By Neil Stalter | Zoom Out Mycology
What are cars going to look like in 20 years? Well, if you’ve watched “The Jetsons” you might think (like myself) that it’s high-time we start investing in hovercraft research. However, even I have to admit that this is far from reality. Right now – in 2017, we stand at a crucial moment in the transportation industry. Companies like Tesla, Nissan, and Chevrolet have made headlines for pioneering the electric vehicle crusade. Does that mean that in 20 years we’ll all be plugging in our cars when we get home? Will we even be driving our cars in 20 years, or will they just drive themselves? And what does this mean for the cleanliness of the air we breathe? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to all these questions (if I did, I’d be able to pay off my student loans pretty quick). But, there are trends and movements in markets, public opinion, and government policy that we can look to for guidance.
In the past year 5 countries (The Netherlands, India, Norway, France, and Britain) announced that they would be completely ending the sale of gas and diesel cars in their countries by 2040(1). On September 9th, Chinese officials hinted heavily that they were working on an agenda to end “production and sales of traditional energy vehicles” in the massive country that accounts for nearly 30% of global passenger car sales(2). But will car manufacturers be making enough electric vehicles to allow for countries to deliver on these announcements? It certainly looks that way. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that “54% of passenger cars sold in 2040 will have a plug.”(3)
Automakers around the world have pledged to increase their electric and hybrid vehicle development. In fact, Volvo vowed that by 2019, all of its vehicles will be either fully battery powered, or hybrids(4). Finding a car charging station next door to a gas station will soon transition from the realm of science fiction to reality. Elon Musk recently speculated that the company’s supercharger stations will soon include a food and convenience store to give drivers something to do during their car’s (roughly 30 minute) charging session(5).
Will we even be driving in 20 years? Almost definitely. Driverless cars will continue to be somewhere between science fiction and reality for a while longer. Certainly the potential to have near perfect robotic drivers transporting people everywhere they need to go is tantalizing (even if they’ll be programmed to drive at the speed limit). Companies like Uber, Google, and Tesla are all toying with the technology of self-driving cars to varying degrees of success. In Pittsburgh, you might even see some of Uber’s cars “driving” themselves around the city (with an included human driver – just in case).What we’ll likely see more of first is the expansion of “auto pilot” technologies, like the one often touted by Tesla.
The “sharing economy” will also revolutionize the way many people travel. Companies like Lyft, Uber, and Via are quickly embracing ride sharing strategies to transport people; particularly in big cities. It’s easy to think of it as “outsourcing your carpool.” Cars will pick up multiple passengers, and take them to their different destinations, dropping off and picking up other passengers on the way. Not only is this more fuel efficient, it’s cheaper for the consumer! More and more of these ride sharing cars will be electric vehicles as well. In fact, Uber promised that by 2020, 100% of its UberX cars in London will be electric or hybrid, and 100% will be electric by 2025 (Assuming the government will eventually allow them to renew their license). So, unfortunately for those of us who would rather read or play video games on their commute instead of drive, driverless cars are still a way off. But there is a growing host of options for transportation alternatives. But what’s the benefit of an electric vehicle, or ride sharing?
“Smog” has become something of a buzzword over the past two decades. The word probably conjures an image in your mind of a yellow haze hanging lazily over Los Angeles. However, smog is a dangerous cocktail of various particles floating through the air people in metropolitan areas breathe every day. One of those elements: particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), has been estimated to cause around 4 million premature deaths every year around the globe. This number is mind boggling—and is roughly equivalent the population of Panama. The problem is clear, but the solution is hazy (sorry for the pun). Thankfully, transportation industry changes offer a major step towards clean air progress. Right now, in the US, transportation accounts for roughly 27% of our greenhouse gas emissions. 83% of those emissions come from the cars and trucks all of us see every day. Indeed, transportation is responsible for over 50% of nitrogen oxides, and 20% of particulate matter emissions, which are both major components of smog.
This is not just a “third world” problem either. As of this writing, 7.9 million London residents (95% of the city’s population) live in areas exceeding 50% of the World Health Organization’s recommended level of PM2.5. Giant cities like LA, Mexico City, Beijing, Delhi, and Houston are all dealing with major air quality issues—which can be largely attributed to transportation exhaust. Included here are pictures of Beijing before and after a “smog red alert” was declared in the city. Severe restrictions were placed on drivers, construction was stopped, and some industries were closed down. The effect is striking. Within two days, the thick smog cleared and opened up a sky that many Beijing residents likely forgot existed. The problem, though, is that telling almost every car to get off the road is not sustainable for obvious reasons. And thus, unfortunately, after the “red alert” in Beijing, transportation and industry resumed and the smog returned. So what does the solution look like? It looks like a fleet of electric, exhaust-free cars, like those discussed above, carrying all of a city’s citizens wherever they need to go every day.
We need to be careful saying that the electric car is the savior of air quality and the atmosphere—though certainly it’s a step in the right direction. In 20 years when we get home from work and plug in our Tesla model 7s, that charging power has to come from somewhere. Right now, in all likelihood, that energy would come from a coal, oil, or natural gas burning power plant. As you can imagine, these are all major greenhouse gas and pollutant emitters (that we will absolutely discuss in more depth in a later blog). Without infrastructural changes, electric car growth is essentially relocating transportation’s emission footprint. Though there are benefits to isolating these emissions to one location, real progress can be made when the energy sector changes its identity (solar, wind, nuclear) along with the transportation sector. This, however, is likely a much longer and more arduous process than the rise of the electric vehicle. And those of us who enjoy big city life will still see a marked increase in air quality on our day to day walks. Beijing will more often look like the second picture above, and Los Angeles traffic will burp much less smog than it does today.
Right now, the rise of the electric car is a near guarantee. Who the big winners and losers will be in the economic race to design the car with the largest travel radius and quickest charge time, however, remains to be seen. We might not have robots driving our cars, or hovercrafts in the next 20 years, but transportation in the near future is radically different from what we see driving past us today. This is good news for those of us tired of paying dearly at the pump, but it’s especially good news for everyone around the world living in a city draped in a blanket of smog. Without the fear of breathing in dangerous substances every day, quality of life will improve around the globe. So take a deep breath, and buckle up: because the future of transportation is bright and filled with clear skies.
About the author:
Neil Stalter is currently a student at Columbia University in New York City pursuing his Masters in Environmental Science and Policy. Neil has a background in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Rochester. He's from the Finger Lakes region of New York, and has always been incredibly passionate about the environment, and solving environmental problems!
1 Roberts, David. “The World's Largest Car Market Just Announced an Imminent End to Gas and Diesel Cars.” Vox, Vox, 13 Sept. 2017, www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/9/13/16293258/ev-revolution.
2 Tauber, Martin. “The Chinese Automotive Market – Much More than Just Large.” MMTA, Minor Metals Trade Association, 22 June 2017, mmta.co.uk/2017/06/22/chinese-automotive-market-much-just-large/.
3 “Lithium-Ion Battery Costs: Squeezed Margins and New Business Models.” Bloomberg New Energy Finance, BNEF, 12 July 2017, about.bnef.com/blog/lithium-ion-battery-costs-squeezed-margins-new-business-models/?src=EVOcomparison.
4 Ewing, Jack. “Volvo, Betting on Electric, Moves to Phase Out Conventional Engines.”The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 July 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/07/05/business/energy-environment/volvo-hybrid-electric-car.html.
5 Muoio, Danielle. “Tesla Wants to Build 'Mega Supercharging' Stops That Sell Food and Coffee.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 23 Sept. 2017, www.businessinsider.com/tesla-superchargers-food-coffee-convenience-stores-2017-9.
6 Levandowski, Anthony. “Pittsburgh, Your Self-Driving Uber Is Arriving Now.” Uber, Uber, 14 Sept. 2016, www.uber.com/blog/pittsburgh/pittsburgh-self-driving-uber/.
7 “Autopilot.” Tesla, Inc., Tesla, Inc., www.tesla.com/autopilot.
8 Jones, Fred. “Uber Launches Clean Air Plan for a Greener Future.” Uber, Uber, 8 Sept. 2017, newsroom.uber.com/uk/uber-launches-clean-air-plan-for-a-greener-future/?stream=politics.
9 Anenberg, Susan C., et al. “An Estimate of the Global Burden of Anthropogenic Ozone and Fine Particulate Matter on Premature Human Mortality Using Atmospheric Modeling.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 118, no. 9, Sept. 2010, pp. 1189–1195., doi:10.1289/ehp.0901220.
10 “Fast Facts on Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 26 Sept. 2017, www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions.
11 “Smog, Soot, and Other Air Pollution from Transportation.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 9 Nov. 2016, www.epa.gov/air-pollution-transportation/smog-soot-and-local-air-pollution.
12 Taylor, Matthew. “Revealed: Every Londoner Breathing Dangerous Levels of Toxic Air Particle.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Oct. 2017, www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/04/revealed-every-londoner-breathing-dangerous-levels-of-toxic-air-particle.
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