Future of Personal Transportation

As I write this, I’m waiting for the UH Energy Symposium on “Navigating the Future of Personal Transportation” today’s topic reminded me of the question: What might our world look like with a fully mature Bio energy shaped world in 2030.


So here we go:


Describe your best Vision of the future, what our world might look like with a fully mature “Bio Energy” shaped world in 2030? Connect and build bridges to the concepts on bio for energy and industrial applications. Build connections across politics (rural / farming; global geopolitics) – technology – consumer adoption – etc.

Transition to The Future:

How do we get there? 

Before you begin:

These are assignments that I have turned in for my TECH 4310 Future of Energy and Environment class, these are my own thoughts and you may not take them without citing them. I will not post them all, but a majority of them.

First generation biofuels are already here, and their future looks bleak. In the United States, corn based ethanol already has a place in fuel compositions, and other “food based” biofuels, such as sugarcane, are used in areas where the crop is plentiful. The food-fuel debate is one that is well-known, as using corn based ethanol substantially raised the cost of corn, especially during the initial phase of adoption. This debate is likely to kill most food based biofuels, with one possible exception – sugarcane. Brazil has already shown that sugarcane can be modified into an extraordinarily effective fuel for transportation. Today, human consumption of sugar is undergoing scientific scrutiny, and most studies indicate the underlying health effects are negative, with diabetes, heart disease, and obesity related diseases being named as the most prevalent. At the same time, society has become obsessed with sugar, so much so that artificial sugars are now being produced and inserted into a majority of processed foods. When society begins to turn on sugar as it did with tobacco, or when producing artificial sugars become even cheaper than growing natural sugar, companies will buy less and less natural sugarcane, causing the market to crash. This could lead to both positive and negative economic ramifications that will be felt around the world, as countries dependent on sugar as a cash crop would lose quite a lot of money. However, if humans were to stop consuming sugar, sugarcane would be able to take its place on the world’s stage as an alternative to gasoline, and save the sugar commodities market. Sugarcane would become “obsolete” as a food based crop, and thus, for sugarcane, the “food vs fuel” debate would cease to be an issue.  

The science continues to march onward. Atop a power plant, a noble experiment was conducted by researchers at MIT, installing an “algae plant” atop the power plant’s flue, and using the harmful pollutants emitted, namely CO2 and NOx, to grow and feed algae so that the algae could produce a renewable source of energy. Not only did the algae produce energy the power plant could then utilize, but the emissions from the flue produced about 80% less pollutants. Considering the cost companies are required to pay to clean the emissions by other methods, the algae is an extremely cost effective method of reducing a corporation’s cost burden due to pollution, and an extremely effective method for preventing dangerous emissions and contaminants, as the “waste material” is a useful product that is safe and edible, despite the questionable quality of the air it absorbs. This means the algae can then be sold to ranchers for feed for livestock or farmers for mulch products, bringing in yet more money for the power plant for an initial investment. Moreover, any plant using one of these systems could use it to improve the oil and gas industries’ fragile, abominable reputation. If the cost of investment is less than the amount of capital, product, and goodwill earned, there is no question that demand for these algae “power plants” will skyrocket.

But, even if sugarcane remains in high demand as a food crop, and even if the investment in algae cleaning were cost prohibitive, the future of biofuels is still quite bright. Jatropha and switchgrass are two species of plants that have the ability to grow in areas where other crops would never sprout, such as in drought-ridden areas that now resemble deserts, and areas with rocky or sandy soil. Both crops provide an incredible carbon sink potential, and they can be turned into an efficient biofuel with less carbon required to process them into ethanol than using corn. Add to this the fact that the plants grow quickly, live long, can be planted in fallow fields, can be planted to renew soil for the next year’s food crops, and spread like weeds when allowed to grow while being easily controlled by human intervention, a picture starts to form: a potential high yield biofuel crop that can be grown almost anywhere in the world, that utilizes soil that would otherwise be classified as unusable, and that not only avoids competing with food crops, and thus avoids the food vs fuel issue of first generation biofuels, but can also be used to replenish fields so they may be used to better grow more food for a burgeoning population.

Jatropha and switchgrass are just the tip of the iceberg. Cellulosic ethanol is produced from plants. Any plant. Cellulose is what gives a plant’s cell wall is rigidity, and is found throughout the entire structure of any organism of the plantae kingdom. Whereas today, corn based ethanol is produced from the same part of the crop that is edible, when perfected and made cost-effective, cellulose extraction could instead be used to create bio-fuels from the stalk, leaves, and roots of the corn. By using the traditional waste product of corn, food based biofuels lose their greatest weakness: their tendency to drastically increase the cost of food. When you can sell 100% of the crop instead of just the edible part, a portion of the plant, farmers would see a huge jump in income, thus leading to the end of corn subsidies. Moreover, using this process could turn plants such as prairie grass and weeds into biofuels, making it easy to turn any plant on the planet into a potential energy source.

