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Transportation – The New Villain in America’s Fight Against Greenhouse Gas Emissions

July 20, 2018 Robert Fischer, GTiMA President

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Transportation and clean air – if you don’t already know – are at odds with one another.

For two years running, transportation has surpassed all other sectors as the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to data released by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) in March.

But there is good news.  The transportation industry is on the brink of a revolution that could dramatically lower the sector’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, and the connected and automated vehicle (CAV) could well be the hero.

To appreciate how serious the problem is, it would help to start with these facts: for decades the top carbon emitter in the U.S. was the power sector, in large part because of coal.  But that all changed in 2016 when, for the first time, transportation outpaced all other sectors – more than agriculture, industry, and yes, even electricity generation – accounting for 28 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

And while cars, trucks, commercial aircraft, and railroads all contribute to transportation sector emissions, light-duty passenger cars and trucks – basically your typical commuter car and pick-up truck –  account for 60 percent of all transportation greenhouse gas emissions.

Needless to say, if you care about the environment, you better start caring about transportation – and I’m not just talking about Toyota Prius owners.

Just as renewables like wind and solar have been steadily decarbonizing the power sector, connected and automated vehicles show tremendous promise when it comes to mitigating transportation sourced greenhouse gas emissions.

For instance, in another EIA report, by 2050 connected and autonomous vehicles could lead to a 44 percent reduction in fuel consumption.  And last year, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy released a report, along with a plan of action for vehicle electrification, automation, and ride-sharing in urban areas, where they estimate the potential ceiling for reducing carbon emissions from automobiles at an astonishing 80 percent.

Electrification, automation, and ride-sharing – which are all part of the CAV promise – couldn’t come at a better time, especially since they show so much potential in the context of urban congestion.

Studies have found that 30 percent of downtown traffic is caused by people circling around in search of curb parking.  One study even found that 45 percent of drivers interviewed while stopped at traffic lights in Brooklyn said they were searching for parking.

But no study captures the absurdity of downtown traffic more than Donald Shoup’s work in The High Cost of Parking.  In one 15-block business district, Shoup concluded curb parking created 950,000 excess vehicle miles of travel, equivalent to four trips to the moon, wasting 47,000 gallons of gas, and producing 730 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Just chew on that for a second; and once the taste of carbon dioxide subsides, remember that’s all happening in one small business district.  Imagine the cumulative effect of cruising in the U.S.  Shoup, it should be noted, went on to win a National Excellence Award for this body of work, one of the highest decorations awarded by the American Planning Association.

I don’t know about you, but regardless of whether you care about the environment, why spend all that time circling around when you could potentially hop into a connected, automated, and even electric Uber, or Lyft, or Sidecar, or Taxify, or public bus for that matter, and get dropped off at the door?

Sounds pretty good to me.

But like all revolutions, there are no guarantees.  On the heels of the EIA study, the Center for American Progress – which the EIA references – painted a bleaker picture.  The summary of their concerns: “All this potential to reduce emissions could be wasted, and could be made worse than it is even today.”  After all, they argue, what if people love automated vehicles so much that they zip around in them all day, from one place to the next, thus exceeding our current average miles traveled per vehicle?

Indeed, in this scenario, without a significant rise in the electrification of vehicles to offset the risk of increased vehicle miles traveled, such a concern could prove disastrous.

Which is why we must remember that there are no guarantees in this revolution – or any revolution for that matter.  But one thing is for sure: our ability to reduce transportation greenhouse gases depends on strong, well-funded public-private partnerships like the ones found at the Wisconsin AV Proving Ground, where scientist and engineers are working tirelessly to develop the requisite technologies, and business leaders, civil servants, and legislators can congregate to develop policies, best practices, and industry standards that will maximize the potential of this technology.

Just as the future of the U.S. power sector MUST be green, sustainable, and renewable, the future of U.S. transportation MUST be electric, connected, and automated – at least until we discover better solutions.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior tech and policy advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.