Your car could be the next iPhone

Apple Store LineWhen introducing the iPhone, Steve Jobs said, “Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.” Fast-forward just six years later: for most of us it’s hard to imagine what the world would be like without those magical devices. Not only has the phone propelled Apple to become the world’s most valuable company (a position that was recently lost to Exxon Mobil Corp. after a record-setting year for oil prices and a cooling down of Apple’s stock) but it also created an entire “smartphone” industry.

The smartphone industry not only employs many people in the design, production and distribution of phones, many more are employed in and profiting from the creation of applications (apps) and phone accessories.

So how does this relate to your car? Smartphones have transformed cellphones into a platform for competition, creating a new market for innovation that would only seem like a fantasy a few short years ago. Our cars, believe it or not, can also be transformed into a platform that could enable potentially limitless innovation.

Imagine what would happen if your car could run on any number of fuels, not just gasoline. This option is actually quite possible; Henry Ford and other pioneer automakers engineered their cars to run on several fuels.

Ethanol OldModel T drivers could choose between ethanol, kerosene or gasoline for filling up their tanks. This created competition, helping to drive down the price of fuels. Partly because oil was so plentiful and easy to drill for at the time, gasoline eventually became the cheapest fuel, thus beating out its competitors as the most common fuel.

Ethanol and methanol are both completely viable fuels that can power your car at a cheaper price than gasoline can, on a dollar per mile basis. What’s more, both fuels can be made from a variety of feedstocks. In Brazil, ethanol is primarily produced from sugarcane, whereas in the U.S. it is produced largely from corn. However, there are many firms already making cellulosic ethanol, capable of powering your car, from everything from wood chips to seaweed to algae. Today, methanol is mainly produced from natural gas, but it, too, like ethanol, can be produced from many sources including our trash!

If automakers revert to manufacturing their vehicles to run on a variety of fuels, a whole new area of competition and innovation could appear overnight. Your engine would once again be a platform that allows for competition from different fuels, rather than being forced to purchase only gasoline. And just like smartphones, this can give rise to entire new industries, potentially resulting in unprecedented economic expansion and technological breakthroughs.

If your car can run on fuels that can be made from virtually anything, the possibilities, and the economic growth, are endless. May the best fuel win!