Background: The ideas mentioned in this article were significantly sharpened by participation on a panel on sustainability held by Florida Polytechnic University’s Executive Leadership Initiative (ELI). Special thanks to my fellow panelists Sean Kidney (Climatebonds) and Michael Hawes (Fulbright) for a very interesting discussion.
Transportation technology has always been central to the organization of society because of its direct impact on very important daily functions such as education, work, commerce (especially daily necessities such as food), entertainment and medicine. Associated with the technology are the input energy sources and enabling infrastructure which often requires significant investment. Finally, these transportation technologies have also been central to the sustainability concerns of the day.
This article argues that sustainability problems have historically been solved by the accelerated introduction of the next generation of technology, and governments would be well advised to place their focus on accelerating technology adoption as opposed to a constrictive regulatory policy on older technologies. Why ? The newer technologies have inherent advantages which create a natural momentum for change through private markets while constrictive regulations on older technologies generate conflict and resistance from established vested interests.
Our transportation journey begins in the age of the horse. The range provided by horses was limited and this basic fact of physics impacted the density and distance of real estate development. Access to all the basic daily services had to be local. At this time, cities accommodated the needs of horses with services such as livery stables with associated grain supply chains. The large sustainability problem of the day was horse output. “The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894” provides a glimpse of the issues faced by city leaders. In fact, many of the major public transportation systems such as Boston’s T were motivated in part to solve this problem with the introduction of a new technology called the horseless carriage.
As the environmental solution of the day, automotive technology provided broad based access to mobility and disrupted the fundamental processes of a horse based society. Over time, the range provided by the automobile allowed real-estate development to expand and the suburbs were born. The whole landscape of society was transformed with investments in extensive road networks, parking lots, and signalling infrastructure. In fact, the automobile enabled a new lifestyle where spatial distance was reduced as a fundamental factor of life. Now, one could buy a house with land at the outskirts and commute for work, school, or shopping.
The freedom provided by this shift in lifestyle has led to a highly productive society which has raised the standard-of-living of billions of people. However, structuring society around the automobile has also raised sustainability challenges with a special focus on climate change. These include:
- Carbon Footprint: The transportation fleet is a large distributed producer of carbon emissions fueled primarily by petro-chemicals. Its distributed nature makes controlling the emissions difficult and costly.
- Agricultural Industrialization: The current physical transportation ecosystem supports an economic model where it makes sense for farmers to clear and burn enormous amounts of land all over the world. This process removes large drivers of carbon sequestration (trees) and releases that carbon into the air.
- Cost/Productivity: Automobiles are high cost assets with very low average utilization(<5%). Even when utilized, automobiles are often moving tons of weight to deliver pounds of cargo. This problem is amplified for local last-mile transportation.
Is there a new technology which can supersede the status-quo with a fundamentally better sustainability profile ? Fortunately, the answer seems to be affirmative.
Today, the most significant mega-trend in technology is the role of electronic systems. For transportation, electronics are the critical enabler for fundamental processes such as virtualization, electrification, and smart infrastructure. Let us consider each of these and their impact.
Virtualization: Enabled by advanced communications technology and edge computing (laptops, tablets, cell phones), virtualization allows two parties to meaningfully engage without the necessity for physical contact. When applicable, it is the ultimate transportation technology. Fundamental economic sectors such as education (online education), employment (work from home), shopping (ecommerce), health care (telemedicine), and entertainment (streaming) are being disrupted. As “Covid-19: The Digital Economy Change Agent ?” discusses, the pandemic has significantly accelerated the underlying rate of change towards virtualization in these sectors. From a sustainability point-of-view, virtualization offers an order of magnitude improvement in demand reduction for energy and associated carbon emissions. It simply takes much less energy to move information as opposed to physical travel (car, airplane). Finally, the enabling infrastructure of communication and cloud resources is centrally located and more amenable to carbon friendly sources of energy such as renewables.
When possible, virtualization is the best option, but many task are not amenable to this paradigm. In those cases, electrification of transportation is a great lever for dramatically improving energy efficiency (and associated carbon emissions).
Electrification: Enabled by advances in semiconductor technology, solar is increasingly becoming a viable source for utility scale power. Further, improvements in batteries are enabling the electrification of the transportation fleet, and clean fuel sources such as hydrogen may be an excellent logistics fuel. From a sustainability point-of-view, the combination creates an emissions free transportation option which is more efficient then the petrochemical/internal combustion alternative.
Further, improvements in artificial intelligence are offering increased automated mobility capabilities in a range of form factors such as automobiles, trucks, public transportation shuttles, and even pedestrian robots. From a sustainability point-of-view, automation technology allows the construction of appropriately sized delivery vehicles given the load. As an example, one can replace a multi-ton vehicle trip to deliver pizza with a much smaller form-factor delivery robot. These class of last-mile solutions for daily necessities can significantly reduce use of misized delivery solutions while increasing convenience.
Virtualization and electrification can significantly impact sustainability, but the open remaining question of agricultural industrialization remains. Is it possible to impact this problem by building a more economically viable system of food production which reduces the incentives for clearing large tracts of land. Smart Infrastructure may offer an alternative.
Smart Infrastructure: The combination of sensor technologies with artificial intelligence systems is enabling a new class of smart infrastructure. Industrial manufacturing, warehousing, and countless commercial concerns have benefited from these capabilities to reduce energy usage while increasing output. For agriculture, perhaps the most interesting of these involves the field of agriculture where automation can reduce the required footprint and energy needed for food production. Techniques such as hydroponics offer an ability to build water and area efficient food generation systems.
In conclusion, virtualization, electrification, and smart infrastructure provide powerful and valuable tools to help solve the vexing problems of climate change. The lesson from history is that accelerating technology adoption through removal of impediments and incentives is a very effective method to drive material change. Governments should consider methods to accelerate technology adoption (or at least remove the impediments for progress) as a primary method to address climate change.