Download the methodology behind RMI's findings in the transportation sector.
Report | 2017
Reinventing Fire: Transportation
America has been built and shaped by her ability to move people and goods freely and quickly, fueled by seemingly inexpensive oil. Thirteen million barrels of oil a day is burned driving to work, hauling cargo, jetting to meetings and vacations, and keeping our vast transportation system humming. That’s 73 percent of all the oil used in the United States.
But this unprecedented mobility comes with big costs and risks. Americans pay two billion dollars a day to buy petroleum, half from foreign countries, some considered national security threats. Oil dependence’s hidden costs, paid not at the pump but through taxes and indirect economic damage, total roughly twice the price of the oil itself—in round numbers, one and a half trillion dollars a year, or 12 percent of GDP, far more than the nation’s total energy bill—plus any costs to independence, security, health, and environment.
Making transportation oil-free can solve all of these problems by 2050. Superefficient autos, trucks, and planes, far more productively used, would need three-fourths less fuel, no oil, and less lifecycle cost. Yet they could provide greatly enhanced personal mobility and freight services with uncompromised convenience, safety, and performance.
Fit, Electrified Automobiles
Pursuing this pathway is both imperative and timely: the transportation sector is in a rare period of transformation. Smart, IT-enabled, safe, lightweight vehicles in particular could transform automaking, dramatically changing some of the world’s biggest businesses. The solution begins with automotive physics. Among current 25–30-mile-per-U.S.-gallon (mpg) autos, about six-sevenths of fuel energy is lost in converting fuel energy into actual movement. Only about 5–6 percent of fuel energy accelerates the auto; less than 0.5 percent moves the driver. By making cars lighter-weight, more aerodynamic, and lower in rolling resistance, affordable autos could achieve 50 percent better fuel economy than today’s models with no major advances in technology or manufacturing processes and without using hybrid propulsion.
However, these incremental improvements leave far too much on the table. Attractive, 125–240-mpg autos that need no liquid fuel can be achieved in this decade by designing the whole vehicle as one integrated system—using designers’ current skills but organizing them differently.
The key innovation is a shift to ultralight, low-drag electric vehicles. Ultralight materials such as carbon-fiber composites ensure “fit yet strong” autos that match or beat metal autos’ crash safety. Besides saving fuel and lives, composites have unique potential to slash automakers’ manufacturing costs and investments, and hence autos’ sticker prices and manufacturers’ financial risks.
Since advanced composite materials greatly reduce the auto’s weight and the power needed to propel it, electric powertrains become much smaller, hence economically viable. Such autos have the potential to reduce U.S. auto fuel consumption by 95 percent by 2050—roughly one-third by needing less energy to move them, the rest by substituting electricity or hydrogen (both of which can be more efficiently used) for liquid fuel.
Auto manufacturers that quickly market vehicles with radically improved efficiency stand to gain an edge. While new models like the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf continue to push the boundaries of older, steel-based architectures by electrifying their powertrains, BMW, Volkswagen, and Audi have announced 2012–13 production starts for electrified autos with advanced composite autobodies, with Daimler and others hard on their heels. Their adoption of a “Revolutionary” approach to automaking may well place them at the leading edge of the automotive industry. BMW has already confirmed that its lighter carbon-fiber car’s need for fewer batteries offsets the carbon fiber’s cost—a thesis already demonstrated by an aluminum-intensive fleet van.
Proven, targeted, revenue-neutral policies called “feebates”—rebates for buying highly efficient autos, funded by fees on inefficient autos—can speed ultralight, electrified autos’ production and adoption in the early years before high production volume cuts their costs. Other policy enablers include smart fleet procurement policies, faster-turnover programs like Cash for Clunkers, and prize competitions. If begun promptly and pursued for the next two decades, these investment-driving policies would allow automakers to leverage new advances in carbon fiber manufacturing and reap economies of scale, forestalling a new generation of oil-burning and only incrementally improved autos. By 2050, “Revolutionary” and electrified autos may cost little or no more to buy than conventional ones, while returning oil savings worth $3.8 trillion in net present value.
