Interview with Joël de Rosnay, by Dan Bialod, published in "Energy and Sustainable Development Magazine"
Salon EV-MC 2004 Monte-Carlo April 1st to 4, 2004
Joël de Rosnay is the adviser of the president of the “Cité des sciences et de l’industrie”. In October 2003, the “Cité des sciences” has launched an important program “managing the planet” about
the environment, with an exhibition called Climax, an exhibition that will start on March 30th about solar energy and many topics as well as debates and exhibitions in the areas devoted to
sciences and news about renewable energy, future vehicles, etc.
In his book “The symbiotic man”, published in 1995, he wrote about subjects such as renewable energies, wind turbines, electric cars.
Joël de Rosnay is also the president of Biotics, a consulting company specialised in companies strategies that are bases on technological convergence.
Lastly, he is the owner of a Peugeot electric scooter since more than five years et he is presently testing a hybrid car, the Toyota Prius 2, in loan for three to six months.
Dan Bialod : In a text that was published in 1995, you expressed your fear about a possible antagonism between the notion carried by the French translation of “sustainable development” (développement durable) and economic development and you proposed to call it “regulated adaptive development” instead. Today, as sustainable development is commonly quoted and some companies are committed to it, what do you think about this notion?
Joël de Rosnay : If you ask sustainable development managers within companies to define precisely their functions and their roles, you will get different versions. Sustainable development and the application of company policies or company strategies to sustainable development are still rather fuzzy. It is difficult to tell exactly what it is about. Energy savings, quite so, protecting the environment, obviously, educating people so that they can cope with the disorders resulting from unregulated development, certainly. In English, sustainable development means the ability of a system to self-maintain itself depending on a flow of energy and information going through it and enabling the preservation of the structure and of the organisation. In French, the meaning of “développement durable” is unclear: is it a development that should last or that can be made to last? Regulated adaptive development, although the term is rather technical, has three advantages. Firstly, it accounts for development as for a living organism, which develops in all directions at one time. Adaptive means that this development will adapt to its environment not to be in contradiction with the ecosystem in which the developing systems is. Thirdly, regulated is the role of ecocitizens, each one being responsible of this harmonious development.
Dan Bialod : Are the market and voluntary agreements, which are often preached, enough to get such a development?
Joël de Rosnay : I do not think they are sufficient because the market laws alone are not going to allow for the regulation of the main economic, technical, industrial, scientific developments. We need the role of each one of actors at its own level, big company, SME or public organisation. This is the reason why at the Cité des sciences we care so much about informing ecocitizens as opposed to egocitizens. These are selfish, individualist, will use their car to go shopping a few hundred meters from home. Those have an interdependent vision of evolution, of their ability to manage and to control their environment. The egocitizen thinks everyone for himself while the ecocitizen thinks everyone for all. Hence, a change of mentalities is required, to which the Cité des sciences contributes, notably through its exhibitions about the main present topic “managing the planet”. I shall add that one single means is not enough, such as rulings or taxation, but that a combination of means is required, tax incentives, information, regulation through a feedback about one’s actions, for immediately assessing their results. This is difficult because we are more inclined towards making a law and trying to enforce it rather than creating a combination of means, less visible but with more efficient results.
Dan Bialod : Do you think there is a hope that countries where transportation demand is growing very fast, such as China or India, will not follow the same paths we took in terms of energy intensive and polluting mobility solutions? Is there a possibility to develop low pollution and highly efficient products as big markets exist?
Joël de Rosnay : I do not think there is much hope to convince India or China that they should consume less to limit their CO2
emissions. Those are countries that are going to develop with high growth rates and their population numbers so much compared to humanity as a whole that it will be difficult in the next decades,
for cultural, political, geostrategic reasons to slow down this development.
Conversely, there are indeed important markets, on the condition that they will be solvent, for which alternate solutions that would reduce CO2 emissions and allow for a regulation of these growths and developments, can be offered.
Dan Bialod : Some battery or fuel cell manufacturers now set up operations in China, looking for lower manufacturing costs and for local markets from which it would be possible to export low-priced products towards the US or Europe.
Joël de Rosnay : Some countries such as Iceland or states such as Hawaï have volunteered to be pilot country or state for the production and use of hydrogen for transportation or for domestic or industrial applications. If one imagines that China, through a topdown policy, decides to make hydrogen a strategic priority, the world would shift towards a new economy where indeed, fuel cell manufacturers and users could find in China a continuously expanding market. But this is not so and there is nothing to hint that it could happen. Moreover, hydrogen must be produced either by using solar energy with large areas and high efficiency panels or from nuclear power. A third way exists that is still in the limbs, biomass, from which hydrogen can be extracted through high-pressure techniques using catalysts.
