And what about the failures so far?
We negotiate technology milestones, and if projects cannot meet their milestones by a big margin—if the idea just doesn't work out—we first roll up our sleeves as scientists and engineers and try to help them. The program directors are there to say, "Hey, do you have any ideas that could help these guys?" And I read papers and try to help. This is a whole process that lasts for five or six months.
But some ideas just don't work out. It sounds like a great idea but unless you try it you'll never know. And when those ideas don't work out and we know it is a blind alley, we discontinue the project. Do not keep putting money where you know it is not going to work out. Discontinue the project and put whatever money you save, put it in something that is actually working. That is the best stewardship for taxpayer dollars.
Does the U.S. have a fear of failure at present? Do we need to take more risks?
Here's the thing: as a federal government agency our role is [to invest] where things are too risky for the private sector—to do research that may not pan out. If 100 percent of these projects worked out, we're not doing our job. The private sector should be doing that. Our job is to do research. What we do is translate science and apply it. That is something everyone should understand. If the federal government does not support research then we have a problem.
When you're doing research, then by definition some things don't work out. These are home-run ideas, when you try to hit a home run. If you hit every ball for a home run, I'd like to meet that baseball player. You do not. Some of them you are going to miss but that is what research is about.
I don't call them failures, I call them opportunities to learn. So these people can come back again with a better idea. That is how Americans have always done things. You think Edison got everything right the first time? I doubt it. You think the Wright brothers got it right the first time or even first 10 times? No. Eventually they got it. But they missed a few times.
How do you balance between this goal of hitting home runs and the reality of hitting singles?
We are certainly not going for singles, we are not going for incremental progress. We made it very clear if you look at [our calls for proposals], you will see the definition of what is incremental and what is not. And we are clearly going for home runs. Now, can I claim I've hit a home run yet? That's going to take a few more years to find out, but the trajectory of that ball that I hit or that we are hitting seems like a home run. That's all I can say right now.
But, for example, you have a new program in natural gas and that's certainly not a risky fuel. Why do we need breakthroughs in natural gas?
I can tell you why. For example, if you were to use natural gas for light-duty vehicles—passenger cars—it is really expensive to put the infrastructure in place for compressed natural gas that is similar to the gasoline stations on every street corner. It will cost you several hundred billion dollars. There may be a better way to do it.
The better way to do it is to see if you could do home refueling, because natural gas reaches your home. For that to pay back in four to five years, that technology doesn't exist today. That needs a breakthrough. If you could bring down the cost of natural gas transportation for light-duty vehicles so you could refuel at home, then the adoption of that in the mass market will certainly be there. If it pays for itself in four years or five years, I think a lot of people would be thinking of buying natural gas vehicles. So that is what we are trying to do.