STS - conferences, IST2012

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On the relation of discourse and innovation activities: A comparison of hybrid electric and fuel cell vehicles
Bjoern BB Budde

Last modified: 2012-03-19


The reductions necessary to reach the level of greenhouse gas emission reductions considered to be necessary to keep the effects of climate change manageable are enormous and require radical technological and social innovation at several levels (UNFCCC 2009; Stern 2006). Due to these requirements and the increasing share of the total GHG emissions caused by automotive transport, the automotive industry is expected by the public and policy makers to develop more sustainable alternative drive train systems.

However, a number of experts argue that the automotive industry is probably “window-dressing”, by conducting innovation activities only at the necessary level to satisfy public concerns (van den Hoed 2005). Furthermore we have seen the emergence of several hype/disappointment cycles concerning alternative drive train technologies, in particular fuel cell technology in the past. These cylceswere  caused by an opening gap between the expectations raised and the ability to deliver the promised technologies to the market within the proposed timeframe (Konrad et al. in preparation; van Lente and Spitters 2009).

This paper analyzes the relation between innovation and discourse activities in the cases of hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) and fuel cell vehicles (FCV). The outcome of the innovation activities up to now is quite distinctive: While HEVs are successfully deployed to the market; fuel cell vehicles are not commercially available yet. In this paper, we start with an overview about the discourse and innovation activities of the automotive industry using patent data and media attention as indicators. Second, two case studies - Daimler and Toyota -  are presented, since these companies are regarded as pioneers and most influential actors with regard to fuel cell respectively hybrid technology.

Our analysis reveals that in the case of HEVs innovation activities were intensified first, followed by an intensification of discourse activities. The opposite dynamics could be observed in the case of FCVs. The paper shows that these differences can be explained by the characteristics of the technology. HEVs are not dependent on a new infrastructure, therefore there was no incentive to inflate expectations about the technology prior to market introduction. However, FCVs are dependent on the build-up of a new infrastructure, thus there was an incentive to inflate expectations about the technology to motive other actors to join innovation activities in the field, since the build-up of an infrastructure for a technology offered by a single car company was not considered a viable option.