A Five-Step Program for Ending Our Oil Addiction

Every day, we haul goods, shuttle our kids to school, and jet to meetings and vacations on a foundation of fire. Our mobility is enabled by combustion performed by ingenious mechanisms that harness the energy stored up by millions of years of photosynthesis, burning through 13 million barrels of oil per day.

Imagine the drone of combustion replaced by the whisper of emission-free electric propulsion. Instead of paying an increasingly high cost for oil in money, environmental damage and blood, we capture a $3.8 trillion net prize by 2050 by not using it.

In Reinventing Fire, Rocky Mountain Institute provides a blueprint for transforming transportation and freight services with uncompromised convenience, safety and performance using no oil by 2050.

By building better vehicles and using them more efficiently, engineers, managers, financiers, thought leaders and business strategists can capture competitive advantage. We will gain an ever more smoothly flowing network of goods and people and will fuel growth and investment in transformative, home-grown innovation and industrial prowess.

But how do we get there? RMI lays out a five-step program for ending our oil addiction.

1. Shift to ultralight but ultrastrong autobodies

The virtues of a lightweight auto body with improved safety and performance are universally applicable to the many auto powertrain options now available or under development.  To cost-effectively electrify autos, automakers have begun to adopt lightweight bodies that enable a smaller powertrain and fewer, cheaper batteries or fuel cells to provide competitive range.

While incremental lightweighting, reductions in aerodynamic drag and tires with lower rolling resistance substantially improve fuel economy, the true potential of “Revolutionary+” autos that achieve 125-240 mpg equivalent is fully unlocked through the use of advanced materials—such as carbon fiber composites — paired with resulting savings in manufacturing.

2. Pursue innovative state or regional policies that boost the economics of Revolutionary+ vehicles

For most auto buyers, fuel efficiency and fuel costs have historically been minor considerations. The fuel savings from switching to an all-electric auto, though important over years, can seem small on a day-to-day basis.

Such fuel savings are drastic for Revolutionary+ autos because of their extreme efficiency—especially over the entire lifetime of the auto. However, while cost of ownership of Revolutionary+ autos will be lower than for autos built and powered by traditional means, up-front sticker price will initially be higher. Innovative programs such as feebates, fleet procurement, cash for clunkers and affordable financing can offset the initial price premium of Revolutionary+ autos, helping propel automakers down three mutually reinforcing learning curves: advanced ultralight materials, manufacturing savings and electrified powertrains. This enables Revolutionary+ autos to quickly reach parity with the competition.

3. Apply vehicle-fitness based designs across other modes of transportation and encourage the production of 2nd and 3rd generation non-food biofuels

There has always been a place for fire—indeed, the history and development of our species is intimately entwined with it, and the energy density of combustible liquid fuel is as yet unparalleled. However, applying vehicle-fitness-based design principles across transportation modes could drastically reduce liquid fuel demand by 2050.

Heavy trucks that move freight across the country do so with timeliness and at competitively low rates, keeping prices low for the end users of goods. But doubling the efficiency of our freight transportation system by redesigning heavy trucks could save $800 billion in fuel costs between now and 2050. We can adopt suites of efficiency technologies in truck design including auxiliary power units (APUs), low rolling resistance tires and using more long combination vehicles to reduce the number of trucks on the road.

But even after applying vehicle fitness to all modes of transportation, in 2050 we’ll still rely on liquid fuels for transportation modes that cannot be feasibly or cost-effectively electrified, namely airplanes and heavy trucks. That liquid fuel can be forged aboveground in biorefineries using agricultural waste streams and non-cropland perennial plants, all without taking food off the world’s tables.

4. Improve how we use our vehicles

Transforming the design of autos, trucks, planes and other conveyances is only one piece of the puzzle. Changing how we use our vehicles could provide additional value to consumers and expand the range of mobility options.

Existing examples of such improvements to vehicle use and expanded mobility include mobile carpooling applications that allow commuters to offset fuel costs by selling their empty seats; car sharing programs that eliminate the need for car ownership in urban markets; and dynamic pricing mechanisms to decongest peak travel times and extract more value out of existing roads and highways. Some communities are redesigning for people—not cars—by siting offices, schools, retailers and homes in close proximity to one another and with easy access to public transportation systems. If these approaches to enhanced vehicle use reached their maximum potential, U.S. driving could be reduced by half.

We can use other vehicles more productively and efficiently, too. Heavy truck drivers can be incentivized to drive more efficiently. Trucks’ idle fuel consumption can be mitigated by using APUs. Airplanes can cruise slightly slower, glide to direct landings without fuel-hungry maneuvers and use advances in air traffic management to chart the fastest routes and carry less excess fuel. While these strategies to improve transportation efficiency and expanded mobility are succeeding in specific U.S. markets, it will fall to a new generation of entrepreneurs, regulators, city planners and innovators to maximize the true potential of smarter vehicle use.

5. Focus on outcomes, not motives

This new transportation system based on super-efficient vehicles more productively used would produce a net societal savings of $3.8 trillion between now and 2050. But it won’t happen overnight. While regulators and administrators at all levels can help chart the path toward this future state, entrepreneurs, automakers and service providers will lead the way. In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, first- and fast-moving innovators will be the best positioned to capture market share in a lucrative, transformed industry. The shift will be fraught with risk, but the advantage will be enduring.

Authored by Jesse Morris and Greg Rucks