Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

The State of Sustainable Transportation (02/20/05)
Mike Millikin, 20 Feb 05

Every Sunday, Green Car Congress' Mike Millikin gives us an update on the week's sustainable mobility news. Green Car Congress is by far the best resource around for news and analysis covering the ongoing evolution of personal transportation. Take it away, Mike:

The Kyoto Protocol coming into effect this last week provides a good backdrop for a quick discussion on the state of sustainable transportation.

Three macro concerns feed the increase in global focus on such sustainability: concerns about the size of the remaining global supply of oil, concerns about the availability of that supply of oil, and concerns about the environmental impact of fossil fuel consumption.

Whichever reason speaks most to you (national security, long-term economics or environmentalism), the paths to the long-term resolution of these concerns and issues lead in the same direction: to a non-petroleum based (probably hydrogen) energy system. It’s how we get there and how urgently we make the journey that roils the waters.

Complicating the issues is that global transportation, the vast majority of which is petroleum-fuel based, is currently linked somewhat inextricably with economic growth. Transportation is both an enabler and a result of economic growth and vitality.


Work done by Andreas Schafer at MIT shows a clear pattern: growth in transportation (per capita miles traveled) proceeds pari passu with growth in GDP. The chart at the right (click for larger version) plots this, with established industrialized countries in yellow and the up-and-comers in blue.

Those economies that have been behind (e.g.,China) are rapidly accelerating, putting greater demands on the petroleum supply and increasing the amount of emissions. And, at the same time, the developed economies continue to grow, albeit more slowly.

Back to the Kyoto Protocol. The unavoidable result of using carbon-based fuels—i.e., petroleum—is the production of CO2. It’s just basic chemistry. Burn more fuel, generate more CO2. Burn less, generate less.

The growth in economies, along with the concomitant growth in transportation miles travelled, will result in more emissions of CO2, rather than less...again, absent any significant change.

As a quick example, the US Energy Information Administration has forecast in its Annual Energy Outlook 2005 an 18% increase in US CO2 emissions generated from energy use from 2004 (5.9 billion metric tons) to 2014 (6.97 billion metric tons). Not only is that an absolute increase, it is also a relative per capita increase.

The present and increasingly urgent challenge for countries is how to balance their need for economic growth with the need to reduce consumption of fossil-fuels, begin the long transition to a new energy platform, and do so in an environmentally friendly way.

Assuming that the foundation of any sustainable mobility program is to reduce the use of petroleum, there are three very broad technology approaches to achieving this. (Leaving aside, for the moment, policy issues regarding fuel efficiency, public transit and the like.)

  • Increase the efficiency of the powertrain and vehicle systems to decrease fuel consumption. This includes a wide range of approaches, including increasing the thermal efficiency of the engine to let smaller engines (burning less fuel) do equivalent work, using hybrid powertrains to reduce the use of the engine, using lighter-weight materials (lighter vehicles use less fuel), using electrical rather than mechanical support systems, and increasing the overall electronic management of the vehicle to maximize efficiency in any driving situation.

  • Burn an alternative or renewable fuel in the vehicle’s engine instead of a petroleum-based fuel. Examples of these include natural gas and other gaseous fuels, synthetic fuels, ethanol and biodiesel. A problem with many of the alternatives, however, is the amount of the complete lifecycle of emissions generated by their production, transport, distribution and use, not just the operational emissions from use in a vehicle. From a lifecycle point of view, many of the alternatives—especially synthetics—are not that attractive.

  • Use a different type of propulsion system—e.g.,an electric motor—that requires no combustion. With this we enter the realm of the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle and all electric powertrains.

Applications of these technology approaches can overlap. For example, one could use pure biodiesel (a renewable fuel) in a highly efficient diesel engine applied in a series hybrid configuration (the engine powers a generator that drives an electric motor that actually provides the motive force).

Currently most countries—and automakers—are either implementing or testing a range of such approaches. There are among them clear groupings of competency or preference. For the long-term, all ascribe to the goal of a transition to a hydrogen economy.

Europe, for a variety of reasons, some stemming back to the first series of oil crises in the 1970s, has become the center for diesel development and use. Diesel engines are more efficient than their gasoline-powered cousins, and, with its greater alarm over global warming, Europe likes the inherent fuel-efficiency of the diesel over gasoline. (Less CO2 per equivalent vehicle.)

Diesels are also greater producers of Particulate Matter emissions, and Europe struggles greatly with the effects. Italy, for example, is seeing its major cities periodically bar vehicular traffic (GCC) in an attempt to meet EU-mandated PM emissions limits.

Many European countries and automakers look to synthetic and bio-derived diesel fuels as the interim solution on the way to a hydrogen economy.

