It is safe to say that we have always been pretty bad at predicting how our great-great grandchildren will be getting around, though it never stops us trying.
This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Transport 2014.
In Brave New World – written in 1931 and set in 2540 – Aldous Huxley imagined a London where every upper-class resident had a private helicopter. In 1915, the Washington Post asserted that the prices of electric cars would soon drop to be “within reach of the average family”. We can only hope that we never start commuting by jetpack, as the environmental impact doesn’t bear thinking about.
While we must not count on some new technology to save us from our carbon intensive ways, it is possible an inspired breakthrough, a brave innovator or a pioneering application of existing technologies will help us on our way.
That said, not all of these selected projects, inventions and seemingly implausible concepts are intended as blueprints for the future. Some will likely never see the light of day in commercial terms. But each deserves recognition for serving as an inspiration, as admirable demonstrations of the kinds of ingenuity that will be essential in sculpting the sustainable future of transport.
In 1999, Bertrand Piccard – a psychiatrist by trade – together with aeronaut Brian Jones, was part of the first crew to successfully complete a non-stop balloon flight around the globe. They took off with 3.7 tonnes of propane. When they landed, they had only 40kg left. When he realised that their flight could have failed for lack of fuel, Piccard pledged to fly around the world again. But this time, without depending on fossil fuels. With that, Solar Impulse was born.
The first prototype was built in 2010 – a solar powered plane with a wingspan equal to that of an Airbus A340 but the weight of an average car. It soon completed a record-breaking successful 26-hour non-stop flight. The team is now working on a second model, in which Piccard and André Borschberg, co-founder and CEO of Solar Impulse, will attempt to circumnavigate the globe.
The plane gathers all the energy it needs from solar cells. These convert the sun’s rays into electricity to simultaneously power the engines and recharge the plane’s batteries, making it possible to fly throughout the night. Its designers claim that if Solar Impulse technologies were used on a massive scale, the world would be able to save up to 50% of the current consumption of polluting fossil fuel energy. However, they add that this is never going to happen, and stress that it is not the point.
“Our airplane is not designed to carry passengers, but to carry a message”, Piccard explains. His project’s primary purpose is not to revolutionise aviation, but to demonstrate the potential of renewable energy and change the way in which people think about clean technologies. As inspirations go, the sight of a giant, solar powered symbol soaring around the world is a good one.
This guide has focused on trains, planes, boats and automobiles, but billionaire inventor Elon Musk thinks there could be “a fifth mode” of transport (presumably disregarding walking and cycling).
Last year, the entrepreneur behind Tesla, SpaceX and PayPal unveiled the Hyperloop, an almost sci-fi concept that proposes shooting passengers in pods through a network of reduced-pressure tubes at near-supersonic speeds. Though it may sound terrifying, Musk insists the forces on the passenger would be minimal, feeling more like a standard flight on an aeroplane than a ride on a rollercoaster.
Musk suggested the Hyperloop would even provide a safer, faster, and more efficient mode of transport between Los Angeles and San Francisco – the journey he used to illustrate the idea – than the high-speed train currently under development. According to his calculations, the concept would reduce the commute between the two cities to just half an hour, down from the one hour and 10 minutes the journey would currently take by flight.
The concept would be best used connecting cities closer than 1,000 miles apart, as beyond that, Musk notes, supersonic air travel would be preferable. For shorter journeys it would beat the plane, he says, because it would not spend time ascending and descending.
Perhaps most significantly, the pod could be powered entirely by solar panels installed to the top of the tube, though the environmental impact of construction would have to be considered. That said, we should not expect to see the hyperloop gracing reality any time soon. Despite fathering the idea, Musk says he is currently too busy to build it. It is suggested that the project would require $6 billion (£3.9 billion) to complete. However, customers would apparently have to pay only $20 (£13).
Consultancy firm Seymourpowell’s conceptual Aircruise – a giant, vertical airship lifted by hydrogen and powered by solar energy – is essentially a flying hotel. An initial design includes open internal spaces and a stylish bar and 10 apartments. Of course, journeys would be drastically slower than those made by jet – London to New York would take 37 hours – but in such luxury, that would almost certainly be a good thing.
“The Aircruise concept questions whether the future of luxury travel should be based around space-constrained, resource hungry, and all too often stressful airline travel”, says Nick Talbot, design director at Seymourpowell. “A more serene transport experience will appeal to people looking for a more reflective journey, where the experience of travel itself is more important than getting from A to B quickly.”
Of the suggestions put forward so far, cycling high over the streets of London is beaten only by the Hyperloop in terms of its ties with science fiction. But SkyCycle, a concept put forward by London-based architects Foster + Partners, landscape practice Exterior Architecture and consultancy firm Space Syntax, proposes a network of elevated bike paths running above the capital’s existing railway lines.
