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Transportation: Land of Cleantech Opportunity

Santiago Miret, Ph.D. student, materials science & engineering | March 29, 2015

Over 95% of the 1 billion cars in the world are parked at any given time and 95% of the energy consumed by a car is spent on moving the vehicle forward, not the person it is transporting. The many shortcomings of the modern transportation that have left tremendous opportunities for innovative cleantech solutions to truly revolutionize the system.

Modern transportation infrastructure has made the world more and more connected. In the last 2000 years, humanity has moved from relying horse carriages and ships with sails to a plethora of mechanical transportation systems that can cover large distances in very small times. While it might have taken a sailing ships weeks to cross the Atlantic from Europe to the Eastern Coast of the United, the same trip can be done today by airplane in less than 6 hours. In the last 200 years, transportation has not only been modernized, but also commoditized so that regular consumers can afford to move themselves over significant distance rather easily.

The car is a great example of the modernization of transportation: The invention of the automobile in the late 19th century by the German engineer Karl Friedrich Benz was followed by the commercialization of the personal automobile by the American entrepreneur Henry Ford, as well as substantial technological progress from global efforts from multiple automobile pioneers, have lead to the development of the modern car. The result of these various efforts has been an ubiquitous presence of cars on modern highway systems. The world currently sustain over 1 billion cars and is moving quickly to 2 billion, with 85 million personal vehicles sold in 2014 alone. Even though the presence of cars and modern transportation system has substantially improved modern lives and made great strides, these same have also generated a set of tremendous challenges that will most likely define the future of transportation:

  • Energy Efficiency: Most of the energy used to power modern transportation systems is spent on moving the machine rather than the persons occupying them. This stems from the fact that cars, trains, airplanes and ships are significantly heavier than the people they carry. Here are a few examples of these energy efficiencies for various systems:
  • Usage: Even as the global number of cars continues to increases, most of the world’s car remain idle for the majority of their lifetime. At a given point in time, over 95% of cars are parked and a lot of driving time is often spent in a traffic jam or looking for a parking spot, both of which can be considered dead time for a car. Furthermore, parking spaces take up substantial amounts of high-value real estate in modern cities, often upwards of 1/3 of city space. Highways, which were constructed explicitly for the modern car, are occupied less than 1% of the time, most of which is concentrated at traffic hot spots. Transportation experts believe that it can cost up to $1.37/mile for a person to drive a car, after accounting for the direct and indirect costs of operating and maintaining a modern car.

Cars are parked over 95% of the time and much other driving time is devoted to finding parking – Image: Simpson’s Army

A reasonable approach to increase the transportation energy efficiency of various systems is to decrease by using lighter materials. The most promising material for the the automobile and the aviation industry is carbon fiber, a material that is stronger and significantly lighter than aluminum, which is used as the body for nearly all of today’s cars. Reducing the weight of would substantially increase fuel economy by more than 50%, and some automobile are already working on bringing carbon fiber to their newer models, such BMW’s i3.

Carbon Fiber Production by BMW – Source: BMW Blog

Another approach to increase energy efficiency is to increase the efficiency of the powertrain that sustains the engine of the vehicle. An electric powertrain has an inherently higher efficiency than an internal combustion engine, since the energy is transferred directly to the wheels and does not an energy generation process to propel the vehicle forward. A switch to electric cars could lead to a systemic change in the transportation that could translate to massive benefits. Stefan Heck, a consulting professor at Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, believes that the future of transportation lies in Automated, Connected, Electric, Shared (ACES) vehicles. ACES takes advantage of the fact that cars are becoming more and more electronically equipped, and that software is becoming a more and more critical component in transportation. Tesla Motors, for example, recently fixed a major problem with a simple software upgrade as opposed to having to issue a recall for its cars. Autonomous cars, such as the Delphi driverless car, which is currently driving from California to New York, would also free up consumers to spend their otherwise and could cause tremendous systemic changes when combined with ride-sharing.

The Delphi Team and Driverless Car at the start of the journey in San Francisco on March 22, 2015 – Image: ABC News

This combination would allow ride-sharing to become automized and optimized by smarter algorithms. Currently it costs about $1.20/mile to transport a person using, but using ACES that cost of transportation could be reduced to 67 cents/mile with effective ride-sharing and even to 10 cents/mile with full implementation of ACES.

The future of transportation presents a substantial challenge, but also a real opportunity to overhaul the system with valuable innovation. Moreover, successful integration of some of the technological and business model innovation on the horizon has the potential to overhaul the transportation system as we know it and improve the life of regular consumers worldwide.

Comment to “Transportation: Land of Cleantech Opportunity

  1. George Orwell famously remarked that seeing what is right in front of your nose requires a constant struggle. The solution to having too many cars is to get rid of most of the cars — not to make the cars less inefficient.

    It’s civil engineers and city planners who can solve this crisis more than mechanical engineers and materials scientists. A neighborhood designed for people rather than for cars will not need cars — density and mixed-use zoning will mean shorter trips, so fewer cars will be needed/wanted, and mass transit will make financial sense in both the short-term and the long-term.

    And imagine what might happen if individual workers’ wealth wasn’t being redistributed to oil companies, car industry executives, and finance institutions!

    This article presents the physics aspect of the stupidity of car culture well (energy is moving the cars around rather than the people, wastefully). But it doesn’t touch on the political economy aspect of the stupidity of car culture (human labor is redistributed to the auto industry and its related businesses, rather than into human welfare, wastefully).

    Every tax season we hear about how many days a worker takes to work off his tax burden, but when do we get to hear how many days she takes to work off her car burden? Would you trade helping out Uncle Sam if it meant you spent less time lining General Motors’ (and the Saudi royal family’s) pockets?

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