The Future of Transportation is Green

The new technologies that could fix shipping and commuting—and the old.

Even the rare person with no humanitarian interest in Ukraine found it hard not to pay close attention to the war as gasoline prices skyrocketed. Just two weeks after Russia’s invasion of its neighbor to the southwest in late February, drivers in the United States were paying a record $4.17 for each gallon of gas, a price that rose to around $5.00 in June, before creeping back down this fall. But with the war continuing, inflation still rising, and the world fearing energy shocks if Europe cannot secure natural gas supplies, few are looking forward to filling their car up at the pump this winter.

But automobile despair may have an upside: alternative transportation might finally be attractive to enough people and companies to significantly reduce transportation emissions.

Beyond Electric Vehicles

In the United States, transportation accounts for about 27% of carbon dioxide emissions. Around the world, the figure is about one-fifth, but despite cars becoming more fuel-efficient and sales of hybrid cars increasing, the sector’s emissions are growing. One only needs to look at China’s transition from a bike-and-train-based society to a car-and-airplane one to see what’s going on.

In response, many governments—especially wealthy, Western ones—have put their money behind electric vehicles. For personal transportation that makes sense in some ways.

Every year, the average American drives 13,500 miles in their car. That figure is higher than in other countries, but when it comes to carbon dioxide, location doesn’t really matter. The emissions all end up in the same atmosphere. And while some pollution is unavoidable, the emissions annually caused by America’s around 230 million licensed drivers may not be.

In 13 years’ time, half of all passenger cars sold worldwide are expected to be electric. Indeed, U.S. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, signed into law at the end of 2021, includes an EV Charging Action Plan that will see 500,000 electric-vehicle charging points built across the United States. Based on carbon emissions per mile traveled, if even a quarter of existing combustion vehicles are replaced with EVs it will save millions of tons of CO2 emissions each year. A typical car emits nearly five metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

While personal electric vehicles may emit less than traditional ones while in use, though, the mining and processing of the minerals found in their batteries, including lithium, nickel, and cobalt, is anything but clean. As the journal Nature put it last year, batteries “contain tens of kilograms of materials that have yet to be mined.” An average car battery, often referred to as a lithium battery, contains some eight kilograms of lithium, 35 kilograms of nickel, 20 kilograms of manganese and 14 kilograms of cobalt, according to figures provided to Nature by Argonne National Laboratory. For every tonne of lithium mined, meanwhile, 15 tonnes of CO2 are released into the air. Factor in emissions related to manufacturing and shipping, and depending on the fuels used to power any given country’s electrical grid, the environmental benefits of EVs may be less than overwhelming.

There are other technical problems for electric vehicles. Much road pollution comes from cargo trucks, but because of trucks’ enormous size and weight, electrifying them is far harder than electrifying cars. The same goes for shipping, which accounts for between 2.5 and 3% of the world’s CO2 emissions. To reduce that total, some shipping companies are steaming ahead with efforts to electrify their vessels, but it is difficult because batteries built with existing technology that would provide enough power to run today’s massive supertankers would be so heavy as to sink the ships. The same goes for air travel; a battery able to carry a Boeing 747 for five hours would, by itself, weigh nearly seven times as much as a plane without the battery.

The geopolitics around batteries can get messy, too. Lithium extraction today is dominated by Australia, China, and Chile. Nickel is primarily found in Indonesia, the Philippines, Cuba, and the French territory of New Caledonia. Indonesia, the global center of nickel mining, maintains close links to China; in 2019 it suddenly announced that it would impose a ban on nickel exports to try to attract foreign investors, mostly Chinese, to Indonesia to help build smelters and other industries there. As for cobalt, 70% is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where local workers toil under conditions akin to slavery. Today, most of the DRC’s cobalt mines are Chinese-owned.

Even more troubling for supplies, China—clearly anticipating the rush on metals for electric cars—has been buying up lithium as fast as it can. By 2021, its national lithium reserves held 1.5 million metric tons of the metal, compared to the United States’ 750,000. Government holdings are just one piece of the puzzle. Last year, Chinese companies also went on an astounding lithium-buying spree, acquiring an estimated 6.4 million tonnes in reserves and resources. The total amount of lithium acquired by non-Chinese companies the same year? Only 0.4 million tonnes.

That doesn’t mean the world should turn away from electric vehicles; every measure that can reduce CO2 emissions is needed. It does mean, however, that electric vehicles as they exist today can’t be the only—or main—answer for transportation. What if we need whole new ways of moving around?

Cubicycles and E-Roads

Let’s start with new ideas for shipping and long-haul travel. Specifically, e-roads. Sweden and Germany are pioneering these novel roads, which are fitted with powerlines underneath the surface. The powerlines automatically recharge vehicles as they travel along, typically using the same induction technology that many people know from induction stoves.

Germany, for example, has built several kilometers-long stretches of e-roads, including on the autobahn outside Frankfurt. Because vehicles need to be fitted with receivers that can absorb the electricity, the truck-maker Scania has joined the effort. E-roads may be an ideal solution for shipping by trucks, since electrifying those through batteries would be even more daunting that doing the same for cars.

