Imagining the Future of Energy and Transportation

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

To combat climate change, action must be taken quickly to slow the growth of fossil fuel emissions in the face of growing demand for energy. This challenge requires the concerted effort of all the nations of the world on a scale that has never been seen before.


Imagine that you are living in the suburbs of Copenhagen, Singapore, or perhaps New York City. It is early morning, and you are heading to the office. You unplug your car, get in, press the start button and put on classical music. Your car is a little bit different from the cars back in 2016. The car is electric, and it’s about the size of the Smart Cars that they had back then, with a comfortable passenger cabin that only has room for two. After all, you are only one person commuting to the office, so there is no need for you to bring the back seat or the trunk of your car. That would be inefficient and a waste of energy. You can bring those along when you go away with the family this weekend.

You live on a quiet street, and pull carefully into the roadway. It’s a few miles to get to the autoway, which used to be called the highway or the freeway or the parkway. Who remembers? As you pull onto the entrance ramp, you release your hands from the steering wheel. The steering wheel retracts, and a large screen display appears. You swipe the screen and begin scanning the news headlines. Your autonomous vehicle accelerates and seamlessly slips between two other vehicles, but you are no longer paying attention.

As you approach the exit, a gentle voice reminds you that the steering wheel will soon be in your hands again. The computer display retracts, and you take control once more. Your office is only a few blocks away, and you drive right up to the front door. You get out, the car locks itself, pulls out, and then drives off to an underground parking facility. There are no cars parked on the street, and there is no traffic. The air is cleaner than it has been in years. You’re smiling because you enjoy a commute that is faster, more comfortable, and more energy efficient than ever before. At the end of the day, it will only take the push of a button on your Apple watch; your car will be waiting for you at the front door when you’re ready to leave.

This story may become reality sooner than we think. Today, the global community is targeting transportation efficiency to combat climate change. Action must be taken quickly to slow the growth of fossil fuel emissions in the face of growing demand for energy, especially from developing nations. This challenge requires the concerted effort of all the nations of the world on a scale that has never been seen before.

The good news is that states have already started to take up the challenge. In Cancun, Mexico, at the United Nations International Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN IFCCC) in 2010, UN members agreed to a goal of limiting anthropogenic greenhouse gases to a level that would allow a maximum global temperature increase of 2 degrees centigrade. To achieve this goal, all states must commit to taking action. The accords recently signed in Paris were a big step forward, with UN member states pledging their commitment towards the reduction of greenhouse gases.

A key opportunity for carbon reduction is in the transportation sector. The combustion engine, used by most transport vehicles, is responsible for much of today’s problematic carbon dioxide emissions. Up to this point, the United States has primarily made commitments to improvements in café standards (part of the U.S. commitment in Paris) and to the use of ethanol to help reduce greenhouse gases.

But the real future of energy and transportation lies not in regulation, but in a combination of technological possibilities, market forces, and political discourse. Which existing technologies can help us to continue moving towards a more energy efficient transportation future? Do we have the political will on a global scale to create a more energy efficient transportation future? This piece presents an exploration of the technologies that could bring us to the imagined future for automobiles and for public transportation.

Electric vehicles (EVs) could be a key component in the transition to a more energy efficient transportation future based on their emissions profile, but there are dependencies. On the surface, they produce no emissions and they use no fossil fuels. However, the energy that goes into charging vehicle batteries must come from somewhere—and this “somewhere” often consists of nonrenewable sources. In Denmark in 2012, for example, one-third of the electricity for the country was generated by wind and one third was generated by coal. If wind is used as the primary energy source for charging electric vehicles, associated emissions could be zero. If coal is the power source, the aggregate emissions will not be appreciably less than emissions from an equivalent gasoline powered automobile . Although the electric car has potential to dramatically reduce emissions and fossil fuel usage, then, there must also be a commitment to generating clean battery power.

Many automobile manufacturers produce EVs today, but sales have lagged. Worldwide, total sales of electric cars in 2014 was just over 300,000 vehicles: an increase of more than 50 percent year to year, but still totaling less than 1 percent of overall automobile sales. The only country in which sales of electric vehicles has been significant is Norway, comprising more than 12 percent of sales in the market in 2014. Other industrialized countries can look to Norway as an example of successful EV rollout: Sales were supported by strong financial incentives and by a solid recharging infrastructure. In addition to financial incentives, there were programs designed to promote installation of charging stations and to allow EVs to drive in bus lanes.

Why haven’t more people jumped on the EV bandwagon? The primary issue is vehicle driving range and limitations of charging station infrastructure. Most gasoline-powered automobiles have a range of about 400 miles. The global infrastructure of gas stations in most developed regions is extensive, and refueling is convenient. The range of an electric vehicle can be anywhere from a few miles to nearly 300 miles on the most expensive models. Charging infrastructure is also limited. Electrical outlets are readily available in more developed regions, but some EVs require special recharging equipment. Even if special equipment is not required, fully recharging a vehicle can take up to 8 hours.

