Planes, trains, cargo ships and autos are getting high-tech help in easing off the fuel pedal.
It’s been 12 years since a Popular Science magazine cover asked the question we’d all been thinking: “Where’s my flying car?” Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s advice? Don’t hold your breath.
While we can’t yet hover in style like the Jetsons, transportation has become cleaner and more efficient in the past decade. Worldwide, electric vehicles (EVs) are expected to make up more than half of passenger car sales by 2040, with even better prospects for electric buses, according to BloombergNEF. Amazon is one company making big strides, with its recent order of 100,000 electric delivery vans from startup Rivian. Aiding this trend is the rollout of wireless charging of EVs via induction coils embedded in the road, now used for buses in European cities. Mainstream adoption of EVs is just a matter of time, as innovation continues and more charging stations are built.
Want to get somewhere fast? Virgin Hyperloop One is working on building high-speed passenger and cargo transit that can zip through tubes at up to 700 mph. So far it has a test track in California and it hopes to build a 22-mile route in Saudi Arabia.
Transit that is cleaner, greener and provides a better user experience is in various stages of development around the globe. We take a look at how this vital driver of economic activity is changing along with the times.
The future of flight
First, the good news for aviation: better engines, wing modifications and lighter materials have helped airlines increase their fuel efficiency 130% in the past 40 years. “Airlines have been extremely focused on this,” says Savanthi Syth, managing director and airline analyst at Raymond James. In addition to updating their fleets, “they’re using data and technology to figure out how to fly in a way that uses the least amount of energy.” You can even spot improvements before wheels-up: “You may have heard of APUs, auxiliary power units,” notes Syth – these small engines have eliminated the use of jet fuel use while taxiing.
The airline industry is also one of the few that have pledged to uphold an international emissions reduction goal. Through CORSIA, established by the U.N. body for air travel, companies have agreed to make all growth in international flights after 2020 carbon neutral.
As progress in efficiency has begun to plateau and people are flying more, some people hope for a technological breakthrough that could swoop in and save the day. “Airlines would love electric aircraft, but right now it’s just not realistic,” says Syth. Experimental aircraft, like NASA’s all-electric X-57 Maxwell plane that took its first test flight this year, offer hope for the long term. In the meantime, airlines have been investing in renewable fuel technology, Syth says, and buying high-quality carbon offsets. “You want to feel like you’re flying an airline that does good, so this is all extremely important to airlines.”
Delta and JetBlue made pledges early this year to make major investments in carbon offsets with the goal of becoming carbon neutral, though as the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact the global economy, those ambitious company targets might be adjusted.
Cleaner ships on the horizon
Container ships are essential to trade, and to date there isn’t a more economical way to transport metric tons of goods across oceans. However, these vessels burn sludge-like heavy fuel oil because it’s cheap, emitting significant carbon emissions.
Starting this year, they’re going to have to find a cleaner form of power. New international regulations require ship owners to buy scrubbers to clean their exhaust or purchase cleaner fuel at a premium – though the scrubbers may have side effects. “They’re looking at [open loop] scrubbers and saying, ‘Well, you’re taking care of air pollution, but you might actually be polluting the water,’” Syth says. It’s a tradeoff to weigh carefully, much like the consequences of eliminating single-use plastics on planes: “You’ve seen airlines really look at reducing plastic use, but you can’t have too many heavy things because you’ll end up burning more fuel.”
Even tougher shipping standards are planned for 2050 through the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO): emissions must be half of what they were in 2008. Now the race is on to create container ships with the technology to meet those emission standards. Liquified natural gas and hydrogen could be options, though there are barriers to adopting either at the moment that must be overcome. But the IMO has set the course for greener cargo transport.
A world with a wider variety of green transportation is not that far off. With engineers hard at work on autonomous vehicles and uber-efficient aircraft, cities switching existing transportation systems to electricity and more stringent fuel efficiency standards coming online, the future of mobility looks bright.
Sources: Raymond James Equity Research; company reports; BloombergNEF; International Civil Aviation Organization; International Maritime Organization; U.N. Environment Program; U.S. Energy Information Administration
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