SAE Blog Text

Kelly Senecal Shares His Alternative Blueprint for Vehicle Decarbonization at WCX 

Posted: April 25, 2023

According to Kelly Senecal, when it comes to sustainable solutions, “it’s not the engine, it’s the fuel.”   

During his WCX keynote titled “In Pursuit of Zero,” Senecal addressed the importance of Life Cycle Analysis when comparing vehicle technologies and why we should have hybrids and alternative fuels as part of the solution. 
Senecal kicked off his keynote session by asking the crowd a question written several years ago by his young son – “What is the most climate friendly today, a car with an electric motor or a car with an IC engine?”  

As the audience pondered the question, Senecal noted that cars are not going away and challenged listeners to another thought experiment: what if there was a vehicle technology that offered a substantial reduction to greenhouse gases (GHGs) over the vehicle’s lifetime, with no need for new infrastructure, flexibility to use advanced sustainable fuels and no change in consumer behavior.  

It’s a path Senecal believes is achievable, outlined through his proposed blueprint consisting of 7 steps: 

  1. Evaluate on a state-by-state basis which vehicle powertrain has the lowest GHG impact. 

  1. Roll out incentives in each state based on the vehicle powertrain type that produces the lowest GHGs. 

  1. Ramp up charging infrastructure in the states where the study supports it. 

  1. Reduce the fossil fuel content in liquid fuels through policy measures such as the Next Generation Fuels Act. The need for low carbon/sustainable fuels is unassailable given the vast existing fleet.  

  1. Determine federal funding for batteries, engines, and fuels in proportion to our nation's projected needs for each technology. 

  1. Revamp GHG regulations for cars and trucks based on the suggestions of Johnson and Senecal, SAE Update, 2022. 

  1. Repeat steps 1-6 periodically. 

Technology diversity is a deliberate part of his plan. Senecal believes we should not ban any specific technology; there needs to be an understanding that the best technology is likely to vary depending on the region and use case 

“We need a balanced approach to transportation, recognizing that there is no silver bullet solution,” said Senecal. “We should have a well-managed, diverse portfolio – we do this with our finances, and we should be doing this with the fleet.” 

Senecal closed his talk by repolling the audience on the opening question from his son, showcasing an enthusiasm for this nuanced and diverse approach. As for Senecal’s son, his answer to the question was - “It depends.” 
Dr. Kelly Senecal is the co-founder and owner of Convergent Science, a visiting professor at the University of Oxford and a co-founder and director of the Computational Chemistry Consortium (C3). In addition, Senecal is a SAE Fellow and co-author of “Racing Toward Zero: The Untold Story of Driving Green,” an SAE publication.