So how can the electric car compete? An Israeli company called Better Place has proposed a different business model: a battery swapping system for electric vehicles. Assume that you are out on a long drive, and need to charge your battery quickly because you are in a hurry to get to your destination. With this model, you can bring your car into a gas station or and have your battery swapped out and replaced with a fully charged battery in about the same time that it takes to fill up a tank of gasoline. You are back on the road, fully charged, in virtually no time at all. With this infrastructure in place, the EV can reach its destination as seamlessly as gasoline-powered vehicles today.

Another exciting automobile innovation is the autonomous vehicle. The extreme version of an autonomous vehicle is one that is literally driverless, like a robot on wheels. Many of the early features of autonomous vehicles are already on the road, including self-parking, lane switching warning systems, and emergency braking assist. Google, for example, has received a lot of publicity for its development of self-driving vehicles . They claim that their vehicles have driven two million unassisted miles with only 17 minor accidents, none of which were caused by the driverless vehicle. Tesla also has a broad array of autonomous driving features, and General Motors is planning to incorporate additional autonomous features in its vehicles in the near future. Autonomous cars are not inherently energy efficient, but the feature provides potential for energy efficiency applications. For example, autonomous vehicles can drive in a fashion where they draft behind one another, much like racing cyclists or birds flying in formation, to reduce drag and improve energy efficiency.

If more countries were to follow Norway’s lead by promoting development of an electric vehicle infrastructure and by providing financial incentives for new electric vehicle purchase, the future of energy efficient vehicles could soon become a reality.


Imagine that you are a visitor to Paris, Sao Paolo, or Tokyo. This is your first visit to the city, and you don’t know your way around. All you have is the address of your destination. As you enter the bus station, there are machines everywhere to assist you, in your own language. You provide your destination, and with the swipe of a credit card, are provided with a detailed itinerary and tickets for public transport. What you don’t realize is that behind the scenes, the bus and train routes and schedules are continuously changed and optimized to get you to your destination as quickly as possible. The route that you are provided is an express route combining bus, metro and transfers designed specifically for you.

You soon learn that almost everyone uses public transportation because it is so fast and convenient. There are metro stations underground and electric buses and trolleys on the surface. Street level intersections are for vehicles only, and traffic lights are managed by computers that know where every vehicle is located. Lights change to minimize wait time and get passengers to their destinations faster.

As you ride the bus, you see that pedestrians walk one level up from the roadway, on distinct walkways that look like the High Line in New York City. Pedestrian and vehicular traffic are never in contention, and traffic lights are for vehicular traffic only. Public transportation is so fast and efficient that individual transportation is not necessary. However, segregated, designated pathways are available for cyclists who are interested in exercise, lowering their carbon footprint, or both. There are no private vehicles on the roadways.

Public transportation is an important alternative for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, the availability and quality of public transportation varies dramatically from city to city. Seoul and Singapore have some of the best public transportation systems in the world when it comes to cleanliness, comfort, and convenience. Yet, public transportation is missing, ineffective, or minimal in cities such as Los Angeles and Jakarta. New York City’s transit system is considered to be the best in the United States and one of the best in the world, with 56 percent of New York commuters using public transportation.

Curitiba, Brazil, however, has a public transportation system used by 70 percent of commuters and is the envy of many cities around the world. So what is Curitiba doing differently? The public transportation system in Curitiba has been built up over time with an eye towards effectiveness, efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and making the system attractive to a diverse range of commuters. The system is based on buses only (to keep costs down), and vehicle movement is unimpeded by traffic signals or by congestion, much like a subway. The bus routes were designed to use small “feeder” buses that connect into the main arteries that run into the city, and there are both express and local bus routes. Payment is required upon entry to bus stations, instead of entry to the buses themselves, speeding up the boarding process. Each bus stop contains a shelter that is on a raised platform. When the bus arrives, an extra wide door opens and a platform slides out. As a result, passengers can board quickly, and buses are all handicap accessible. The system is reliable, and buses come frequently.

Shenzhen, China is taking a new and different approach to managing urban transportation. The United States and China have developed a series of eco-partnerships since 2008 as part of their ongoing Climate discussions. In this particular partnership, the Environmental Defense Fund is working with the Shenzhen Low Carbon Development Foundation to investigate the implementation of a carbon emissions trading system for the city’s transportation network, including both public and private transportation. An overall carbon emissions cap will be developed and assigned to all carbon emitters. Then, a market will be established for trading among those who exceed the caps and those that are unable to meet their objectives. The results, which will be monitored by city governments around the world, will purportedly be an overall reduction in emissions in the transportation sector of Shenzhen.

Imagining the future of transportation is easy; the hard part is getting there. There are many potential paths leading to many different futures, and we can only hope that the actual future will be one in which our transportation systems will be more energy efficient, emit fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases, and perhaps get us to our destination a little bit more quickly and comfortably. The political environment is always complex, voter understanding of the issues and voter sympathy are never guaranteed, and the private sector will always be looking at the underlying economics before making further investment. Getting anywhere, however, must always start with a goal, or better yet, by imagining a better future.


Judah Aber is a Master of Public Administration candidate at Columbia University in Environmental Science and Policy, specializing in Renewable Energy and Sustainable Transportation. He has extensive experience in lead financial management roles at IBM including as the CFO, COO and Controller of various cross-functional business units. Judah holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an MBA in Finance.