investment because we thought it would be attractive to young people who didn’t want two cars to a family. And that has been absolutely true: We hear in poll after poll that our transit is a big plus.

Now we’re looking at autonomous vehicles. We have an experiment on the light rail line from Union Station to the airport, where prototype autonomous shuttles will take you right to your door and then back to the station. I think that’s going to really acclimate people to this notion of riding in an autonomous vehicle.

People read about one fatality, and the whole idea is poisoned. It took 50 years after the invention of safe elevators before people were willing to get into an elevator without an operator. These last-mile—or last seven-to-eight mile—projects are going to go a long way toward breaking down that resistance in people’s psychology.

Justin Kintz: We often hear requests for self-driving cars from cities wanting to know, “Does everything have to be connected? Do we have to have smart signals?” Of course, all those things help, but our self-driving engineers always respond: “Just get the basics right. Just paint the lane stripes and make sure there are no potholes.” Everyone’s in this race to get to the next advanced thing, but the basic infrastructure is a really good start.

John Hickenlooper: The challenge for government is that we don’t know what the private sector knows. That means that, when government tries to do something alone, as well meaning as we are, often it’s not going to work out. We might put in charging infrastructure, but nobody will use it because it’s not in the right location. Then people will drive by and say, “Nobody’s using electric vehicles—what a waste of public dollars.”

We do need a systems perspective, but we also need the private sector to tell us specifically what is needed. In my experience, what often happens is that private companies come to government  and talk about what’s in their interest—but they don’t see the Venn diagram of the overlap with other interests. A public-private partnership is about what’s going to make companies money that is also in the public interest. That’s what governments are interested in hearing from the private sector.

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© 2018 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.