The future of transport

This article is available in Bulgarian.

The fleet of vehicles in 2030 will reflect the sales being made today

Last week I was invited to share my views on the future of mobility at a special event organized by Shell Bulgaria. I chose to share my prognosis on what could change in the way we transport ourselves before 2040 – I don’t believe in longer-term predictions because no one can realistically foresee what might happen that far out. In practical terms this means that the question at hand concerns commercial technologies that already exist because the transport sector is a relatively slow moving system – the average age of cars in Europe is 10-12 years, which means that the fleet of vehicles in 2030 will reflect the sales being made today.

It is important to note that this text does not contain my opinion on what the best course of action is or what I wish would happen. The text reflects what I believe is most likely to transpire.

  1. Sail boats will continue to be toys for millionaires and their sponsored media idols and stars.
  2. Energy use in the transport sector will continue to outpace the growth in the industrial and commercial sectors. Just look at Africa on the globe and compare it to Europe. You will understand what I mean.
  3. I don’t believe that any drastic changes of the energy use in the transport sector will take place, other than the mix becoming more diverse compared to today. More electricity and gas will be used, but petroleum will remain as the major engine that drives mobility.
  4. I don’t believe that many people will give up the freedom that comes with owning a personal car. It doesn’t have to be personally owned, but perhaps acquired through a lease that gives exclusive ownership.
  5. Car sharing, electric scooters and bikes will continue to grow in use but they will not replace a significant part of personal car use.
  6. Large amounts of money will be poured into the sector in the form of subsidies. This is already happening with electric vehicles in the USA and China. Unfortunately Europe is also going down this path. Large businesses will use the climate movement to get access to as much free money as possible while politicians will use it to gain greater power to redistribute funds.
  7. Subways (and other forms of transport that don’t compete for space on the roads) will remain as the only strong contenders for the mass transport of people in cities. Mass train use will remain a western European and Japanese phenomenon, no matter how many subsidies are poured into the sector.
  8. Airplanes will dominate at distances over 500km. No one can stop the expansion of civil aviation because it saves the only non-renewable resource in the world – time.
  9. I don’t believe that biofuels will constitute a much greater portion of the fuel mix. The regeneration of ecosystems is a slow process that cannot accommodate humanity’s hunger for energy. Agricultural land will be needed to grow food instead of fuel.
  10. The number of hybrid vehicles on the road will greatly increase because they are the only way to fulfill the mandated reduction in carbon emissions for new cars. Total carbon emissions from the transport sector will continue to grow despite this.
  11. I don’t believe we will see a significant breakthrough in hydrogen fuel cells. Instead I expect natural gas to start being used on a large scale as a vehicle fuel because it is logical, easy and possible. It can literally happen right away – look at this example from Skoda on our market.
  12. Natural gas will also make its way into the freight transport sector in the way of LNG and CNG. It will also be increasingly used for the production of synthetic fuels through gas-to-liquids technologies. This is inevitable because large quantities of natural gas are currently wasted in the extraction process due to our inability to capture and store it – about 20 billion dollars’ worth of gas is wasted annually.  
  13. I don’t believe that diesel will disappear. Trucks, inter-city buses and ships simply don’t have a fast means to switch to a different fuel source – massive investments will be needed.
  14. Yes, there will be many more electric automobiles but I don’t believe we will see the “revolution” that many are expecting.
  15. After 10 years on the market and billions in government subsidies, there still isn’t a brand that makes a profit on electric vehicles. They are not viable without subsidies. Look around on the streets!
  16. Many people believe that the internal combustion engine is obsolete. I don’t think so – ICEs have the potential to improve and develop quite a bit, which will certainly happen.

I know that many people – activists, politicians, businessmen – dream of the total electrification of transport. I also wish to see this happen because it is an excellent solution to air pollution in cities with heavy traffic. However, I see two major obstacles – physics and the economy. The first reason is illustrated in Figure 1 – gasoline contains 15 times more energy when compared to the best available batteries, per weight. Today’s ICE engines use about 25-30% of that energy, but the theoretical maximum (Carnot’s limit) of converting heat into work is 80%. There is a massive potential for growth in this respect, which Toyota is already trying to achieve – their newest engine reaches a conversion rate of 40%. Keep in mind that the most widespread batteries used today are based on the lightest metal – lithium (with an atomic weight of 7). If we move over to sodium (atomic weight of 22), we will automatically increase the weight of this part of batteries by three times. Heavy elements like nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper will remain – they are unreplaceable for now. Their extraction in massive quantities, needed for hundreds of thousands of electric cars, is not a trivial problem by any means.

Figure 1. Comparison of energy densities between gasoline and batteries (Source: „The New Energy Economy: An Excercise in Magical Thinking“, in the middle – the graphic with log scale from Energy & Environmental Science)

The economy is the other large obstacle. The energy in a barrel of oil (160 L) is contained in a reservoir worth $20 – a metal drum. Storing the same amount of energy in batteries would require 10 tons of Tesla cells, at a cost of $200,000. The market price of the energy itself in counties like the USA, where taxes are not very high, is also in favor of gasoline. In addition, the electricity used for charging electric cars often requires greater consumption of fossil fuels when compared to ICE engines, especially if most of it is generated by coal power plants. This is a fact even in “green leader” nations such as Germany, and there is no way to change this dynamic quickly in large parts of the world.     

In summary: Yes, there will be changes in the transport sector. No, they will not be very drastic or fast. Natural gas, and not electricity, will gain a larger portion in the energy use mix, but petroleum will remain as the dominant factor. And no, this is not my wish, but a result of the reality of the transport system, physics and the economy.    

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