Its designers say that the network would run for over 136 miles, accommodating up to 12,000 cyclists per hour while improving journey times by up to 29 minutes. They claim it could even provide this capacity at a much lower cost than building new roads and tunnels. Though it may seem a little farfetched, the idea has the backing of Network Rail and Transport for London, and could offer a much safer journey to many city commuters.
Drones have become synonymous with conflict and controversial foreign policy, but they do not have to mean death. Matternet is a project that wants to take the most cutting edge technology to the corners of the world where it is needed the most. It will use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and the power of the internet to establish “the next-generation transportation system”, bringing hope rather than fear.
Using completely autonomous UAVs and intelligent software, Matternet could help deliver essential supplies to the one billion people who do not have access to all-season roads. “Imagine one billion people being connected to psychical goods in the same way that mobile telecommunications connected them to information”, Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos explains.
One model has already been successfully tested in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Though the smaller crafts can carry a payload of 2kg, covering around 10km in 15 minutes, larger aircraft capable of carrying heavier loads are planned for the future.
The whole concept removes much of the necessity of significant investment in developing ecologically damaging, congested roads. Adapted for use in the cities of the future and for economic transactions, the Matternet team says their idea could revolutionise our transport infrastructure. Similar ideas have recently been proposed by Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, which is currently testing its own drone delivery systems.
Crucially, Matternet’s UAVs are also remarkably energy efficient. But perhaps most impressive is the cost. To carry a 2kg payload over 10km costs just 24 cents (15p). The cost of setting up a trial network in Lesotho to transport HIV/Aids tests, complete with 50 landing stations and 150 drones, would be just $900,000. Raptopoulos adds, “We chose to do this not because it is easy, but because it can have an amazing impact.”
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
Road Trip! How to Choose the Greenest Vehicle for Your Growing Family
When you have a growing family, it often feels like you’re in this weird bubble that exists outside of mainstream society. Whereas everyone else seemingly has stability, your family dynamic is continuously in flux. Having said that, is it even possible to buy an eco-friendly vehicle that’s also practical?
What to Look for in a Green, Family-Friendly Vehicle?
As a single person or young couple without kids, it’s pretty easy to buy a green vehicle. Almost every leading car brand has eco-friendly options these days and you can pick from any number of options. The only problem is that most of these models don’t work if you have kids.
Whether it’s a Prius or Smart car, most green vehicles are impractical for large families. You need to look for options that are spacious, reliable, and comfortable – both for passengers and the driver.
5 Good Options
As you do your research and look for different opportunities, it’s good to have an open mind. Here are some of the greenest options for growing families:
1. 2014 Chrysler Town and Country
Vans are not only popular for the room and comfort they offer growing families, but they’re also becoming known for their fuel efficiency. For example, the 2014 Chrysler Town and Country – which was one of CarMax’s most popular minivans of 2017 – has Flex Fuel compatibility and front wheel drive. With standard features like these, you can’t do much better at this price point.
2. 2017 Chrysler Pacifica
If you’re looking for a newer van and are willing to spend a bit more, you can go with Chrysler’s other model, the Pacifica. One of the coolest features of the 2017 model is the hybrid drivetrain. It allows you to go up to 30 miles on electric, before the vehicle automatically switches over to the V6 gasoline engine. For short trips and errands, there’s nothing more eco-friendly in the minivan category.
3. 2018 Volkswagen Atlas
Who says you have to buy a minivan when you have a family? Sure, the sliding doors are nice, but there are plenty of other options that are both green and spacious. The new Volkswagen Atlas is a great choice. It’s one of the most fuel-efficient third-row vehicles on the market. The four-cylinder model gets an estimated 26 mpg highway.
4. 2015 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
While a minivan or SUV is ideal – and necessary if you have more than two kids – you can get away with a roomy sedan when you still have a small family. And while there are plenty of eco-friendly options in this category, the 2015 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is arguably the biggest bang for your buck. It gets 38 mpg on the highway and is incredibly affordable.
5. 2017 Land Rover Range Rover Sport Diesel
If money isn’t an object and you’re able to spend any amount to get a good vehicle that’s both comfortable and eco-friendly, the 2017 Land Rover Range Rover Sport Diesel is your car. Not only does it get 28 mpg highway, but it can also be equipped with a third row of seats and a diesel engine. And did we mention that this car looks sleek?
Putting it All Together
You have a variety of options. Whether you want something new or used, would prefer an SUV or minivan, or want something cheap or luxurious, there are plenty of choices on the market. The key is to do your research, remain patient, and take your time. Don’t get too married to a particular transaction, or you’ll lose your leverage.
You’ll know when the right deal comes along, and you can make a smart choice that’s functional, cost-effective, and eco-friendly.
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