Today, neither trucks nor cars can travel very far on e-roads, but German researchers have calculated that electrification of one-third of the autobahn road network could power 80% of all trucking journeys. Though the researchers didn’t provide a cost estimate, it is conceivable that a large part of the cost could be covered by trucking companies themselves, which would gain the convenience of having their vehicles constantly fueled without drivers having to look for gas stations. (Of course, the journeys are only as clean as the energy that powers the electric road. In August this year, the German government announced that the country would have to reactivate coal plants in order to maintain its energy supply, in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Germany’s decision to shutter its remaining nuclear plants.)

Sweden, meanwhile, pioneered a stretch of e-road six years ago, and opened the first complete e-road in December 2020, on the island of Gotland. It is also testing further roads featuring an electrified rail, similar to underground railways’ third rail. When cars drive on top of the rail, a charging arm added to the chassis automatically extends to touch it, which charges the car until it leaves the area.

And last year, a Norwegian chemicals and fertilizer company premiered the world’s first fully electric, autonomous cargo vessel. The Yara Birkeland is much smaller than most of the large cargo ships that traverse the world’s oceans (it has a carrying capacity of 120 TEU compared to the largest ships’ 24,000 TEU) and is more suited to travel around Norway’s coasts. Its batteries can be recharged almost exclusively on hydropower, the source of more than 90% of Norway’s electricity. The innovative vessel will replace an estimated 40,000 diesel-powered truck journeys per year thanks to the company’s operations throughout Norway, according to Yara.

Once cargo arrives by rail, road, or boat into any given city, of course, there are other problems to deal with. Delivery stops and sitting in traffic produces more emissions per vehicle mile traveled, and the more trucks enter the cities, the more traffic there is. To address these, cargo companies are teaming up with cities to make deliveries less CO2-intensive by, for example, delivering packages by bicycle-powered cargo carts. Such carts are already becoming a frequent sight in cities like London.

Innovations like this, often prompted by new city ordinances and fees for CO2-emitting vehicles, are crucial, not least because booming online shopping means delivery emissions will rise by 32% by 2030 (compared to 2020) if goods continue to be delivered by gasoline-powered cars and trucks. “Cities are trying to reduce the number of truck-delivery trips by having reloading points outside the city,” noted Henrik Gudmundsson, a consultant with the firm Concito, and who is considered one of Europe’s leading experts on sustainability economics. “This way, rather than having 20 diesel trucks going into the city the drivers reload the cargo to an electric vehicle that makes the trip.”

International delivery giant Deutsche Post DHL has gone further still: It now uses its “cubicycles” in several cities worldwide, including New York. The cubicycle is a bike powered by the rider, who sits in front and can, if needed, use electric pedal assistance powered by the cycle’s own solar panels. Behind the driver is a trailer hauling removable containers.

Each cubicycle can replace two delivery vans in ideal conditions—an amazing CO2 savings—though in hilly, dangerous, or extremely hot or cold cities, bike delivery is not expected to take off. There’s another reason innovations like cubicycles don’t dominate: consumers. Delivery companies simply don’t want to invest—and even a cargo bike costs money when you are buying a fleet of them—because their low fees have accustomed consumers to cheap and easy ordering. If delivery companies charged the real cost for deliveries, including fair prices for all the components in the supply chain, fair wages for workers and an accounting of carbon emissions, many consumers would think differently about their orders.

Indeed, while businesses clearly have an interest in keeping shopping, especially online shopping—which adds to the emissions from cargo shipping further emissions from delivery—the more the world can reduce machine-born transportation of packages, the better for the environment. While governments and the private sector will have to encourage innovation when it comes to how packages are moved, then, there’s also work to be done on consumer expectations.

Transportation for the Public

There’s more to move in cities, though, than packages.

For some people, existing public transportation can be great, but in the United States it has a long history of subpar performance and, in turn, underuse. There’s thus a chicken and egg problem—to get better, the system would need more investment. But to have more to invest, it would need more users.

But imagine transport of humans that involves little public investment and delivers public-health benefits, too. Biking and walking can be unmitigated good. Pedestrian and bicycle lanes wouldn’t even involve new infrastructure, as the space for them could easily be reclaimed from cars.

In the United States, the Walk Score website ranks major cities on their walkability—that is, residents’ ability to conduct daily life without access to a car. San Francisco tops the list; other top-scoring cities include New York City, Washington, D.C. and Boston. These cities are also expensive places to live; people are willing to pay for walkability, or at the very least, needing to walk doesn’t turn off many buyers.

According to a National Association of Realtors survey from 2018, 62% of millennials say they preferred to live in a place that didn’t require car ownership. For example, “in Copenhagen,” Gudmundsson noted, “we’ve had a revolution in how we treat pedestrian traffic and car traffic. Spaces that were parking 20 years ago have been converted into green spaces. …If you make the city attractive for pedestrians with things like greenery and safe crossing points, it’s a no brainer that people will walk.”

