Experts tell us that cars will change more in the next decade than they have in the past century. And that’s probably just as well, since cars account for a significant proportion of global carbon dioxide (C0₂) emissions. Estimates suggest there are more than 1.37 billion cars worldwide, and this figure is expected to grow to 2 billion by 2040.
There are plenty of innovative ideas about how to tackle polluting emissions from cars: from hyper-efficient flying cars to hydrogen fuel cells that emit only water as a byproduct. But as workable solutions for the climate crisis, these are distant prospects compared to electric and driverless cars, which are expected to be on the roads by 2030.
In our third issue of the Imagine newsletter, academic experts offer their thoughts on how the humble car could evolve to become an unlikely hero in the global fight against climate change – if they’re charged with renewables. From China to the Caribbean, our experts explore initiatives from across the world that will revolutionise the role that cars play.
Whether as part of a fuel-saving, city-wide transport network, or a distributed “battery” for renewables, academics agree that cars of the future could form part of a powerful system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help manage climate change.
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Imagine is a newsletter from The Conversation that presents a vision of a world acting on climate change. Drawing on the collective wisdom of academics in fields from anthropology and zoology to technology and psychology, it investigates the many ways life on Earth could be made fairer and more fulfilling by taking radical action on climate change.
Introducing the car, in 2030
Dan Lewis, Claude Chibelushi and Debi Roberts of Staffordshire University combine their expertise in industrial design, cognitive computing and transport engineering to peer into the future, and picture the car in 2030.
They predict that interiors will be much more flexible, allowing customisation of colour, light, privacy and layout at the touch of a button – an exciting prospect for passengers. Beyond aesthetics, there are three major changes these experts expect will make cars more efficient and help curb pollution.
Electrification: Cars powered by electricity offer an alternative to polluting fossil fuels. Fully electric vehicles only make up 2% of the global market right now. But their price is predicted to drop below that of petrol cars by the mid-2020s, so fully electric vehicles should be a viable choice for a wide range of drivers by 2030.
Automation: by 2030, the standard car will evolve from merely assisting the driver to taking full control of all aspects of driving, in most conditions. Rural drivers will probably still own their cars, but cities may move away from car ownership to the use of on-demand autonomous vehicles, which should reduce the number of cars on the roads.
Connectivity: will minimise fuel consumption (and improve traffic flow) by allowing cars to synchronise their movement. This will be possible thanks to the ever-growing internet of things. We will see sensors designed to recognise and communicate with upgraded road signs, markings, networks of cameras, pedestrians and other vehicles.
The electric car revolution is coming
According to Jack Barkenbus, a researcher with the Climate Change Research Network within Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Energy and Environment, the global shift from petroleum-fueled vehicles to electric ones will come sooner rather than later. A key element of an EV’s price is the cost of its batteries, but industry analysts now suggest that within five years it will be cheaper to buy an electric car than a petrol-powered one.
Indeed, most of this demand is coming from within China – the world’s largest automobile market. As Western countries approach peak car ownership, there are still hundreds of millions of Chinese families that don’t own a car at all – much less two or more. And many of them are buying EVs.
In 2018, Chinese sales topped 1.1m cars – that’s more than 55% of all EVs sold in the world, and more than three times as many as Chinese customers had bought two years earlier (for comparison, EV sales in the US that year reached just 358,000).
Barkenbus says: “The EV revolution is coming, but it won’t be driven by the US. Instead, China will be at the forefront.”
Our cities will change as radically as our cars
Most of the world’s population lives in cities, which account for 75% of global energy use and 76% of C0₂ emissions. As such, researchers have pointed to a growing focus on the role cities can play in reducing emissions and helping humanity adapt to the impacts of climate change.
According to University of Sheffield academics Martin Mayfield and Giuliano Punzo, introducing a networked system of electric, autonomous vehicles at a city level would ease congestion, thereby reducing pollution and minimising the time people spend on the road. It would also radically change the face of cities in the future.
The average car spends around 90% of its life parked. A shift away from privately owned vehicles towards a service – owned and run by public or private ventures – is a smart and efficient solution that’s going to revolutionise the way traffic flows through cities. But it could also have profound consequences for existing transport systems such as trains, metros and bus services.
Congestion is often caused by too many drivers all trying to take the most direct or convenient route at the same time. Only drivers who take the route early will benefit, while the rest will get caught in traffic – mathematicians call this “the price of anarchy”.
Working as a system, driverless cars will be able to distribute themselves across a range of routes to prevent traffic jams and move through the city more efficiently. This kind of system should offer further benefits over time, provided useful data collected by autonomous cars is delivered to local or city authorities, that can then work to improve roads as needed.
Even transport between cities could eventually be affected, as autonomous car networks grow. Urban planners will have to balance the value of investments in trains, buses and metros with those toward infrastructure for autonomous cars.
