A massive transformation is taking place in transportation of all kinds as the world seeks to reduce carbon emissions. Spurred on by major innovations in electric motors and batteries, the world is pushing to go all-electric with additional modes of transportation in the next decade. Newer electrification developments include fully battery-powered trains, boats, and even airplanes, signifying huge changes coming to the transportation industry.
The electrification of everything that moves is rapidly accelerating. Demand for electric cars is growing, and other types of transportation are introducing ambitious efforts to achieve net zero emissions and create a sustainable future.
In the U.S., 38% of carbon dioxide emissions and 29% of all greenhouse gas emissions have been a result of transportation. While the emission rates from light-duty vehicles and passenger cars dropped in recent years, they are still the biggest offenders, producing 58% of the emissions.
While these light-duty vehicles may carry a majority of the blame for emissions, the remaining 42% of transportation polluters will also need to transition to more climate-friendly alternatives. We need to clean up buses, pickup trucks, heavy-duty vehicles, boats, and even airplanes to effectively curb the sector’s total impact on the climate and reach crucial emission goals. Major progress toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions is being made, and improvements in battery technology should help these efforts immensely.
Cell phone and laptop battery capabilities have drastically improved since those devices first debuted. The technology used to power laptops and cell phones is the same lithium-ion battery used in electric vehicles, albeit on a slightly larger scale.
Decades of battery development have helped lower prices while simutaneously improving performance, helping bring EVs that can drive for hundred of miles between charges significantly closer to their internal combustion engined (ICE) counterparts in price. Lithium-ion batteries are also finding new applications, including electricity storage on the grid, which can help balance out intermittent renewable power sources like wind and solar.
With the growing demand for sustainable transportation, researchers are working on newer battery designs in the hope to increase battery capacity, improve speed charging times, further cut costs, and extend driving ranges. Other key goals include reducing battery size and weight and relieving supply chain concerns.
One of the newer types being tested is solid-state batteries. While lithium-ion batteries shuttle the charge around using liquid, the liquid in solid-state batteries is replaced with solid materials, such as ceramics. The theory is that this can pack more energy into a smaller space, potentially improving the range of electric vehicles. Several companies are currently testing solid-state batteries for EVs and consumer electronics.
Another type of battery currently being developed and tested is sodium-ion or saltwater batteries. In saltwater batteries, sodium and salt replace the lithium ions. One advantage of producing these batteries is the reduced cost as sea salt is cheaper and easier to acquire than lithium. Researchers have already built versions with four times the capacity of those using lithium.
Silicon batteries are also undergoing testing. Currently, graphite is used in lithium-ion batteries, but replacing the graphite with silicon will reportedly lighten the load and reduce charging times. Tests have been promising, with BMW and General Motors being two of the car makers currently looking at silicon battery options for future EV considerations.
While they once dominated the transportation industry, trains are no longer the primary way cargo moves across the U.S. Hoping for a revival of rail use for the transportation of goods, the rail industry is evaluating methods to reduce their emissions and improve industry sustainability. When we talk about electric trains in mass transit, we usually refer to those that use either overhead power lines or a third rail. However, several companies are working on freight train locomotives powered by batteries or hydrogen.
U.S.-based Wabtec Corp., a global leader in rail technology, has been testing battery-electric locomotives for years. Last year, Union Pacific purchased 10 of Wabtec’s FLXDrive battery-electric locomotives marking the largest investment to date by a North American railroad in this technology. Montreal-based CN Rail also purchased a FLXDrive locomotive for testing in colder Canadian climates.
Wabtec also expanded its engineering efforts in India to focus on the structural integrity of battery-powered trains. Similar to the regenerative barking systems available in electric vehicles, braking a train is also used to regenerate the battery, further fueling the innovative applications of this evolving technology.
One area where diesel and oil use has not yet significantly improved is on the water, but that is now changing. Battery-powered tugboats, container ships, and ferries are already operating in many countries and the U.S. is sure to swiftly follow suit.
Notably, the cruise ship industry is making headway in its efforts to go electric. Carnival Corporations’ AIDA Cruises’ 125,000-gross-ton ship, the AIDAperla, is powered by electricity. The cruise ship, which carries over 4,000 people, was the first to use a 10,000 kWH Corvis Energy battery system. Having long been one of the least efficient and sustainable methods of leisure travel, this shift in the cruise industry to meet goals of net zero will have a significant impact.
Norway has already banned ships using traditional fuels from entering some of its fjords, forcing several cruise lines to adapt, and has plans to further limit cruiseliners by 2026. One line that operates in the area, Havila Voyages, uses 6,100 kWh battery packs charged by hydro-power on open waters.
Today, the Viking Cruises ships that sail the rivers of Europe and in other areas have not completely abandoned diesel fuel, but many ships now have large-capacity battery packs partly charged in port or from solar panels on their roof.
Other boat manufacturers are introducing innovative watercraft:
Federal efforts to get drivers and firms to adopt EVs and build a national charger infrastructure announced two years ago were ambitious, but not impossible. In April 2023, the White House reviewed the progress to date in adding charging ports, growth of EV fleets, and other goals.
Even vehicles at the state, city, and other levels are taking action. Buses are the easiest to shift since they travel fixed distances and routes. Electric buses for school districts and cities help eliminate the pollution emitted by traditional gas-powered buses, which are major sources of urban air pollution.
Several cities and states are already replacing diesel school buses with electric buses, thanks to $5 billion in federal funding, but progress is slow. Approximately 5,600 electric school buses had been ordered through government awards by the end of 2022.
While that sounds like a lot, it only comprises roughly 1% of the nation’s school bus fleet. To date, every state, Washington, D.C., the American territories, and four tribal nations have ordered buses. It’s no surprise, however, that EV-leader California fronts the effort with over 1,800 electric school buses (six times more than the next closest state).
Progress is equally slow in increasing the number of electric municipal buses deployed. Of about 75,000 municipal buses in use at the end of 2019, only 450 were EVs. Two years later, an estimated 3,533 were in use or awaiting delivery.
Beyond public transportation, public services are also joining the energy shift. Several police forces and fire stations are testing or acquiring EVs adapted for their use. The New York Police Department ordered 184 Ford Mustang Mach-E GT cars. These EVs provide 480 horsepower and reportedly accelerate from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds. Dallas County, Texas, also purchased EVs for police use. South Pasadena, Calif., announced it will be the first in the nation to convert its entire police force fleet to EVs.
The environmental footprint of aviation is significant. Electric airplanes will not be ready for vacation or business travel for some time as battery technology continues to evolve and improve, but progress is being made.
Several efforts are underway to develop airplanes operating on batteries or hydrogen fuel cells. NASA is working on electrified aircraft propulsion (EAP) in the hopes of net-zero emissions in aviation by 2050. The agency’s X-57 is their first all-electric aircraft and NASA hopes to achieve a first flight later this year. The experimental plane uses distributed thrust from seven motors and propellors on each wing.
Last fall, Eviation Aircraft tested an all-electric passenger plane. The nine-passenger craft, named Alice, is designed to fly for one to two hours and go 250 miles and carries nine. Meanwhile, Airbus and two other startup firms are working on hydrogen-fueled concept planes.
The effort to stem climate change and move to sustainable transportation with net-zero emissions is sure to change our lives as well as our modes of transportation. Many new EV models are hitting the markets in the next year or two. Electric pickup trucks and even big rigs are beginning to travel U.S. highways. Other EVs — from planes to trains to boats — are here or en route.
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