Technology Trends in Transportation

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A variety of opportunities exist to address energy challenges in the transportation sector. They include use of clean burning, renewable fuels; implementation of vehicle fuel economy improvements; and consumer support of alternative transportation approaches such as walking and bicycling.

One example of an alternative fuel is ethanol produced from sugar cane. In Brazil the cost of cane-derived ethanol is approximately $35 per barrel of oil equivalent (boe). When oil prices exceed $40 per barrel, there is clearly a commercial market for Brazilian ethanol; recently this has been reflected in sharply increased prices for sugar on the international commodity exchanges. Other tropical countries may see the opportunity to establish cost effective domestic, renewable energy industries as well. Hopefully policy decisions that are taken in this regard will be taken for the right reasons, reflect truly sustainable values, and not jeopardize water supplies or essential food production.

Conventional biofuels have the disadvantage that they are not readily fungible in significant proportions with fossil fuels and thus may require costly, segregated facilities for storage and distribution. Moreover, at higher concentrations, they are unsuitable for much of the current vehicle fleet. Research is being conducted to address this problem through the use of advanced biofuels that are compatible for blending with conventional oil-derived fuels in any proportion and require no new infrastructure or engine technology. Indeed, the goal is to create biofuel substitutes with no discernable differences from fossil fuels.

Naturally there is a concern that in solving one problem we do not create another. In-depth analyses of potential biofuel production suggest that there is possibly a constrained land capacity to meet more than 20 percent of the demand for transportation fuel on a global basis. Such analysis makes allowance for land to maintain food production, water requirements, and land quality.

The fossil fuel that is often forgotten as a potential transportation fuel but is available in relative abundance, is coal. The rise in oil prices begins to make coal-to-liquids technologies attractive. In Shanxi province in China, there is extensive research on coal to methanol technology and the development of associated technologies that will be required to realize the benefits. This is an interesting example of bucking convention to make use of what is available locally.

Turning from the fuels to the vehicles that burn them, the advent of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) in the automotive market in recent years has generally improved the potential fuel economy of vehicles. The modular design of HEV powertrains enables several generations of development from the same platform. It is envisaged that HEVs will become progressively more electrified as new models are introduced over time. If forecast advances in battery technology are realized, the plug-in HEV with a 150-kilometer all-electric range will be available for city use in the relatively near future. This will have significant additional benefits in improving urban air quality and noise. With good planning and optimized electricity generation, it can also lead to more efficient use of energy and reduced overall GHG emissions.

The advent of HEV technology raises the possibility of all-electric vehicles for the mass market. What if a far more efficiently electrified society that optimizes the supply and demand balance in a way that includes supplying transportation needs could be developed? If electricity can be generated, stored, and transmitted cleanly and efficiently, there will be significant benefits in terms of GHG and LAQ emission reductions. There will also be other benefits—for example, a much quieter environment. The sources of electrical energy are many and can be chosen to suit the circumstances of the location. Coal, gas, liquid hydrocarbons, hydrogen, wind, solar photovoltaic, and thermal can all be used in the right circumstances and combinations. A challenge for the future is to take a holistic view that looks to a sustainable future, reflecting the various and diverse interests of the many relevant stakeholders.

Development of HEV technology by major automakers is one example of the successful effort by private companies, including oil companies, in promoting more efficient technology that can lead to reduced CO2 emissions. This effort will be of little value, however, if the consumer does not also make a positive contribution in reducing demand. National, regional, and local governments have roles to play in promoting GHG reduction programs. They can formulate and implement policy that stimulates reduced consumer demand for energy. In the transportation field this can take many forms, including preferential taxation for low energy vehicles and more efficient fuels and lubricants, the provision of attractively routed and priced reliable public transport, the creation of private vehicle exclusion zones, and the provision of cycle paths and safe walkways for pedestrians. Encouraging people to walk and cycle will also have long-term benefits in terms of physical and mental health that can be translated into financial benefits and a general sense of public wellbeing. Provided they are implemented in a thoughtful and holistic way, actions to positively influence consumer behavior will contribute to all of the SMP goals: lower LAQ and GHG emissions, greater safety and social equity, reduced congestion and noise, and expanding mobility access.

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