Rogerkb [at] theworldisfinite [dot] com
Essays Archive > Transportation
Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.
Kenneth E. Boulding
Is the End of the Automobile Coming?
The automobile culture has been execrated by many environmentalists (including myself). Will the automobile die in a post fossil fuel future? Of course what is meant by the automobile culture (particularly in the United States and Canada) is the nearly one car per adult ownership of high performance (I will define this term later), 1000kg plus, 100hp plus, automobiles which are typically driven more than 10,000km per year. The disappearance of such a paradigm and the disappearance of the automobile are not the same thing.
Will the automobile die? Long before the industrial revolution horses, donkeys, mules, camels, ox carts, donkey carts, horse carts, horse drawn wagons etc. existed. It is true of course that the invention of rail transport made the carrying of very large overland loads very efficient, but it seems likely that a niche for the powered transportation of small groups of people and small loads will continue to exist in a post fossil fuel future, even if the total tonne-miles and passenger miles are much reduced from current levels. In this post I am not attempting to address the issue of the optimal mix of large scale public transportation and small scale private transportation. I am merely trying to think about possible options for small scale powered transportation which seems likely to survive the fossil fuel age.
What are the alternatives for powered transportation of small loads?
1. Privately owned vs community owned.
A community owned fleet of powered vehicles has potential advantages of over privately owned vehicles in spite of loss of convenience. For a community owned fleet matching the size and performance of the vehicle to the needs of the task to be performed is easier; A different kind of vehicle is needed to pick up a week's worth of groceries compared to one needed to pick up two tons of bricks. In addition, if one desires to send power from vehicular batteries to the grid, then a centrally located groups of batteries makes the power management logistics easier. And, of course, if powered transport is used far less that it is at present, then individually owned automobiles may be more expensive than they are worth.
2. High performance vs Low Performance (i.e. high acceleration/high speed vs low acceleration/low speed)
Low performance vehicles have potential advantages over high performance vehicles from an energy and resource use point of view. Lower speed means lower wind resistance and thus lower energy consumption. Also if speeds are low enough then safety requirements will be less, making for simpler construction and lighter weight. Also light weight, slow vehicles would make it easier for human powered vehicles to share the roads with powered vehicles. Slower speed would allow cheaper alternatives to asphalt surfaced roads which are going to become increasing expensive as fossil hydrocarbons become more expensive.
3. Chemical fuel vs battery power (PHEV combines both options)
EVs with batteries would allow renewable resources such as wind and sunlight to run powered vehicles. Batteries have much lower gravimetric energy density than fossil fuels (the best lithium ion batteries have energy/kg which 30 times smaller than gasoline) so that batteries are much heavier than gas tanks. On the other hand the weight of the internal combustion engine (ICE), plus transmission, plus cooling system in a conventional automobile is much heavier than for an equivalent electric drive system. At present the extra battery weight more than compensates the reduction in weight of the other components. For instance the Tesla Roadster weighs 30% more than the Lotus Elise and has a shorter driving range. However, EVs with short driving ranges (30 or 40 miles) might be able to match or beat the weight if ICEs with equivalent performance. The community fleet idea is useful here. If you are taking a round trip of 20 miles, there is no need to use a vehicle which has a driving range of 300 miles.
Possible Options for Powered Transportation of Small and Medium Loads in a Post Fossil Fuel World:
1. Preserve the high performance privately owned ICE automobile with biofuels.
The demands on biomass and thus on land will be high. Only a small fraction of today's automobile transportation could be preserved in this manner.
2. Preserve the high performance privately owned automobile (ICE or Fuel Cell) with chemical fuel made from renewable energy.
At present the cost of converting wind or sunlight into chemical fuel are very high. Fuel cells are still too expensive and too short lived to be practical, apart from the fact that making liquid or gaseous fuel from renewables is expensive.
3. Preserve the high performance privately owned automobile using PHEV/EV technology with the ICE being run with chemical fuels derived from biomass and/or wind/sunlight.
If most trips are relatively short then the requirements would be relatively low for liquid fuel. Sufficiently improved batteries with fast recharge times might allow elimination of liquid fuel requirement. This option does not reduce the expense of automobiles. Furthermore, if the electricity costs of nuclear/renewable energy are much higher than current electricity prices with high fossil fuel contribution, then the excess cost of powering heavy, high acceleration, high speed vehicles may be unacceptable.
4. Preserve the privately owned automobile but move to a light weight, low performance paradigm.
Before the industrial revolution the idea of traveling all day long at 35km/hour would have seemed like a ridiculous technological fairy-tale. The huge reserves of cheaply recoverable fossil petroleum that we have been consuming like there is no tomorrow have spoiled us and allowed us to grow accustomed to a level of performance in our private transportation vehicles that may not be sustainable in post fossil fuel world. Light weight, slow vehicles might still be superior option to walking or riding horses. Lighter, slower vehicles would require less energy to operate, not to mention requiring less energy to manufacture them in the first place. Human powered vehicles and ultra-lightweight powered vehicles, such as electric bicycles and electric scooters, would be easier to accommodate into a traffic stream of lightweight, relatively slow vehicles. I have seen discussions on various alternate energy forums where people say they would like to bicycle more but are afraid of sharing the roads with high speed, heavy weight, vehicles many of whose drivers are not very observant of bicycles and often resentful of their presence when they do observe them. In general lighter weight vehicles would do less damage to roads and might allow alternate cheaper method of road construction. Of course some amount of heavier vehicles (e.g. repair and delivery) would still be on the roads, but if they are also slow moving then many of the advantages of the new paradigm could be preserved.
I cannot really claim credit for this idea since Ivan Illich suggested something similar in his book Deschooling Society, published in 1970. Illich was suggesting this idea in the context of alternate paths to economic advancement for underdeveloped societies. However, the same idea may very well be relevant to the redevelopment of the grossly overdeveloped economies of the "Let's get richer forever" capitalist
5. Switch partly or completely to community owned fleets of powered vehicles.
This option is pretty obvious but repugnant to people whose cars are a symbolic extension of their soul. If we travel and transport less in the future than do at present, then privately owned automobiles (at least the large, heavy, high performance varieties) may be economically impractical. A community owned fleet would give people access to more powerful vehicles when they needed them without the necessity of personally bearing all the expense of such a vehicle. Also if battery electric vehicles become a reality and we wish to send power from the batteries to the grid as well as the other direction, then having relatively large groups of centrally located batteries would make power management logistics easier.
June 25, 2008
The real science of political economy, which has yet to be distinguished from the bastard science, as medicine from witchcraft, and astronomy from astrology, is that which teaches nations to desire and labor for the things that lead to life; and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things which lead to destruction.
Roger K. Brown
Rogerkb [at] theworldisfinite [dot] com