Dan Bialod : In Europe, diesel has been mainly developed, the US expects a technological breakthrough towards hydrogen, still far-fetched as you have just explained, and presently Japan is providing a solution that was little considered and that you are yourself testing, the hybrid vehicle. We could also mention biofuels. What kind of transition do you imagine towards cleaner means of transportation?
Joël de Rosnay : Speaking about diesel, we should consider diester, for which Peugeot for example builds competition vehicles with
highly efficient engines, which, when well tuned-up, do not pollute much and have less CO2 emissions. But a political will is required together with tax incentives to enable cars and not only
buses to use diester.
Regarding hybrid cars, we have here a future trend that remains according to me a transition between present gasoline or diesel cars and fuel cell cars in several ten years. R&D engineers from Toyota, which proposes the most evolved hybrid car on the market, the Prius 2, explained to me that a fuel cell car is planned but, for distribution and safety reasons, they do not think that these vehicles could be commercialised earlier than in fifteen or twenty years. At the beginning of this transition period, hybrid cars will occupy niche markets for innovation prone customers. Those are nevertheless cars with very promising features that announce the car of tomorrow.
Dan Bialod : Could not hybrid cars become everyone’s car?
Joël de Rosnay : Certainly, but that is not restricted to cars only and hybrid vehicles can also be buses and trucks as well as
off-road equipments such as automotive lawn-mowers in place of using polluting two-stroke engines. However these solutions are hindered by the difficulty of developing new markets for which there
are no customers ready to pay the price.
Take for example the case of the Peugeot scooter that I bought five years ago. Here is a vehicle that carries me at 50 km/h on a 80 km range, that can be charged in one and half hour and which is powerful enough to operate a mower. But there is no automotive electric lawn-mower on the market because manufacturers think that there is no market because of the price of such products.
Dan Bialod : Speaking of the electric scooter, what are its advantages and drawbacks?
Joël de Rosnay : It is more than a transportation means. It starts and accelerates faster than a thermal scooter, it is noiseless, non
polluting, odourless. When driving, I have the feeling of surfing, like with skis or a snowboard. It is a machine that moves swiftly with a ludic side, while having all the features of a normal
scooter, with speed meter and a meter showing available energy. It takes less than two hours to charge plugging the electric wire from under the seat into a domestic socket. One drawback is that
even with the buzzer fitted by the manufacturer to alert pedestrians, you have to be very careful in walking areas where electric vehicles are allowed or downtown as people do not hear it
But, in spite of a price almost the same as for a thermal scooter when accounting for subsidies, it is true that the market for the electric scooter did not develop. Nevertheless, young people who see it, who usually drive noisy two-wheels, want to try it and look thrilled.
The fact remains that all those small neighborhood electric vehicles require to be charged from the grid and that presently used batteries are not easily recycled. The advantage of the hybrid vehicle is the autonomy provided by its low-consumption engine.
Dan Bialod : What do you think about a plug-in HEV with more energy storage?
Joël de Rosnay : Why not if a charging infrastructure is made available, in car-parks or through charging terminals. The all-electric
range would be greater. For the Prius for example, the nominal range in electric mode is 2 km.
In reality, things are more complex, as these two kilometers are repetitive as they become available again as soon as the engine has recharged the batteries, which happens very quickly. And it is true that the feeling of being autonomous is a favoured feature of users of vehicles such as the Prius.
Conversely, one can as well imagine a hybrid car with clean engine running on biofuel and that could also be charged using grid power from non-polluting energy sources.
Dan Bialod : Finally, technique are available but behaviour must change?
Joël de Rosnay : The car of the 40’s to 80’s, focused on speed and comfort, where one took with him part of his home, due to the prices
and models of cars, let to comparisons and to power competition from the driver.
This era is vanishing with speed and alcohol limitation enforcement. The motorcar associated with collective aggressiveness on the roads and to accidents is progressively changing, faster than expected. Respecting speed limitation led drivers feel more interdependent, roundabouts where priority is on the left and where we enter more slowly are more favourable than traffic lights for the collective intelligence of car drivers. Hybrid cars such as the Prius pollute so little, are so noiseless that the driver feels responsible towards its environment and he behaves differently. In the next ten to fifteen years, as this kind of cars will become more common, the behaviour of car drivers will change and the trend is already here. It would be a paradox to show that the car is a catalyst for societal change, but why not.
Dan Bialod : Last question, can you tell us about your sensations when driving the Prius?
Joël de Rosnay : The Prius is the most sophisticated car I ever drove. At a stop, it is noiseless, but as soon as you press the pedal, everything restarts, it starts moving in electric mode, if more acceleration is demanded, the engine overruns the motor. A screen shows at all time the car’s energy flow. When you lift the foot from the pedal, the batteries are automatically recharged. The electric mode can also be forced to prevent polluting in car-parks or in traffic jams. When circulating the air through the high efficiency filters that are fitted into the Prius, with the radio on and the car running on electric mode, you have a pleasant feeling like being inside a small ecologic bubble.