A Multi-Level Perspective on the Introduction of Hydrogen and Battery-Electric Vehicles

Battery-electric and hydrogen vehicles have the ability to change a significant number of challenges present in the current automobile sector. These changes pertain to internal combustion engines, hereafter ICEs, by targeting the rise of global climate change, deterioration of air quality, high fuel prices, and the security of energy supplies. Van Bree et al. attempt to address all questions regarding the transition to these alternative vehicles, particularly focusing on the relationship between car manufacturers and consumers and the developments that could interfere. As environmental issues become more urgent, the likelihood of adopting new alternatives becomes more likely.  While it is made clear that neither alternative automobile technology is considered superior to the other or to conventional vehicles, only with technical progress can an answer be provided on the futures of the technologies. The authors divide their paper into six sections. Beginning in section two with an explanation of their methodology, the authors give an overview of the relationships between technology and society. Sections 3–5 describe the automobile within the current system of personal transportation. Section 6 describes two scenarios that could aid in the transition to alternative fuel vehicles, hereafter AFVs. Section 7 discusses the implications of these scenarios in the context of the current economic situations and the role policy makers place in supporting technology. The authors conclude that the development of technology of the coming years “will lay the foundation for the dynamics of the coming transition” to both fuel cell and battery electric vehicles.—Laura Silverberg
Van Bree, B., Verbong, G.P.J., Kramer, G.J., 2010. A Multi-Level Perspective on the Introduction of Hydrogen and Battery Electric Vehicles. Technological Forecasting & Social Change 77, 529–540.

Van Bree et al., in an effort to tackle the problems regarding the transition to AFVs, clarify that the transition itself is based in the joint development of technology and society. In order to fully comprehend the transition, the authors state that a multi-level perspective, hereafter MLP, should be embraced. In the MLP, three levels are examined: the middle level, the socio-technical regime consisting of the socio-technical system, actors, and rules regarding typical behavioral patterns in the carmaker-consumer relationship, which comprises all elements pertaining to production, distribution, and use of technology; the top level, landscape developments, developments meant to put pressure on the regime and can open a “window of opportunity” for breakthrough technologies; the bottom level, technological niches, the location for new technology development that have the means to be protected from market pressures.
Colleagues Geels and Schot provide an extension of the patterns that describe the transitions in the MLP in four pathways, all differing in the types of timing of multi-level interactions: transformation, regarding moderate landscape pressure; de-alignment and re-alignment, addressing sudden and diverse landscape pressure; technological substitution, presenting fully developed niche technology; and reconfiguration, similar to the transformation pathway with moderate landscape pressure, though with the addition of subsequent adoptions of symbiotic elements of niche technologies “lead[ing] to changes in the basic architecture of the system.”  In the event that “no niche-innovation has sufficiently developed, a competition between niche technologies may result, from which one winner emerges, as in the de-alignment and re-alignment pathway.”  Regardless, the pathways system is simply meant to provide further guidance to the scenarios that delineate a possible transition to AFVs.
The third section of the paper focuses solely on the socio-technical system for land-based road transportation. The automobile, “its cultural and symbolic meaning, markets and user practices, and the production system and industry structure” are all examined. The most central actors present in this system include car manufacturers, consumers and fuel providers. Other groups, namely non-governmental organizations, attempt to influence the system. The purchasing process is an important place to begin the study, in that it helps to describe how the car market works and how consumer preferences play a role in the carmaker-consumer relationship. Van Bree et al. gather that “safety, reliability, and comfort are the most important criteria for the buyers of any vehicle. Together with price, they can be considered the primary [purchasing] decision criteria.” Additionally, with rising fuel prices, the most sensible response for consumers is to “switch to more fuel-efficient cars, rather than opting for driving less.” The authors also assess the variety of automobile models that have reached the market over the last decades and the competition that arises between car manufacturers, the increasing modularity of car design, and the relevance of vehicle upgrades to users, all enabled by “consumer expectations and car-manufacturers’ drive to increase profitability.”
The fourth section considers two niche-innovations, battery-electric vehicles, hereafter BEVs, and fuel cell vehicles, hereafter FCVs, and the barriers that they face. These barriers include “the chicken and the egg problem,” “mismatch with consumer preferences,” and “high cost.” The authors disregard hydrogen from these barriers, although they do assess hydrogen as a technological-niche, since it takes place “in a highly protected environment and…[its] stability is low, i.e. a standard technical solution has not been decided on yet.” The electricity-niche is also evaluated.
In the fifth section, Van Bree et al. describe three relevant landscape developments: fuel prices, supply security of fossil fuels, and environmental stresses. The authors’ most important observation is that “supply, relative to demand, will be more constrained in the future.” Imbalances between supply and demand will cause oil prices to increase, particularly due to limited reserves. It is up to local governments to combat the effects of fossil fuel combustion by tightening emission standards.
The sixth section focuses on the segments of the transition process in the MLP. Linkages, otherwise known as “transition seeds,” present between various levels of the transition trajectory, have the potential to trigger change within market dynamics, particularly between consumer and carmaker behaviors, and can lead to new development. The authors assess two sets of scenarios as a means to accept the transition to AFVs. In the first set, tightening emissions regulations influences carmakers to scale up their vehicles and commercialize their products. The second set of scenarios pertains to rising fuel prices. This encourages carmakers to implement plug-in versions of their vehicles, and later with battery-electric and fuel cell vehicles. These two sets of scenarios provide different implications for the actors and infrastructure involved. The authors determine that while both FCVs and BEVs can coexist in a competitive market, the adoption of the BEVs would require more changes.
Van Bree et al. conclude their paper in section 7, reinforcing the potential that the institutionalized relationship between carmakers and consumers has to shape the transition from ICEs to BEVS and FCVs. While the economic collapse has severely affected the United States, the authors, suggesting the first set of scenarios, find it necessary to restructure the car industry. Products should be more fuel-efficient and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles should be implemented on a mass scale, starting with the public push for the Chevrolet Volt as the foundation. 

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