The Future Of Transportation: Not So Fast Marty McFly!

By Ramanan Krishnamoorti, UH Chief Energy Officer

Back when I was a college student in India, I was quite taken by “Back to the Future,the Steven Spielberg movie that promised hoverboards for personal transportation and fantasy nuclear powered cars to make time travel possible.  Today, hoverboards are a reality, albeit as a toy for adults and not quite ready to serve as a personal transportation device. Tesla is selling cars with “falcon” wings, like the DeLorean in Back to the Future, and the “insane speed” button.  And I am left pondering the future of personal transportation.

Three fundamental changes are asking us to pause and consider the future of transportation:  the ascendency of alternate and sustainable forms of energy that look to replace fossil fuels, specifically crude oilbased gasoline and diesel; lighter and higher energy density storage batteries and the ubiquitous sweep of global positioning satellites, cellular data and the internet of things.

Is the future of transportation one where a driverless, ownerless, electric car is called up on demand, either from the road in the neighborhood — a la Uber — or from a nearby garage?

Very possibly and in the not so distant future. But only in niche markets.  Expanding this to the whole realm of personal transportation still faces significant hurdles.

I see this happening in urban locations where space is limited, travel times are relatively short and significant advantages of scale can be used to replace the existing infrastructure of private cars, private garages and public parking lots. In fact, every time I visit New York City or Washington, D.C., I believe those cities are already living in a socialized era of personal transportation that reflects an ownerless car society.  In a controlled urban environment – say within the city limits of any major metropolis where driving bans are common, such as Singapore, Beijing or New Delhi – it would appear that the remaining hurdles of driverless and electric cars would be most easily tackled.

Google and Tesla are already experimenting with driverless cars.  And yes, electric cars are becoming more commonplace.  But an enormous challenge remains.  These concepts, especially driverless cars, must be executed at full scale or risk failure, possibly disaster.

The question is whether human-driven cars and driverless cars can coexist.  Testing is underway in California and Austin, among other places, and much of the preliminary data suggest accidents occur when the driverless cars are confounded by the driving patterns of cars driven by humans.

Even at scale, there are serious ethical questions about driverless cars and the decision-making that might be required of machines. It’s easy to say the cars would be programmed to protect life over property. But what about avoiding an errant pedestrian while risking injury to the car’s passengers? How do we feel about allowing those split-second decisions to be made by the algorithms maneuvering the car?

And then there are natural disasters (such as the 11-year cyclical solar flares) that could knock out all communications and significantly disrupt the power-grid. We will have to have safety features built in to the technology before large-scale deployment. The weakest links of this increasingly complex communications network will define the resilience of the technology.

Even with all of that confronting driverless cars, replacing the entire fleet of internal combustion engine based personal transportation vehicles with electric cars will prove the more challenging issue.

First, why electric cars?  The use of fossil fuels – gasoline, diesel, compressed or liquefied natural gas – and biofuels, including ethanol and biodiesel, lead to the widespread generation of carbon dioxide and in some cases pollutants such as nitrous oxides and particulate matter, including soot.  Moreover, natural gas, either liquefied or compressed, faces two challenges: natural gas is intrinsically less energy intensive than petroleum-based gasoline and the infrastructure to switch to natural gas in a country as large as the U.S. are enormous  – several trillion dollars, according to some estimates. On the other hand, biofuels production at scale in the U.S. would seriously raise the debate of food vs. fuel, and their use would pose some of the same challenges associated with the use of diesel, such as increased particulate pollution.  Hydrogen-powered automobiles were considered the panacea about 10 years ago but have fallen behind because of the significant engineering challenges.

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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on the National Defense University

Today, with over 300 million automobiles and about three trillion annual vehicle miles driven in the U.S., a little over a quarter of the energy demand comes from the transportation sector. Cars, light trucks and motorcycles represent about 20% of all the energy consumed in the U.S. Even the most ambitious plans for the adoption of alternate energy platforms suggests that those platforms, if deployed at full throttle 50 years from now, would be able to provide the energy needs for personal transportation and nothing more.

In the meantime – until the alternate energy platforms mature – where will we build the electric power generation we would need to power all of those electric vehicles?  And will those be powered by coal, natural gas or nuclear energy? These are critical questions that need to be confronted by all of us as we consider the future of transportation.

As daunting as those challenges are, there is one that looms larger for the broad-based electrification of the automobile fleet, and that is current battery technology. While significant improvements in battery storage technologies have been made over the last two decades, the challenge of weight, energy density, cost and reliability over an extended period of use have fueled significant anxiety regarding batteries and more broadly, electric vehicles. The technology improved, thanks to millions of dollars invested from both public and private sources, but it will take several years before widespread use might be expected.

Add in one last challenge – we are facing a generational low in gasoline prices, improvements in the efficiency of internal combustion engines and sorry, Marty McFly, but the anticipated widespread adoption of driverless, ownerless, nomadic, all electric automobiles is probably going to be later rather than sooner.

Feature image: By Steve Jurvetson, via Wikimedia Commons

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