Radical thinking key to long-term sustainability

  • 21-Apr-2009 08:35 EDT
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MIT’s John Heywood believes it will take “at least a half dozen areas” to reduce GHG emissions by 70-80% in the year 2050, such as smaller, lighter vehicles and changes in urban land-use patterns.

What the automotive industry will look like in 30 days is difficult enough to know; so trying to conceive what it will entail 30 years from now seems downright impossible.

But “impossible” is not in the lexicon of those visionaries who participated in Monday's Green Mobility – The Long View panel at the AVL Technology Leadership Theater on opening day of the SAE 2009 World Congress in Detroit.

One vision of a futuristic sustainable-mobility concept is at the heart of Masdar, a planned “car-less” city being constructed in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The personal rapid transit (PRT) model, consisting of electric “Cybercars” built by Dutch company 2getthere, slots into the space between today’s mass transit and personal vehicle ownership, explained Luca Guala, a representative of the Masdar Initiative and a transportation planner at Systemica Spa.

PRT—or what Guala calls an “automated taxi service”—will not replace cars or mass transit; rather, it will complement them, he said: “It’s one more choice given to the transport planner to do a green transport system to reduce ground-level congestion and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”

The Cybercars can comfortably accommodate four passengers—six “if you don’t mind squeezing a bit,” said Guala.

“Why not use simple taxis with a driver? The reason is to remove completely the human factor” for safety and other reasons, noted Guala. “The computer takes all the decisions. It can match the optimal routing on a complex network; it removes completely the chance of congestion occurring; [and] it provides a very high level of safety—rail-level safety, not car-level safety.”

Social acceptance is one of the main barriers to more widespread use of PRT, but proven success with early projects such as Masdar City and another application at Heathrow Airport in London, both of which should be online by the end of this year, according to Guala, should help with its adoption in the future. He stressed that the Masdar “experiment” can be replicated in existing cities as well.

“Transportation today is vastly inefficient,” Sebastian Thrun, a professor at Stanford University, said bluntly: not just in terms of energy use, but also considering the high number of traffic accidents and fatalities, and time inefficiencies due to traffic.

If you take a highway at peak capacity—one able to accommodate about 2000 vehicles per hour—and measure how much of the highway is consumed by physical cars and how much of it isn’t, “you find that only 8% of the surface area is taken up by cars, and 92% is the space between our cars,” Thrun reported. “That space is there because by and large we are lousy drivers. We are unable to keep distance very well.”

To allow vehicles to safely drive closer together, Thrun advocates the use of robotics. If that 92% of empty highway could be “squeezed” down to 84%, “we might just double the capacity of our traffic infrastructure,” he said.

Looking ahead to 2040, Thrun envisions that “at least half of all miles [will be] driven, by one form or another, automatically.” Driving, he believes, will increasingly become a commodity: “that car ownership is secondary to the needs of transportation [and] we choose our vehicle on our needs.”

“It’s not too likely that some brand new piece of science will fall out of the sky to save us,” said John Heywood, Sun Jae Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Sloan Auto Lab at MIT, driving home the point that improvement to existing mainstream technologies—foremost, the internal-combustion engine—should not be abandoned in the quest for green mobility.

“We’re all stampeding toward an electric-vehicle future. I’m not against that; I’m not saying we shouldn’t be moving fast and exploring that, but we don’t know where that could end up yet,” said Heywood. “There are a lot of problems along the way. The primary one is the cost of these vehicles, and there are some major infrastructure questions as well…. To assume this can take over and dominate, that’s a pretty naïve assumption at this point in time.”

While vehicle technologies obviously are essential for a sustainable mobility future, so too are advancements in urban planning—a point stressed by more than one panelist.

“There seems to be a schism that we can solve these problems with [either] green mobility or through reshaping our cities. I think it’s a false debate; we need to do both,” asserted Robert Cervero, Professor, Department of City and Regional Planning, University of California-Berkeley. “We need more fuel-efficient vehicles, we need more choice and variety on the technological side, but we also are going to see urban landscapes that reflect shifts and changes that are occurring in technology. I think we can blend these together quite well.”

Cervero stressed that cities have to be at the front line to achieve a sustainable future, noting that they consume roughly three-quarters of all resources including fossil fuels and generate roughly three-quarters of all waste and GHG emissions.

“Cities simply are places where we have to be much more resourceful and mindful of the role of not only green mobility but what I would call green urbanism,” he said, referencing Stockholm, Sweden, as a role model for other cities’ sustainable efforts.

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