3 Revolutions: Transportation, Climate Change, and the Future of Cars

By Georg Tichy


In one future world, we will live in the less expensive suburbs or rural areas, and come into the city for work in our driverless vehicles. To avoid expensive parking fees, we’ll send our vehicles out to roam around, hang out at the mall and grocery store and come pick us up when work is over. The possibility of hoards of driverless and riderless vehicles on the streets and in parking lots, hovering, just waiting for instructions, seems like the opening scene of a movie where you know things are about to go terribly wrong.

This scene of the zombie vehicles taking over the parking lots and streets of urban centers is quite possible. But a University of California professor is working to save us all.

Lewis Fulton’s 3 Revolutions Policy Initiative

A professor at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, Fulton has been publishing work on a mobility program for the future world. He says, and back up his claims with science, that three things have to change simultaneously for the future of transportation and climate change to work: electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and ride-sharing. The Paris Agreement in 2015 hopes to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees. Some estimate this means 100 million new electrical vehicles on the road by 2030.

The snake in the woodpile is the lithium-ion battery, and the extensive mining for raw materials that is needed to supply the battery power for electric vehicles. There is concern that the current levels of energy use to produce these batteries means they will have a higher carbon footprint for much of their life, compared to current petroleum-based internal combustion engine vehicles. We can hope that the scientists who are working on this technology can continue to improve methods and materials used in manufacture, and lower the carbon footprint of these batteries. 

If so, then the electric vehicle could change our futures–if it is accompanied by autonomous drivers and ride-sharing.  Fulton suggests that these three things- electric, autonomous, and sharing- have to occur together for transportation to work in the future.

There can be little environmental benefit from electric cars or from driverless vehicles, in isolation. Each confers some benefits. Autonomous vehicles are not piloted by drunk drivers. Electric vehicles run on cleaner energy. But with an estimated world population of 11 billion by 2050, the newest estimate, we can’t all have a car of our own, ready to drive us around. We have to learn to share. The problems of climate change, and the resources necessary to support 11 billion people on the earth, suggests that change is needed not just in one element of our current transportation system, but in all three together.

Fulton’s policy initiatives will hopefully be supported by good science in the next couple of years, and industry is already taking on the challenges of transportation in the future. Lyft expects driverless vehicles to account for most of its riders within five years. Tesla’s new trucks are already popular, and are sleekly beautiful as well. Human behavior change–the willingness to wait and share a ride–is going to be more of a challenge for inventors and entrepreneurs.

We might consider looking at transportation infrastructure change from a global health perspective. A combination of two things: more walking, and less riding, might impact the truly frightening statistics on global diabetes rates. The catastrophic effects of loneliness and social isolation might be impacted by taking to the streets, on foot, in search of our next burger and fries. If shared, autonomous, electric vehicles could provide transportation for the elderly, the disabled, and those travelling long distances, and the rest of us work online and walk to the store, pub, and burger joints, we might see impacts both in ourselves and in our world.

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