Using Vehicles More Productively
Creating these dramatically improved autos and their non-automotive analogues can wean the U.S. transportation system off oil. But using vehicles more productively can also provide the same or better access with 46–84 percent less driving. Companies can lead by forging ahead with such transportation system improvements as car-sharing, social-network-enabled car-pooling, and telecommuting. Paying infrastructure costs by the mile not the gallon, smart IT-enabled traffic and transport systems, and smart growth development strategies can halve or more the 13,000 miles a typical American drives each year while providing the same or better services with less cost, risk, and hassle. The payoff: more than $0.4 trillion (net present value) in saved money and time.
The same principles of vehicle fitness that make autos more efficient can also be applied to buses, delivery vans, heavy trucks, airplanes, and other conveyances.
Tripling Heavy Truck Efficiency
Heavy trucks are normally projected to average 7.8 mpg by 2050. But today, leading fleets are already averaging upwards of 8.5 mpg. A combination of heavy truck design improvements, efficiency-based driver training, and expanded use of long combination vehicles could slash domestic freight’s need for liquid fuels.
But design improvements are only half the story. Hauling fewer tons for fewer miles, fuller loads, and better logistics systems can save even more fuel. Expanded use of intermodal rail and short sea shipping lanes also promises to save fuel and decongest highways in many popular shipping corridors. Together, all these improvements can profitably reduce the 2050 need for heavy trucks’ liquid fuel by 68 percent.
Enhanced Airplane Efficiency
Airplanes too are ripe for improvement. Better logistics, idling practices, and flight routing in combination with expanded use of telepresence solutions are all low-hanging fruit. But technological gains are becoming ever more powerful. Beyond Boeing and Airbus’ latest market offerings, which offer a 20 percent efficiency gain over current models, new next-generation airplane designs are pushing the boundaries of efficiency by applying whole-system de-sign and drawing inspiration from nature’s examples. Furthermore, one of America’s single largest aircraft buyers, the U.S. military, continues to push the boundaries of transportation efficiency through its new strategic focus on energy-saving technologies.
Fueling Efficient Vehicles: Diverse Options Without Oil
Even after applying radical vehicle fitness to autos, trucks, planes, and other vehicles, using electrified automotive powertrains, and using our vehicles more productively, we’ll still need up to 3.1 million barrels-oil-equivalent of liquid fuel per day in 2010, largely or wholly for trucks and airplanes, minus however much natural gas is burned in trucks. However, that remaining demand can all be met durably and economically with sustainably produced 2nd- and 3rd-generation biofuels that don’t harm soil or climate and don’t displace production of any food crop.
Both electricity and hydrogen could support a future fleet of superefficient autos, so both will compete strongly with each other and with advanced biofuels. Although electricity prices are low and offer a compelling price incentive for customers to switch from oil-powered vehicles, “range anxiety” could limit adoption (though automakers are already offering a small range-extending engine that will rarely be used). However, full-range hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles supported by a robust, affordable, distributed hydrogen-fueling infrastructure also offer a compelling alternative to full auto electrification. Furthermore, natural gas can be attractive for efficient heavy trucks and for centrally fueled fleets like municipal buses and medium-duty vehicles. Natural gas is domestic, costs less today than diesel, cuts emissions 20 percent below those of oil-based fuels, and has carbon-free renewable variants like landfill and feedlot gas.
All told, this new transportation system would not only be cleaner and more efficient, reducing threats from both oil dependence and climate change; it also would cost trillions of dollars less to run than the business-as-usual alternative. Transitioning to superefficient autos, trucks, and planes and their productive use and oil-free fueling invests $2 trillion to save $5.8 trillion (2010 net present value) over the 40-year period of Reinventing Fire.
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