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article Episode 1.1

Decarbonizing Road Transportation: Past the Tipping Point

The road to fossil-fuel-free transportation

Climate Now’s recent special podcast series on decarbonizing road transport examined the journey toward fossil-fuel-free road transportation. Discover our key takeaways from conversations with the experts. 

Reading Time: 5 mins

Date: 04.04.2022

Written By:

Emily Pope
Science Writer

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Emily Pope

Science Writer

Emily Pope is a science writer for Climate Now. She received her PhD from Stanford University in Geological and Environmental Sciences. She has conducted research on the evolution of Earth’s atmosphere and hydrosphere, the optimization potential of energy from geothermal systems, and natural analogs for geologic carbon sequestration. Everyone has a stake in how we choose to address climate change. Thus, Emily is excited to develop content for Climate Now that makes the relevant scientific data, technological advances, and economic and political impacts clear and accessible.

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Premium Newsletter No. 01

Decarbonizing Road Transportation

In 2016, electric passenger vehicles made up 0.2% of new car sales, globally.  Only 5 years later, that number had increased 4200%, with 8.6% of 2021 new car sales being electric.  In the last three years, while global car sales shrank by 11%, electric vehicle sales tripled from 2.2 million in 2019 to 6.6 million in 2021.  There is little doubt that consumers are seeing the future of cars as electric.

But even though the transition to fossil-fuel-free road transportation is no longer a future-tense scenario, questions remain about how this transition will be fully realized.  Climate Now’s recent special podcast series on decarbonizing road transport examined those questions within the larger ecosystem of this transformation: What are the sticking points that still need to be overcome? How will this transformation change our driving patterns and our lifestyles?  How do we ensure this transformation happens fast enough to stay aligned with emissions targets that keep us below 1.5 degree C warming?

To answer these questions, we spoke to truckers and recycling companies, to people developing new transportation technology and people investing in promising new technologies, to policy experts, environmental designers and behavioral scientists. Here were some of the key takeaways from those conversations.

What is not going to be a problem: Getting the consumer on board

“The writing is on the wall.  We know that consumers are turning away from gas-driven vehicles and it’s going to be harder for companies to operate in the global marketplace if they aren’t appealing to the global consumer base.” – Dr. Sweta Chakraborty, Pioneer Public Affairs, Episode 47

A 2020 survey by the American Automobile Association (AAA) found that 96% of people who owned or leased an electric vehicle said that their next car would also be electric. Trucking companies who have tried electric have the same opinion, according to Mike Roeth, Executive Director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE): “These electric trucks are wonderful to drive.  We are already seeing the benefits of maintenance and repair… You give ‘em 1, 2, 5 or 10 trucks, and [the operations teams] pretty quickly want to replace all 50 or 100 at their site,” (Listen to Episode 42 for more).

The co-benefits of going electric are starting to be noticed: from the enormous cost-savings at the pump, the lower maintenance, the quieter ride, and particularly critical for densely populated communities – the reduction in all combustion-related pollutants, not just CO2.

“At the end of the day, I think consumers are going to see a better overall product, a more economical ability to go about your daily routine, and a vehicle that just has superior torque and performance, that is fun to drive.” – Joe Britton, Zero Emissions Transportation Association (ZETA), Episode 47

What still needs to be sorted: scaling up to all vehicle types and all consumers

“We’re at a point where we are needing to reconceptualize the very purpose of transportation systems in urban environments” – Dr. Kevin Krizek, University of Colorado, Boulder, Episode 45

While enthusiasm from those who try electric vehicles is a good sign – it cannot get us to the finish line alone.  Even with record growth in new car sales, electric vehicles still make up less than 1% of the ~1.4 billion vehicles on the road today.  And without aggressive adoption of EVs now, it will take well past mid-century to fully transition to clean vehicles.  This is what still needs to happen.

1. Getting the supply-chains and recycling systems in place to sustainably scale up

100% EV sales means a 10-fold increase in production of electric vehicles.  New sources of critical minerals will have to be found and mined in environmentally and socially responsible ways. Supply-chains will have to be established for EV startups and redesigned for legacy companies. The quickly diversifying market of battery design will need to innovate not only for optimal energy density and efficiency, but also with an eye towards demand for raw materials, and recyclability.  In our conversation with Brook Porter (listen to Episode 48 for more), we discuss how Tesla disrupted the market not only with a truly enticing electric vehicle, but with an entirely new approach to manufacturing, sales and maintenance, and where the next big innovations in this field might lie.  Our conversation with Andy Stevenson, former CFO of the battery recycling company Redwood Materials (listen to Episode 40 for more), walked us through the developing landscape of making electric cars more sustainable, through smarter use of primary materials and recycling retired vehicles.