It will probably be ten to 20 years before autonomous vehicles – and the high-speed 5G network they need to connect – are rolled out onto public roads. Meanwhile, academics have noted that cities around the world are looking to curb car use, as a way of immediately reducing C0₂ emissions to benefit the health of residents, as well as the environment.
Professor or urban planning, Richard Kingston, and research fellow, Ransford Acheampong, who both specialise in urban planning at the University of Manchester, suggest three measures which can reduce the reliance of city dwellers on cars – without inconveniencing them.
1. Introduce car-free zones and charges
Car-free zones and charges are designed to deter or restrict car use. They can range in size and nature. In some cities, such as Copenhagen and Brussels, cars are entirely banned from parts of the city centre. Other cities, such as Madrid, have introduced partial bans.
The entire city of Ghent, Belgium, is car free – but public transport, taxis and other permit holders may be allowed to drive through the city at up to five kilometres per hour. Elsewhere, such as in central London, charges are applied to drivers entering during peak hours or using polluting vehicles.
2. Provide public transport alternatives
Residents might take a negative view of such restrictions, if they cause inconvenience or a loss of mobility. An obvious way to address these concerns is for cities to provide people with reliable, flexible and cost-effective public transport. This should pay off in the long run.
Evidence shows that car use is already decreasing in many cities across Europe, the US and Australia. And young people – especially young men – are delaying learning to drive and are less likely to own a car than the generation before them. If fewer people are going to drive, then public transport needs to be affordable and accessible for both young and old.
3. Reshape the city
Cities need to offer people the opportunity to live closer to shops, employment and recreation, thereby promoting “active” travel such as walking and cycling and reducing car dependence. This can be achieved by building high density, mixed-use developments with affordable housing and excellent green spaces.
Developments across the globe – including Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates and The Great City in China – are prioritising walking and public transit over cars, while also experimenting with electric and driverless vehicles. These new developments aim to provide basic services within walking distance, create safe spaces for people to walk and provide public transit that uses clean energy.
A few things need to be addressed to properly unlock the potential of electric vehicles
While EVs have great potential to reduce emissions, they won’t as long as they’re charged using electricity generated from the same old dirty fossil fuels. Global electricity consumption from EVs is estimated to grow to 1,800TWh by 2040 – that’s roughly five times the current annual electricity use of UK.
If this energy isn’t sourced from renewables, however, academics have calculated that it would mean a potentially catastrophic increase in global C0₂ emissions – even if old, polluting combustion engines are taken off the roads. As such, the transition to renewables will be a key factor in whether cars can mitigate the climate crisis.
Parakram Pyakurel, a postdoctoral researcher in renewable energy systems at Solent University, offers some solutions to key problems, to help ensure EVs don’t end up costing the planet.
Problem: the load on the energy grid – caused by people charging their EVs in the evening, after work – could cause power supply issues at a community or city level. These systems may need an upgrade. Or, energy suppliers could introduce a tariff that is higher during evenings and lower during times when there’s less demand. Smart charging is another solution, which uses smart systems and artificial intelligence to charge more EVs when power production from local renewable sources is at a high.
Problem: the high cost of EVs and the lack of available charging stations could stall uptake. Governments can address these obstacles by subsidising EVs, as is being done in China. Even on a city level, authorities can encourage people to use EVs through taxes or special clean air zones, like London’s new Ultra Low Emission Zone.
Problem: there’s a scarcity of precious metals like cobalt and lithium, which are integral to EV batteries. Alternative designs that don’t rely on scarce elements are currently being explored by car manufacturers. And recycling plants dedicated to processing metals and other scarce elements for reuse can be expanded.
Some countries are already showing the world what green transport systems can do
Tom Rogers, a senior lecturer in renewable energy and energy management at Coventry University, teamed up with Destine Gay and Rebekah Shirley, researchers in the West Indies and Kenya respectively, to conduct a fascinating study into the way small islands – in this case, Barbados – can provide the perfect proving ground for the transition to fully electrified transport.
- Several Caribbean islands are now aiming for 100% renewable energy.
- Islands will need to store excess energy, for when demand exceeds the supply from wind and solar energy.
- EVs act as a distributed storage system, where owners can sell electricity back to grid operators while their car is plugged in.
- Vehicle-to-grid charging helps the grid meet demand when there is fluctuating electricity generation from renewables.
- EVs can even act as mobile, back-up energy storage, to help with recovery and rescue efforts after hurricanes and tsunamis.
Barbados is now the third highest user of electric vehicles in the world. If all 132,000 vehicles currently on Barbados were electric, and vehicle-to-grid charging were adopted, that would provide a storage capacity of 0.5GWh. This would go some of the way towards the 3GWh that is needed for a 100% renewable energy system on Barbados.
- Flying cars could cut emissions, replace planes, and free up roads – but not soon enough
- Driverless cars: once they’re on the road, human drivers should be banned
- London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone – will it make the city healthier?
- Some softer solutions to Nairobi’s traffic pollution problem