This would result in a restructuring of our national energy policy. Today, energy policy is typically handled on a national, macroeconomic scale. The perfection of cellulosic ethanol would turn energy production into a regional, more microeconomic issue, allowing for localities to more quickly adapt to shifting energy demands without having to work within the confines of a national and foreign policy, nor having to compete in the globalist market. Breadbasket states will greatly benefit from a bio-fueled world.

Globally, OPEC would lose influence, as the shrinking demand of the market for crude oil would reduce their geopolitical power obtained from their ability to price oil. Nations such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iran would face a dramatic economic discontinuity, and, in nations almost completely dependent on the sale of oil commodities, this discontinuity could lead to political instability that would threaten to topple fragile regimes across the Middle East and Latin America. Russia, a leading oil producer and a power on the world stage, would most certainly be hurt financially, but, being more diversified than parts of the Middle East and Latin America, Russian leaders likely wouldn’t face revolt, as economic conditions would eventually stabilize. Canada would take a similar hit if their future economy resembles their current one, and could be at risk of default. However, their close ties to the United States would almost certainly ensure that the U.S. would intervene to provide foreign aid.


Electric Vehicles: 

Are we in the “hype” phase and likely to disappoint ourselves? Is the transition real and sustainable? Where are we on the Gartner Hype Cycle 

The electrification of vehicles was once determined to be the future of automobiles, as evidenced by the first hybrid cars and the long wait-lists of the Prius. Early issues with the technology, specifically the cost of production of the first generation of hybrid cars, lead to a disillusionment in the public eye. Doubters of electric motors would likely argue that the hybrids are on the downswing towards the Gartner Trough of Disillusionment, but I’d disagree. I believe that the lowest point of the trough has passed. The average layperson determines whether or not a development is “hyped” based on their experiences with prior technological development. The capacity of personal computers with internet access to “replace” the necessity of having traditional media businesses, and the speed at which they would accomplish this task, was based on prior experiences with how long it took the television to replace the radio as the primary source of news and entertainment. How long it will take for electric motors to replace internal combustion engines is determined by most people by comparing the “new” technology with the prior technological development in the same general domain. The internal combustion engine has been king for about a century, replacing the steam engines which had dominated for over two centuries. Because the total adoption of internal combustion took as long as it did, people assume that the adoption of electric cars will take just as long.

Technology doesn’t work this way. It is not an additive formula, but an exponential one. It took humans millennia to move from horses, estimated to have first been domesticated for transportation at 2000 BCE, to the steam engine, developed in the 1700s, but only two hundred years to move to the internal combustion engine. The next change will occur even more rapidly.

I assert that electric automobiles are just now entering the Slope of Enlightenment, due in large part to the hastening of technological development, and that as further advancement continues, the doubters will be proven wrong in their assumptions. I predict that the next generation in electric motors will be what brings electric cars into the spotlight, where affordability meets an efficient and effective means of transportation.

Using STEEP Categories  to describe possible external implications 

Issue: The Electrification of Long Haul Trucks:
Social Growing activism concerning global climate change could increase demand.

An increase in pollution related illness would lead to pressure to reduce emissions by converting to electric engines.

Any company that adopts early can use the change for a boon in public relations.

Technological As current fleet vehicles age out of their life cycle, they are replaced with electric substitutes instead of having to retire the internal combustion vehicle early.

Further advancements in electric motors, batteries, capacitors, and hydrogen fuel cells will reduce the cost of electric fleet vehicles.

As more vehicles are converted, access to diesel fuel may become scarce and more expensive.

Environmental Electric fleet vehicles have the capability to produce fewer emissions.

If EPA regulations are made stricter, internal combustion of diesel could be taxed more, further raising the cost of diesel fueled trucks.

Electrification of fleet vehicles would reduce pollution and lessen damage to the environment.

Economical Higher tax rates on diesel could be implemented, especially given the issue of climate change.

Any regulatory crackdown on emissions could be eased by a transition to electric fleet vehicles.

Electrification of fleet vehicles could greatly reduce the amount spent on diesel fuel, especially as technological advancement makes electric motors cheaper and more efficient.

Political Growing activism could cause the United States to crack down on emissions from fleet vehicles, increasing the cost to meet regulatory standards on diesel engines.

Electrification would reduce uncertainty caused by changing governmental regulation and political realignment, inoculating the trucking company from financial difficulties caused by government intervention.


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