2. Reducing societal and economic barriers to electric cars

While those who have tried it, love it, trepidation remains among consumers who have not tried an EV. Polls suggest that upfront cost, vehicle range and lack of access to EV chargers are the leading barriers to widespread enthusiasm among car shoppers.  In our conversation with Joe Britton and Sweta Chakraborty of the Zero Emissions Transportation Association (ZETA), they explained why some of these concerns can be overcome with familiarity, and others with policy.  There is a role for EV owners in our communities, and the development of electric fleets in public transportation and car rental companies, to normalize electric vehicles and decrease their perceived riskiness. More concretely, policies that offer tax credits or subsidies for used, as well as new EV purchases until their upfront costs reach parity with gas-powered vehicles (perhaps as early as 2025), and investments in public charging infrastructure that will allow consumers who don’t have private garages or driveways to charge at home, will open the EV market up to millions.

“We kind of democratize access to the EV.” – Dave Rubin, Cruise, Episode 41.

Ridesharing and ride-hailing companies also have a big role to play, beyond simply normalizing the EV experience for their customers, and making them more accessible across income levels. EV-only ridesharing companies have both an incentive and the financing capabilities to expand public charging infrastructure for their own vehicles. They can fill in the large EV charging “deserts that, in the U.S., are predominantly concentrated in low-income and Black and Hispanic-majority neighborhoods. Creating such a network doesn’t just provide employees of ride-hailing companies with charging capabilities – it builds the foundation for communities to have robust public charging infrastructure that will support private and public EV adoption. (See our conversation with Dave Rubin about all the advantages of ridesharing going electric – and autonomous – in Episode 41.)

3. Consider all our options for decarbonizing big trucks

Big trucks have their own problems.  In the U.S., medium- and heavy-duty trucks make up only about 5% of vehicles on the road, but they produce nearly 30% of road transportation emissions.  We spoke with Mike Roeth, Rick Mihelic and Jessie Lund at the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) in Episode 42, who were bullish on the efficacy and driver enthusiasm of going electric for all but the biggest, Class-8 long haul trucks.  They say that already, the 50% of U.S. trucking routes covering less than 100 miles daily, could be replaced by electric vehicles.  And those electric trucks are either better or on par with their gas-powered counterparts in terms of operational cost, safety, and maintenance.  

But, it is not yet clear if going electric will be the solution to decarbonizing the biggest trucks.  The added weight and volume of electric batteries needed for long-haul Class 8 trucks reduces cargo loads, and the long charging times at remote fueling stations are a problem both for truckers and electrical grids. It’s in this class that many decarbonization strategies are still being piloted, and according to NACFE, the aim isn’t to find the winning option:

“It’s not really a [horse race], from a society viewpoint.  It’s really a team pulling a wagon, and we’re the wagon and the team of horses includes battery electric. It includes hybrid electric. It includes diesels that are running on renewable fuels.” – Rick Mihelic, NACFE, Episode 42

And maybe it includes onboard carbon capture and cryo-compressed hydrogen. In Episode 43, we sat down with Paul Gross and Bav Roy, co-founders of the start-ups Remora and Verne, respectively. Remora has developed a carbon-capture system that can be installed today on gas-powered trucks that captures CO2 emissions directly from tail pipes, and can then be off-loaded and sold to companies needing high-purity CO2 or wanting to permanently sequester it. Verne is developing a pressurized storage system that will make green hydrogen a practical fuel option for long-haul trucks.

4. Re-think how we think about driving

The advent of Ford’s Model-T in 1908 was the last paradigm shift in land-based transportation. The Model-T brought an affordable car to the masses that changed how we travel, how we work and even how we build our cities. Adopting carbon-free road transportation has the potential to be just as transformative. For those of us to whom driving is a part of daily life, large-scale adoption of electric vehicles will lead to some immediate shifts: making a special trip to tank up will no longer be a weekly task, it will be reserved only for the long road trip. Traffic noise will be a fraction of what it once was. We will quickly take for granted the safety of not having a tank of toxic, combustible liquid sitting in our garage.

But the change could be bigger. Thinking of how to decarbonize our transportation system gives us the opportunity to entirely re-imagine how we want to interact with vehicles. A drive on the open road might retain all the appeal it ever has – but do we still need a long and torturous daily commute? Do we still need to spend time searching (and paying) for parking? Do we need to do the driving, or should the car do it for us? Do we still need to dedicate more than 80% of our public spaces to roads for cars instead of parks, paths and gathering places for people?

According to an urban transportation analysis report by UC Davis, converting all our personal vehicles to electric could decrease transportation emissions by 60%.  But, if we also reduce the numbers of vehicles on the road by embracing public transportation, ride sharing, and micromobility options like walking and biking, we can bring that number down by 85%. In Episode 45, Dr. Meredith Glaser and Dr. Kevin Krizek spoke with us about the advantages of not building our entire societal fabric around the car, and what could be done to transition urban infrastructures, public transit systems, and mindsets to create more climate-friendly and socially interconnected communities that don’t depend on cars.

“If you are riding in a car, that is not likely to be very diverse, but on a bicycle … you are exposed to numerous types of diversity, not only in different types of people, … but also to the services and the landscape.” – Dr. Meredith Glaser, Director of the Urban Cycling Institute, Episode 45.

The electric vehicle paradigm shift is upon us.  Let’s take advantage of it.

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