Mass Transit is an Efficient Way to Move People
The concept of sustainable mobility will surely change
many times throughout our lifetimes. Today we define it as transportation
with minimal or no fossil fuel dependency and we aim to cut CO2 emmissions.
Tomorrow we may be looking at transportation that actually produces valuable
resources. Ironically, new sustainable solutions come
with the rising cost of fuel? If our oil supply has hit its peak
and started decreasing and global demand is still rising, there is only
one price direction for fossil fuel: straight up. Consumers and businesses
are feeling the pressure to figure out how to manage their costs.
Oil will eventually get priced out, forcing the transition to another energy
source. If we were to tap into unconventional sources of oil we would still
be looking at a much higher cost of production without considering the
Cars impose a heavy public burden. By some estimates, over 50% of all America's urban land is devoted to accommodating cars. Furthermore, most of America's cars are parked over 90% of the time. That means a lot of urban land and a lot of vehicles aren't being used very efficiently. Sustainable mobility can be addressed through increasing the options for alternative transportation and fuels. Google, for example, runs a biodiesel shuttle between its main office in Mountain View and San Francisco. The company calculates that, based on reducing employees' driving back and forth in cars, it is saving some 2,325 gallons of gas per week. Austin, Texas is taking an active role in promoting plug-in hybrids (the city also owns the electric utility).
Ultimately, though, for any of this to work, the bulk of us have to want it to work. We've been through one oil crunch a few decades back, and had we maintained a path of efficiency and conservation, we'd be in a different situation right now. Why is it so hard to get people out of their cars and onto public transportation or their bikes or even just walking? Habit and preference? Being able to go where you want to, when you want to, with a minimum of physical effort, a maximum of comfort, and little immediate visible downside? It is not a phenomenon associated with just the U.S., although we are currently the extreme example of it. There have been a number of studies done on the direct correlation between economic development and vehicle-miles traveled. This is one of the reasons that the rapid development of the Asian economies will have such an impact on global oil consumption.
"To counter the individual impulse, you need a combination of education and incentive/disincentive (stick your hand in the flame, it burns; drive a big gas guzzler, pay a lot of extra money). The incentive/disincentive can be altruistic (I want to improve, not befoul my world) or pragmatic (I can't afford to drive this beast)". - Mike Millikin
Government comes into play for both incentives (tax breaks, investments in new technologies) and disincentives (carbon tax, fuel tax, etc.). But the market ultimately will have its say. So what does the future automobile look like? Well, If you bought a new Prius recently you know that alot of people are interested in the 47 miles to the gallon it gets. The Oak Ridge National Lab last year did some work forecasting possible hybrid share of the vehicle market in the U.S. They calculated that diesels and hybrids together could capture 40 percent or more of the light-duty vehicle market by 2012. You can now also find biodiesel distributors serving just about every state, but most especially on the two coasts and in the Midwest. The National Biodiesel Board estimates that U.S. producers have a combined current capacity of 150 million gallons per year, although in 2004, they produced only 30 million gallons. So the potential to meet demand is there, but when will demand meet the potential? There are also people out there who have been driving fully-electric cars for years and have not been to the gas station once in that time. Yet present-day electric-vehicle technology (which allows you to plug into the power produced by residential solar panels, for example) is not being talked about by mainstream media. The same thing (relative oddball obscurity) would have happened to hybrids, were it not for the doggedness of Honda and Toyota. A new technology needs a resolute champion. Some of the more amazing success stories needed corporate "parents." No automaker took on electric vehicles in that manner. Honda and Toyota did take that role with hybrids, even though it did not necessarily look like a winning strategy.
Common sense tells us that the hydrogen fuel economy is many years away at best, especially when considering the larger issues of infrastructure and support. The vision of hydrogen generated from renewable energy or bio-sources is a compelling one. The vision of hydrogen reformed from natural gas (as 95 percent of U.S. production is currently), is not environmentally or financially beneficial. As the price of natural gas rises, and as natural gas peaks and declines, the projected cost of hydrogen soars. However, there are plenty of opportunities for commercial fleets to convert to hydrogen produced on site with renewable technologies (wind, solar, bio-mass). Those efforts should be encouraged, as the more knowledge and experience we get, the better off we'll be in having a shot at making this a reality in the passenger car market.
We need time to do it right, time we can get by relying on other technologies (plug-in hybrids, electrics, biodiesel) to reduce our fuel consumption. We can not use the coming hydrogen economy as an excuse to not take immediate action now. Unfortunately, the issues of global warming and fossil fuel depletion are less than immediate for the majority. People tend to generalize based on immediate experience. It doesn't seem hotter, so how can the world be warming? They also read or hear contradictory reports.
"The end of our oil-based economy will be the single most critical
event in the long history of human civilization, and each of us will live
to see it and be responsible for dealing with it". - Anonymous