A Peek Into the Future of Mobility


Last week at Shell’s Eco-marathon Americas, the winning team from Quebec’s Universit Laval achieved the equivalent of 2,584 miles per gallon with a car students designed and built themselves. The event has been held annually since 1985. As of last year, Shell moved it from Houston to Detroit, in order to elicit more participation from the automobile industry.

This year, the company added a side event to the regular competition — a symposium entitled Powering Progress Together, which featured a number of prominent thinkers in fields related to motor transportation who came to share their views on the future of this critical sector.

Among the speakers were Shell Chairman Charles Holliday; Mark Barteau, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Michigan; Dr. Michael Tamor, a Henry Ford Technical Fellow at Ford Motor Co.; Jean Redfield, CEO of NextEnergy; Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of RMI; Shelly Poticha, director of Urban Solutions NRDC; Wolfgang Warnecke, chief scientist of mobility for Shell; Kristin Schondorf, who heads up mobility for ErnstYoung (EY); and Roger Penske, chairman of Penske Corp. — just to name a few.

Shell chairman: Energy efficiency is the new fracking

Among Holliday’s opening remarks was the question of whether it was policy or innovation that was most critical in meeting the desired objective of a low-carbon future. It was a question that came up often throughout the day, with most agreeing that some combination of the two is required.

Shell’s board chairman went on to suggest that energy efficiency is the new fracking, in that it will be the next big source of cheap energy — adding quickly that we’ll need natural gas for decades to come, regardless of energy-efficiency gains.

Trendspotting: Industry leaders discuss the future of transportation

Global energy consumption has increased five-fold in the past 60 years, said Mark Barteau of the University of Michigan. While much progress has been made in renewables, most of it has been in electric power generation, much less on transport.

According to the Energy Information Administration, more than 65 percent of vehicles will still be powered by conventional engines in 2035. An informal survey of those attending the Shell event, taken later, put the number closer to 50 percent. The big question, Barteau said, is: “WWPD, what will people do?”

Our national energy consumption is the result of literally billions of individual decisions made every day. Survey data indicates that purchasing a smaller, more efficient vehicle will not be the primary response to rising fuel costs. Many did say, however, that they would seek alternative means of transportation — another hot topic of the day. (Rail transport, however, was not mentioned once the whole day.)

Multi-modal transport: There was also a lot of discussion around autonomous vehicles.

While it’s true that they will be more efficient, will the convenience encourage people to travel further and faster, negating some of the efficiency gains?

According to Ted Serbinski of Techstars, most of the action in the venture cap world centers around ride-sharing. All agreed that electric vehicles are for real, and the action around Tesla’s Model 3 shows that consumers are ready, now, to purchase an EV. Why has Tesla outpaced legacy companies in EV sales? Serbinski says people are buying the experience as much as the car. What is the vision 25 years out? Harmonization between transportation modes, he concluded.

The rise of biofuels: Tamor of Ford Motor Co., one of the few to mention biofuels all day, cited electro-catalysis (also known as electrofuels) as a trend to watch. Producing liquid fuels directly from microorganisms could be ten times as efficient as the photosynthetic biofuels being produced today.

Systems-level thinking: Jean Redfield and Linda Capuano, of Rice University Center for Energy Studies, spoke on the question of moving to a low-carbon economy. Redfield said that “what we think of as a car,” is going to change. How are we going to knit together a coherent system out of all these disparate players? Embrace the chaos, a systems-level approach is essential.

Integrating transportation and utilities

Capuano spoke of the tremendous changes in the utility sector, the need for an integrated national grid, and how can the rate structure drive action (e.g. demand charges). In an EV-dominated world, how will power outages impact transportation?

Detroit, which has the lowest car ownership of any city in the U.S., is a great campus for mobility experiments. What’s happening with research funding? More funding is going on outside the U.S. now. What will that mean in the future? Well-intentioned government policies create barriers. Just look at the energy-water nexus: We waste at least a third of all the energy, water and food we produce in this country. In one state, 30 percent of all electricity used is for pumping water.

Energy-efficiency makes great sense. What about capital efficiency? In some places 40 percent of assets (for peaker plants) are only utilized 80 hours a year — the opposite of a smart grid. Cisco bought a startup that monitors every outlet and manages demand in ways that are invisible to the user, but help shave those peaks down.

Innovations continue in cleantech

Finally, the morning ended with the selection of the Great Lakes Innovation Award winner. The award went to Accio Energy, which makes a novel type of offshore wind generators based on electro-hydrodynamics (EHD). Instead of spinning blades, these generators are screens that charge particles of ocean spray that pass through them. The charged particles create a current as they pass through the screen. The systems have 50 percent lower cost and a 40 percent higher capacity factor.

For more trends cited by industry leaders at Shell’s event, keep an eye out for part two of this article. 

Photo by RP Siegel