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New technologies to make road transportation more efficient

Rising fuel-economy standards, shifts in consumer behaviour and new technologies should make road transportation much more efficient, even as the total number of vehicles rises

Most of us who drive probably charge our phones via the cigarette lighter in our car. One day we might provide power to the neighbourhood, too.

Vehicle-2-grid, an emerging technology, would connect cars to power stations, allowing the battery to charge for driving, before sending back the excess to the grid. Grid-integrated-vehicles being pioneered at the University of Delaware would charge and discharge at a rate of 19 kilowatts, equivalent to the power consumption of 12 US homes.

Or think of smart-parking. Ad van Wijk, of the University of Delft in the Netherlands, sees multi-storey car parks as “future power plants”. Cars generate electricity more efficiently than conventional power stations, he says. So a cap park supplied with natural gas, biodiesel or hydrogen could turn the stationary cars into generators. Five hundred cars could generate 40 megawatts, he says. At eight hours a day for 300 days a year, that would be enough to power his university’s campus.

Imagine, too, if the cars generated most of their own power using solar panels on top; or while they’re moving (or braking), facilitated by electricity storage units embedded in the body. A three-year, EU-sponsored study at Imperial College, in London, involving Volvo and several other auto-makers, suggests this is possible.

Material consisting of carbon fibres, nano-structured batteries and super capacitors would be lighter than conventional batteries, take less space and could be formed into the structural parts of the vehicle.

None of these ideas is about to knock out the internal-combustion engine (ICE) or end the transportation sector’s growing need for liquid fuels. But they’re just the most eye-catching of the changes transforming global mobility.

While we wait for cars to become mobile green-energy power plants, more prosaic but significant developments are already under way. Engines are rapidly becoming more efficient, the source of fuel is changing, and attitudes to mobility – especially in the rich world – are going through a generational shift.

The oil industry, focused on the upstream and confident that ever-growing demand for cars will mean ever-growing demand for gasoline and diesel, needs to be aware of this. Transportation is by far the biggest sector of the oil market in terms of consumption. And road transport, led by passenger vehicles, are the biggest segment of transportation. Changes in cars matter.

Opec’s long-term forecast for energy markets last year noted that alternative fuels and efficiency would “limit the pace” of oil-demand growth in transportation.

But it still sees that segment’s share of oil consumption rising from about 57% now to 60% in 2035 – equivalent to a 5 million barrel a day (b/d) jump in demand, to 55m b/d.

The developing world is behind this. While car numbers in the rich West will scarcely rise in that period, either in absolute terms or per 1,000 people, the number in developing countries will soar from 235m to more than 1 billion.

Car ownership rates, at 44 per 1,000 people in 2010, will reach 151 (still well beneath the rate in the OECD now).

Banking a fuel-selling business on such a forecast, however, is risky. A decade of high oil prices continues to push Western consumers towards more efficient vehicles, alternative forms of transport and city-based living. The era of long commutes by car is ending. Governments concerned about climate change, meanwhile, are legislating for greater fuel-economy.

Improving efficiency

Reducing fuel consumption in transportation makes economic sense. But Western economies will only keep that competitive advantage if China and other developing nations don’t follow up with transport efficiencies of their own.

That seems unlikely. China’s fuel-economy target for 2020, requiring light-duty passenger vehicles to run at a maximum of 5.0 litres per 100 km is only a bit lower than the US’ 2025 target of 54.5 miles per gallon (4.3 l/100 km) by 2025, and more stringent than Japan’s shorter-term target (5.95 l/100 km by 2015). The EU remains the leader, requiring 5.2 l/100 km by 2015 and 3.8 l/100 km by 2020. India’s targets are under development.

Government-led standards are crucial. But in the West consumer choices are already moving away from car-based mobility. In the US, still by far the world’s biggest auto market, total miles driven on all roads (when adjusted for population growth) have fallen by almost 9% since 2005 and are now at 1995 levels.

Internet shopping, tele-commuting, alternative transportation (everything from new rail transport to more cycling), and greater urbanisation have all come into play. So has the rising age of motorists in the West, where people are waiting longer to get licences.

At the same time, fuel economy continues to rise. In the US, it reached 24.8 mpg in December 2013, or 4.7 mpg more than six years earlier, according to Michael Sivak, of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. Almost all other measurements show a severe secular demand fall in the US’ car sector.

Fuel consumption per household, per licensed driver, per registered vehicle and per person in 2011 (the latest data point available) were at the lowest point since 1984. The “bottom line”, wrote Sivak in a recent study, is that “we drive fewer light-duty vehicles, we drive each of them less, and we consume less fuel”.

Much bigger gains – up to 30%-50% – in fuel economy are also available in road transportation from applying technologies that are already commercially available and cost-effective, says the International Energy Agency (IEA). Only about a fifth of the energy in a litre of fuel is used to propel a typical ICE vehicle.

The engine alone loses up to 72% of its energy, largely through heat loss. Available technology, however, could make gasoline engines 15% more efficient by 2020; diesels 28%; and hybrids 44% more efficient, says the agency.

By 2035, a 30% improvement in efficiency for conventional vehicles would be possible at an average extra cost of $3,000 per vehicle; or 50% for hybrids, at a cost of $4,000. With emissions in mind, improvements to the efficiency of ICE vehicles are crucial, because they will remain the dominant engine on roads.

Despite development in some European countries, the infrastructure to support fully electric vehicles (EVs) will take decades to roll out.

Diesel and gasoline also still pack a much bigger calorific punch, meaning ICE cars will still take people on long-distance road trips. EVs, fuel-cell cars and even hybrids remain too expensive.

Toyota’s latest basic-spec Auris hybrid, for example, costs a UK buyer £5,500 ($7,660) more than the conventional gasoline one. It boasts 20 miles more per gallon, but that would take a family driving 10,000 miles a year 17 years to pay off. Despite spectacular growth in US sales – from fewer than 5,000 in 2011 to 180,000 in February 2014, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association – the market share for all EVs, including hybrids, remains small. 

Wolfgang Warnecke, Shell’s chief scientist for mobility, still thinks that EVs will make sense over the longer term, as the car market gets much more segmented than it is now.

Electric vehicles

EVs may be used within cities, as smaller vehicles covering shorter distances, for example, while greater use of diesel, a trend already underway in most markets, will be seen in long-haul transportation. So will natural gas-fired vehicles, particularly in the US, where cheap Henry Hub prices make it attractive.

How all this will pan out is unknown. Even auto-makers are unsure about what kinds of cars the world will need or how to persuade the next generation to care, say industry marketers. For the oil industry, figuring this out couldn’t be more important.

On the one hand, the sheer number of vehicles that will hit the roads in the next few decades, led by Asian economic and population growth, mean absolute demand for liquids fuel has to rise, says Sivak. Yet the potential energy savings are huge. The IEA’s baseline forecast sees the transportation sector consuming 58.8m b/d of oil by 2035, compared with 46.7m in 2012.

But in its efficient world scenario, in which a host of cost-effective measures are taken to dampen demand, total savings in the sub-segment of road transportation alone would be almost 9m barrels of oil equivalent a day by 2035. Better cars, in other words, could save the oil equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s output. 

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