No Silver Bullet to Sustainable Transportation

It is projected that there will be two billion vehicles on the road worldwide by 2030. In some sense, what will constitute sustainable transportation at this scale seems quite clear: high efficiency, low-to-zero emission, and high accessibility are a few of the key areas for development. However, one point that was driven home at the Stanford Energy Club’s (SEC) Energy 360 speaker series is that there is no clear-cut answer to address our need for sustainable transportation. The SEC invited Dirk Rossberg, Head of Technology at BMW Group USA; Sven Beiker, Executive Director of Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS); Dave Duff, Senior Engineer at Google X’s autonomous car project and formerly Senior Engineer at Tesla Motors; and Max Baumhefner, Attorney at NaturalResources Defense Council (NRDC)’s Clean Vehicles and Fuels Program; to share their observations on the future of transportation and discuss incorporating the ‘sustainable’ into the transportation equation. The panel was moderated by Diana Ginnebaugh, a post-doctoral researcher in the Sustainable Transportation program at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center.

The panelists painted for us a picture of a future world of sustainable transportation. As Sven Beiker concisely summarized, the sustainable transportation future will consist of both technical transformation towards a wide spectrum of cleaner vehicle options and social reform towards a more community-based mobility model. The panelists discussed a future in which suburban-dwelling commuters may maneuver their fuel-efficient, electric or hybrid electric cars on intercity highways, amongst driverless autonomous cars. Freed from their wheel-steering duties, the passengers of these self-driven cars could then dedicate their attention elsewhere – perhaps to a conference call or a sizzling steak over a glass of red wine. City-dwellers will not have to worry about who is on driving duty or where to park their car.  A ride from car sharing services – a driverless version of today’s Lyft and Uber – will take them to their final destination, and then go off on its own to find parking or drive directly to its next pickup location. Collectively, the society saves on the cost of taxi operators as well as the cost of those wandering miles driven around searching for a parking spot. Additionally, autonomous vehicles advance the sustainability of vehicles because cars may be driven in such a way as to improve performance and reduce emissions – a significant improvement from the erratic operation of human drivers.

People will move away from personally-owned vehicles towards shared ride services. These shared rides will consist of a fleet of smart vehicles that can arrive on demand with minimal wait time and be customizable from AC setting to seat positioning. As a result, the future auto market will optimize vehicles for specific use cases as opposed to competing for multifunctional versatility. You will call up a small electric sedan for your weekly grocery trip but a four-wheel drive SUV for your weekend camping trip. The growing trend of a ‘shared-use’ economy will spread beyond densely-populated urban areas into every aspect of personal mobility. Through the specialization of vehicles, as Dave Duff sharply pointed out, we will not only have a more efficiency-optimized vehicle fleet but also massively reduce the number of idle vehicles sitting in garages, and people will only rent or call up cars when they need them.

To complete such an optimistic picture of transportation synergy, a need for all its elements to be interconnected must be fulfilled. Route optimization based on road availabilities, traffic conditions and public transit schedules has already been made accessible to fleet operators as well as regular commuters. With the advent of autonomous vehicles and ‘shared-use’ vehicle services, a whole new array of big data can potentially be unlocked. Sensing technologies will allow vehicles to precisely configure its lane changes, driving speed, climate control, etc., based on the movement of the surrounding vehicles, the nature and purpose of the particular trip, as well as the preference of the users themselves. With these additional values added, Dirk Rossberg envisions that smart vehicles will improve the accessibility, safety and overall experience of personal mobility, promoting the ‘shared-use’ economy and reducing the need and tendency for people to own cars. Evidently, a significant portion of the sustainable transportation development will depend on transforming our personal relationships with cars. However, on the flip side of the coin, people will have to adjust to losing their personal ownership of and detaching their personal emotions to their vehicles – a necessary trade-off for a more societally-optimized transport system.

However, there can often be major public perception barriers to overcome for novel technologies. The media criticism over Tesla’s fire incidents is a perfect example of a new technology being wrongfully blamed. Dave Duff sighed when he suggested to the crowd that, when the first fleet of driverless vehicles would start to roam the street, they would be held to the standards and norms of the cars today, as well as blamed for the mistakes of human operators in possible accidents. From a policy perspective, Max Baumhefner suggested that there could be a lot of work involved in convincing insurance companies, but still held the hope that California, with its forward-thinking energy policies, could serve as a model for U.S. and the rest of the world.

Even if the speaker series was primarily focused on road transport in the U.S., Dirk Rossberg would still like to remind us of the even more complex landscape of global multi-modal transport system and the unresolved question of achieving sustainability in such a connected and densely-traveled world. In developing nations like China, where the auto market is growing at an astounding rate, cleaner transportation tends to be a less prioritized agenda than improving quality of life or expanding a consumer-driven economy. Furthermore, with more and more commuters regularly traveling by plane, sustainability in aviation becomes another topic that needs to be addressed. Even if there may not be a “silver bullet” solution that could catch up with the ever-hastening pace of the global transportation boom; from electric vehicles to self-driving cars, from intelligent public transit systems to fuel-efficient internal combustion engines, the future of the 21st century transportation system is being conceptualized and materialized in Silicon Valley today.

Authors: Paricha Duangtaweesub and Hara Wang