Japan, with Toyota and Honda at the lead, became the home of the gasoline-electric hybrid—ideal for fuel savings in congested, stop-and-go driving, as well as for small, fuel efficient cars.

In a broad front designed to tackle their problems of emissions and fuel supply, many Asian and developing countries are implementing policies of use or encouragement of compressed natural gas (CNG) for public transit. Countries in both Asia and the Middle East are also looking to synthetics derived from natural gas, such as Dimethyl Ether (DME).

Brazil is the global leader in the production and development of ethanol and flex fuel vehicles (vehicles using either gasoline or ethanol).

The US is the global center for large passenger vehicles and fuel consumption. Even China, with its rapidly growing economy and transportation sector, is implementing more stringent fuel economy regulations than in the US. (GCC). In their enthusiasm for light-duty trucks (pickups and SUVs), US consumers have pushed light truck purchases to 56% of the entire new vehicle market in 2004, with the percentage still rising.

Development work for the US market—the world’s largest—tends to emphasize maintaining size and power.

As a result, even Toyota and Honda with their leadership in hybrid technologies, are introducing new hybrid vehicles that preserve size and power, while somewhat reducing fuel consumption, rather than pushing to maximize the efficiency of the vehicle (as Toyota initially did with the Prius, and Honda did with the Insight).

The joint work on hybrids being done by GM and DaimlerChrysler, although applicable across a range of vehicular applications, will also likely first appear in SUVs and pickups. The good news is that this will result in a relative reduction in fuel consumption. The bad news is that the absolute level of fuel consumption for these vehicles will still remain relatively high—likely in the low- to mid-20 mpg range.

Not that the US (or any of these countries, for that matter) is homogeneous in outlook and approach. Historically, the state of California has been in the lead environmentally, pre-dating the US EPA. Last year, California passed a law that reduces the amount of CO2 that can be produced by new vehicles for sale in the state.

Challenged in federal court by automakers who claim that the CO2 regulation is actually a fuel economy regulation in disguise (and hence out of California’s purview), the law and the technology research supporting it have become the basis for policy discussions by other countries such as Canada with automakers.

One of the key takeaways from the work done in support of the bill by the California Air Resource Board is that the automotive technology (GCC) required for such reductions of 20%–40% are already either production-ready or close to it.

Austin, Texas, is setting a precedent in the US by pushing for a city policy that supports the widespread use of plug-in hybrids, and looks to expand its city program elsewhere. (GCC)

If there is a failure to make the transition in sufficient time to avert some form of catastrophe (again, be it national security, economic or environmental), it will be primarily due to failures of policy and consumer choice, not of technology.

News of the week

The DOE announced some $87.5 million in co-funding for 12 projects for the research and development of advanced combustion engines and new methods for converting waste heat to energy. (GCC)

The goal of the research is to increase the thermal efficiency of the combustion engine—gasoline and diesel—by some 15% by 2012. The increase in engine efficiency alone could account for improvements in fuel consumption of between 10%–15%.

Cadillac will preview its first diesel model—the BLS—at the upcoming Geneva auto show. (GCC)

The new Mercedes B-Class Compact Sport Tourer has entered production. (GCC)

Biodiesel continues its global surge. D1 Oils opened a biodiesel joint venture with a Saudi company. (GCC) The Adelaide, Australia, metro is switching to biodiesel for its diesel buses. (The rest of the fleet is CNG). (GCC) And Fortum is building Finland’s first commercial biodiesel plant. (GCC)

On the alternative fuels front, a new DME plant in PNG is under development to supply the Japanese market. (GCC)Japan is also spending $1.1 billion this year to build out emergency LPG storage in case of supply disruption. (GCC) LP Gas is used for transportation as well as for heating and as a feedstock; japan is currently the second largest global user of LPG for auto fuel.

Intrepid Technology is upgrading its Idaho Falls CNG station to handle LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) as well. (GCC)

Looking toward the hydrogen economy, a new research report from ABI concludes that a $2 billion investment—either from government or from industry—is required to create a hydrogen fueling infrastructure if market projections for growth in hydrogen beginning in 2012 are to be met. (GCC) Coincidentally, this came during the same week that both Mazda and Hyundai announced the opening of hydrogen fueling stations.

Bookmark and Share


Interesting review Mike - especially that graphic from Andreas Schafer. Can you explain the "target point" mentioned on the graph though? It suggests an order of magnitude or more increase in per capita transportation levels expected - this would have a huge impact on world energy requirements. Has anybody put realistic numbers in to this problem to evaluate it more objectively?

By the way, I believe there are solutions scalable to that "target" level (click on my name below) - but it's an immense challenge, and I don't think any of the current efforts are facing up to it.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 21 Feb 05



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg