What is the future of transport?

This beguiling conundrum has intrigued western civilisation for many centuries. Since the invention of the steam engine in the early 18th centuries, people have been striving to predict what technological revolutions will be realised in our transport systems. The year 2000 was a popular benchmark for vehicular soothsayers, with personal airships, commuter rockets and nuclear-fission cars all being hypothesised as alternatives to the land-based mainstream combustion engine.

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An 1882 engraving by Albert Rhodia depicting how opera attendees in Paris might travel in the year 2000. His predictions included flying limousines delivering people to skyline restaurants. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Fast-forward fifteen years beyond 2000 to 2015 and its far to say that not all of these inventions have materialised. Today’s road transport market is dominated by private car ownership, with the majority running off petrol or diesel, and diesel-powered HGVs; however, most recognise the current dominance of hydrocarbon-based vehicles simply cannot continue. The heavy reliance on dwindling fossil fuel resources is forcing vehicle manufacturers to consider real alternatives, and there is a desperate need for any future solution to limit vehicle emissions both in terms of CO2 and components harmful to human health; a recent WHO report attributed 1 in 8 global deaths to health problems associated with air pollution exposure.

Last week I attended the Cenex’s Low Carbon Vehicle Event to find out how the industry believes we can tackle these problems, and what will be the next big innovation.

Electric cars
The electric vehicle (EV) market is undoubtedly a future big player. It is projected by 2030 up to 60% of car sales will be plug-in hybrid or pure EV. Major vehicle manufacturers such as Renault, BMW, VW, Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Jaguar Land Rover are all now manufacturing and marketing EVs. Typical driving ranges for EVs are around 100 miles (rising to around 200 miles if a range extender is fitted). Whilst this may not sound like a long distance, more and more people are adopting zero emissions technology for regular, short commutes. This year, the popular Nissan Leaf reached sales of 10,000 in the UK.

EVs have even penetrated the supercar market. The BMW i8 is a plug-in hybrid vehicle with a 23 mile electric range and the emissions and fuel efficiency comparable to a compact car. It might not satisfy the zero emissions purists but it looks amazing, and certainly brings the technology to a whole new audience.

BMW i8
The BMW i8 plug-in hybrid supercar. A head-turner and thought-provoker. Sadly well and truly out of my price range. Photo credit: Charly Stamper

Dual-fuel (and alternative fuel) HGVs
The greater range and power needed by HGVs presents a particular challenge to vehicle manufacturers. Hybrid technology is being employed by some smaller commercial models, but the big success story within the last three years has been natural gas, with the majority using liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a dual-fuel with diesel.

As part of a government-funded Low Carbon Truck trial, Müller-Wisemans have put 40 duel-fuel LNG trucks on the road and have seen massive fuel cost and carbon savings over three years of operation, achieving payback within 3 years.

Other novel, and even more sustainable options, include using biomethane from anaerobic digestion, or used cooking oil.

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United Biscuits used waste cooking oil in 12 trucks in their fleet, achieving an 85% substitution rate for diesel and resulting in carbon savings equivalent to 450,000 truck miles a year.

Smart grids and virtual power plants

A related consideration to the expansion of the EV market is the ability of the electrical grid to cope with the increase in demand. There is an increased movement towards smart grids, where microgeneration sites (such as small solar PV grids or individual wind turbines) communicate via a Virtual Power Plant (VPP) to control supply and demand. Growth of EV infrastructure is reliant on improvements to electricity storage and vehicle to Grid (V2G) technology may well play a large part in this; EV batteries are an existing asset, and could be utilised on a large scale to help regulate the electricity grid.

Electric vehicle batteries
Electric vehicle batteries may have a large part to play in regulating supply and demand to the electricity grid. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Improving efficiency
Manufacturers are looking to make improvements to existing technologies to make vehicles more efficient. Jaguar Land Rover is pioneering the use of smart glazing to block out infrared radiation when the vehicle is not in use; this could reduce reliance on air conditioning which can decrease an EV range by as much as 60%. In the HGV world, longer and lighter trailers are being used on articulated lorries to reduce fuel consumption. Here, carbon savings can reach 15% in comparison to a traditional trailer. Another area of active research is waste heat recovery. Studies on supertrucks in the USA have demonstrated a 7% increase in power output if the exhaust heat is reused in the engine system.

Intelligent mobility
Part of adapting to future needs is to try and think holistically about how people use transport. Habits and behaviours are changing: a Catapult study in Intelligent Mobility (IM) found that smart phone penetration in the UK is as high as 72%, and 54% of those users consider it essential to their travel experience. Information sharing can facilitate improvements in journeys, for example supplying real-time whether routes or services are congested, if car parking is available in a certain area, or on-demand services such as Über.

Automation of cars may seem wildly futuristic, but driverless cars have been used by Google for over 12 months. Driver behaviour has a huge impact on fuel efficiency, and the automation of low carbon vehicles represents a big opportunity to optimise energy usage of vehicles.

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The LUTZ Pathfinder is a UK-manufactured fully automated pod car and is shortly to be unleashed on the mean streets of Milton Keynes. Photo credit: Charly Stamper

It’s clear that in the future one size won’t fit all. The huge diversity in applications of transport vehicles, and the requirements of the users, means that a range of technologies and fuels are compatible when meeting our growing low-carbon needs. Sadly, there’s no prospect of personalising flying limousines in Paris any time soon.

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About Charly Stamper

I’m an ex-experimental petrologist.
I used to make pretend volcanoes; now I work in renewable energy

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