Walking and biking aren’t just pleasant, they are increasingly smart financial choices when possible. “Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has driven up gas prices and food prices all over the world,” Biden said in an address on April 1, around the same time gas prices hit $4.33 per barrel. The high prices caused driving to drop in the United States below pandemic levels. In short order, Washington responded to the price hike by releasing gasoline from its strategic reserves, but it won’t be able to tap into the reserves for the benefit of drivers every time there’s a global crisis, and such crises may become more frequent as the comfortable post-Cold War world continues to crumble.

Some cities have a head start on preparing their infrastructure for this future. Today more than 35 million Europeans use some sort of bikes as their primary mode of transportation, including cargo bikes for doing the shopping, toting the kids and making deliveries. Copenhagen and London, among others, have even created cycle superhighway networks that allow bicyclists to travel in separate lanes from cars.

Even outside of bike-loving Europe, cargo bikes are becoming familiar in the United States. I’ve spotted a few in Washington, D.C. And even car-centric Los Angeles boasts its own cargo-bike startups. In New York, cargo baskets with a kid or two are becoming a common site in Brooklyn on weekends. To further boost uptake, last year New York City conducted a pilot project involving delivery cargo bikes used by Amazon, UPS, DHL, and three other delivery firms. Between May 2020 and January 2021, the subsequent evaluation found, “the number of cargo bike deliveries increased 109%.” In January 2021 alone, it noted, New York saw more than 45,000 cargo bike deliveries, 80% of which were to residential addresses. It also noted that each cargo bike could cover an average of 20 service miles per day. Depending on traffic, that’s between 50–100% of the service miles of a van or box truck. If 20 cargo bike miles per day replace 20 van or truck miles, that saves seven tons of carbon dioxide per year.

But what about longer distances? E-bikes are an option, but they have batteries (although much smaller than EV batteries) with all the problems those entail. Public transport may be key, but it will have to be environmentally efficient and attractive enough that residents come to prefer it over the car. In June this year, as part of a package to promote energy efficiency the German government introduced a €9 ticket for unlimited rail travel around the country. When the experiment wound down in August, around 52 million Germans (and no doubt many visitors) had used the offer.

Some cities are finding other ways to discourage single passenger car trips. Bus rapid transit systems, known as BRTs, are advancing quickly and now chauffeur city dwellers around the world in a fast, safe, and efficient manner. The buses involved are not all CO2-efficient, but they’re an attractive alternative to cars because they have their own lanes and are thus unencumbered by any slow-moving traffic. Further, “BRTs are also much cheaper to build than subways, and once you’ve established them you can set up feeder lines to different station stations,” Gudmundsson said. “You have very efficient movement at small expense.” It’s also better for the environment, since the infrastructure already exists, which eliminates the need for new CO2-emitting construction projects.

BRTs are a particularly attractive option for cities less wealthy than Copenhagen, London, and Amsterdam. Indeed, the Brazilian city of Curitiba pioneered it in the 1970s, and today residents of cities as different as Mexico City, Bangalore, and a string of Chinese cities travel in this manner, arriving faster and reducing CO2 emissions in the process. The routes can also be changed far more easily than can rail transport routes.

As with shipping, then, there is change coming—provided the right public, private, and individual priorities.

With Transportation, We’ve Got to Start Somewhere

The good news in all this is that many people, companies, and governments are ready for a change.

For urban individuals, quality of life increasingly means having fewer cars altogether, not just temporarily escaping their constant presence by moving to a different neighborhood. Shipping companies are starting to think about a future in which they are no longer able to send goods cheaply across countries by truck. And governments understand that their cities will be more attractive and resilient if they get the solution right.

In the long term, then, future looks bright. It seems very likely that there will be more people on foot, bikes, cargo bikes, and the like. There will be more deliveries in cities that are not delivered by truck, and more shipping on e-roads, electric ships, and so on.

The question, of course, is what the next five or 10 years look like. In the grand scheme of things, innovations in battery technology, electrification, and consumer preferences have been quite rapid over the last decade. But not so fast that we’ve solved all of the technical problems, figured out implementation, and ensured that the markets will work.

But here, events this year may provide a nudge. Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine has reminded people around the world that the time of cheap gasoline is mostly over. Oil-and-gas exporters’ order books are full. The United States will squeak through the winter, but things look bad for consumers in Europe. We may not have batteries worked out quite yet, nor other ways to electrify heavy shipping. But what if we start where the solutions are easiest?

What if, say, a city council were to introduce a couple of experimental bus lines that feature Wi-Fi and charging points? What if it made riding free of charge for one day a week? What if it turned one car lane on some popular streets into a cargo-bike lane? What if it incentivized delivery by bike, or in-person purchases? All this would cost some money—and would not be a singular solution to the world’s transportation emissions at scale—but these efforts would at least be a step, or pedal, toward the future.