Handicapping the ‘Race Toward Zero’

A controversial book that advocates a multi-pronged approach to reducing vehicle emissions says the future is ‘eclectic,’ rather than solely electric. Co-author Kelly Senecal explains.

WCX 2023 is being held at Detroit's Huntington Place convention center. (Chris Clonts)

Kelly Senecal did not set out to champion the multi-modal approach to vehicle carbon reduction. He’s the CEO of Covergent Science, a company specializing in computational fluid dynamics. A mechanical engineer with extensive experience in software, his CFD customers are in every field of propulsion technology, including batteries, fuel cells and ICEs. Senecal “kind of fell into my transportation-neutrality advocacy” in 2016, in a TED-X talk he gave to University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering students.

Kelly Senecal, Ph.D., is mechanical engineer and SAE Fellow. (Kelly Senecal)

“At the time it was clear to me that it wasn’t looking good for the IC engine,” he told SAE Media. “The VW ‘dieselgate’ scandal and Tesla’s upward success had accelerated calls to phase out combustion engines,” he recalled. Politicians, policymakers, and general media were declaring the ICE dead. “So, the talk I gave in Madison was in defense of the ICE.” Senecal’s point is that the world’s vehicle-propulsion future “is eclectic” with multiple solutions including hybrids, biofuels, e-fuels, hydrogen and of course, EVs. This led him to enlist his friend Felix Leach of Oxford University to co-author the award-winning 2021 book, Racing Toward Zero: The Untold Story of Driving Green, published by SAE International.

SAE Media editor Lindsay Brooke spoke with Senecal prior to his keynote speech at SAE’s WCX 2023 in Detroit.

Your very interesting book is based on the premise that the vehicle future is “eclectic” rather than solely electric. As an engineer, what made you write the book?

I’m a CFD guy; that’s my day job. The ‘transportation-neutrality’ advocacy that I do relates to my day job, but it’s mainly my hobby. I’m not a ‘car guy;’ I love engines because they’re such a hard CFD problem. I’m vehicle- and propulsion-agnostic.

The ‘zero-emission vehicle solution’ as it’s labeled is almost offensive to a guy who has worked for years, with others, in reducing emissions. As we know, you can’t just toss emissions from vehicles somewhere else — throw them back to the power grid and claim they’re gone. That’s what got me down this road. I got the idea to write the book while I was giving a talk in Italy on this topic. A student came up to me after the talk and said, ‘You should write a book on this.’

When you give your talks to engineering-student audiences, how do they react?

Some of it is preaching to the choir when I have an audience of mostly engine folks or mechanical-engineering folks. Even though they may not be involved with engines they can see the big picture. They’re used to drawing control volumes, and when I say you can’t just draw the control volume around the vehicle — you also have to draw it around the power plant, the battery production, the mining, the electrical grid, the audiences get it because they think in terms of systems.

But I’ve also given my talk on this topic in downtown San Francisco and in Madison. Both are very liberal cities. Everybody is very progressive. They want to believe they’re saving the planet. Today usually they get it; they realize their electricity has to come from somewhere. But back in 2016 people weren’t thinking like that regarding EVs. They were thinking great, you just plug it in and don’t have to put gas in it. EVs are being sold as zero-emission vehicles. They’re not. In fact, their emissions can be higher than those of an efficient IC engine vehicle, especially if it’s hybridized. It kind of blew the audiences’ minds.

I get a lot of different reactions depending on who my audience is. I’m hoping that for this SAE [2023 WCX] we get an audience across the whole spectrum. People who believe electric is the entire future and also those who see a future with many solutions. SAE asked me to do this talk as a conversation driver, as one of the opening keynotes. It’s good to have the debate.

In the SAE magazines we’ve covered the important issues of how to manage the transition to EVs, how long that is going to take, what to do with a billion mostly ICE vehicles on the world’s streets. Industry can’t just give a new EV to everybody in the world who owns a vehicle. Alternate fuels offer opportunity to transition the incumbent fleet; what about green fuels, hydrogen, etc.?

The nearly one billion people who live outside the world’s major vehicle markets don’t even have access to electricity. How are they going to charge an EV? Everything you note here are points in my talk. What do we do with the existing fleet that will be on the road for another 20 years? Every new vehicle sold has another 20 years on the road ahead of it. What’s interesting here is the EPA with its newly announced regulations wants to have 60 percent of new vehicles to be fully electric by 2030.

I can be very controversial and willing to say a lot of things. But why aren’t government and industry coming together for a multi-pronged-solutions future? Because it’s become so political. When I show people in the U.S. Dept. of Energy and EPA how to assess vehicle emissions based on a life-cycle analysis, versus how those agencies are doing it, I get a totally different answer than what they’re saying publicly.

Many engineering leaders have told me privately that their companies’ commitment to EVs-or-nothing is a mistake in their view. They support hybrids and alt fuels as solutions worth pursuing. But they obviously cannot disagree with corporate policy.
Senecal is co-author, with Felix Leach, of ‘Racing to Zero: The Untold Story of Driving Green,’ published by SAE in 2021. (SAE)

Yes. The U.S. has a very complicated electricity grid. What works in Washington state, with its hydroelectric power that’s great for EVs, doesn’t work in Wyoming. It doesn’t work in the Midwest. This is a hard problem that we can’t expect to solve with one ‘silver bullet’ solution. But we don’t need it to be a silver bullet because we have hybrid technologies. We have alternate fuels. Look at all the work that’s been done in the U.S. on biofuels. Are we going to just throw away that work and investment?

The ardent EV advocates are against any potential solution that isn’t 100% EV. They see developments such as carbon sequestration and hydrogen fuel cells as plots by the oil industry to stall EV adoption.

On hydrogen, I think it has a lot of potential. On the other hand, most of the hydrogen we currently make isn’t ‘green’ hydrogen, yet. Cummins Engine is working hard on this problem as a lot of other organizations are. It’s frustrating. I’m not against EVs. In certain applications they are the best solution from a carbon standpoint. But we can talk about other issues related to EVs such as human toxicity potential. EVs have show to be worse for health in some aspects.

If we just simplify the discussion to talk about greenhouse gases, there are definitely places where EVs make sense. But as soon as I say that, some people label me as an EV hater. There are other people would describe my views as pragmatic, like you did, and I appreciate that. But others, as soon as I say anything, will reply: You’re a shill for Big Oil. Just get electric vehicles.

I saw your editorial about how Toyota is getting beat up by critics for pursuing multi-pronged solutions including hybrids, and I cheered it. Stellantis is pretty pragmatic on this as well. But I feel that Toyota is the one company that is taking the multi-pronged approach because they sell vehicles worldwide. Their critics have said Toyota is far behind in its EV technology. But Toyota knows what it’s doing in this area. They could very well leapfrog everybody with solid-state batteries, just like they did with hybrids. They make the world’s best hybrids and for many places in the world, hybrids are the best solution from a climate standpoint. People should be cheering Toyota.

The limitations of the current-gen lithium batteries are well known. EV advocates regularly argue that new chemistries, such as solid state, are always coming and will be the ultimate answer. Just wait.

That’s right. But on the flip side of that coin, there may be an e-fuel or biofuel that comes along. I just talked to Sandia folks the other day who have a waste-to-fuel process to create biofuel. I never thought battery costs would come down to where they are today. To that point, the same results could well occur with biofuels and hydrogen, for example. If we ban IC engines, we could miss realizing those potential solutions.