Canadian Transportation Council |  Medium-Heavy Duty Vehicle Committee | Electric Vehicle Council

Innovation Can Provide a Sustainable Answer

John Eichberger |
April 2024

When seeking solutions to a vexing problem, I believe it most helpful to enlist the services of as many smart people as possible so they can evaluate all viable options and help identify a path to embracing sustainable solutions. This approach seems to make sense to me, and is the one embraced by the Transportation Energy Institute in the composition of our membership, our research agenda, and the content of our annual conference, where all voices and perspectives are welcome and encouraged. Unfortunately, this iterative and inclusive process takes time, requires exploration of a variety of ideas and does not provide expeditious closure for those who might be most concerned about the issue being addressed. This protracted approach is anathema to some who are seeking immediate impactful solutions, but it is not an exclusionary approach and does not negate the benefits of working on any solution.  The counterweight to an inclusive, rigorous scientific process is adherence to a single solution that eclipses all other options in its pursuit and casts a dark shadow that stifles innovation.  It is inherent to all of us to continue to seek sustainable solutions, embrace all opportunities and support a process that inspires innovation.

[Tangent]

Years ago, this column centered around a song lyric that I would choose to help elicit the message contained within. It’s been a while since I have done this, but since I am always listening to music, a very apropos song for this column recently came to my ears.

For more than 40 years, Bad Religion has been a godfather of the punk rock world. Characterized by fast, catchy tunes and lyrics that focus on social themes and leverage a thesaurus-inspired vocabulary, they have sustained decades in this niche segment of music. Why to complex vocabulary? Well, lead singer and songwriter Greg Graffin, in addition to being a punk, also holds a Masters in Geology and a PhD in Zoology. Hence, most Bad Religion songs should come with a dictionary.

[Back to the Purpose]

The other day, I was listening to the band in preparation to take my 9-year-old daughter to her first rock show featuring Bad Religion and Social Distortion and was struck by the chorus from the 1995 song The Answer:

Don’t tell me about the answer cause another one will come along soon.
I don’t believe you have the answer, I’ve got ideas too.
But if you’ve got enough naivete and you’ve got conviction
The answer is perfect for you.

Now, let’s get to the real purpose behind this column.

Climate Change and Transportation

Elected leaders in 164 countries (as of 2017, 84% of all countries had a climate change set of policies) are highly concerned about climate change, as are many of their constituents, and they are specifically focused on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that come from the transportation sector. Why?

First of all, transportation is responsible for a significant share of GHG emissions as well as other air quality impacts.Depending on what data you review, we can say with confidence that transportation contributes 25% – 35% of GHG emissions in U.S. and Canada. So, there are facts to support the focus on transportation. But there is so much more to it than that.

Politicians must speak in a simple language that resonates with their audience. We live in an era wrought with short attention spans where sound bites effectively compete with lengthy explanations. They feel they have to avoid overly complex solutions or obscure references because they will lose the attention of the voters. We can safely assume that nearly every person has experienced emissions from the tailpipe of a vehicle. Far fewer have been in proximity of a power plant, a cement factory or other major industrial facility. Therefore, a politician feels confident that blaming GHG emissions, and thereby climate change, on the tailpipe of the vehicles will resonate with the constituency that is listening – it is simple, relatable and there is sufficient supporting data that can be thrown at the statement. Hence, transportation becomes an even more attractive target.

Taking a Short Cut

The majority of voters are impatient to see leaders take action and politicians want to be seen as responsive to the concerns of their constituents. Therefore, explaining the complexities of decarbonization and turning to scientists and engineers to come back with options is not consistent with some definitions of demonstrative leadership. This impatience forces them to seek solutions that fit into a quick sound bite. Regarding transportation and climate change, this resulted in policies designed to eliminate tailpipes, promote electrification and migrate away from existing solutions.

Let’s be clear – I am a big fan of electric vehicles. They are fun to drive, less expensive to operate, can help reduce emissions and will become a significant part of the transportation market for decades to come – and a lot of them are hot looking vehicles. They are a fantastic choice for a lot of drivers. But it is disingenuous for someone to say with a straight face that they are zero emissions and the only viable path to decarbonize transportation.

I have written about this many times – we must address carbon emissions wherever they originate, not just at the tailpipe. Our life cycle comparison report published in 2022 showed that a battery electric vehicle (BEV), when charged with electricity that matches the average carbon intensity of the U.S. grid, could reduce GHG emissions by about 41% compared with an internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) over a 200,000-mile lifetime. This is a significant improvement and should not be dismissed, but it is not zero. (Note that traditional hybrid electric vehicles emit nearly 28% fewer GHG emissions over their lifetime, also not an insignificant reduction.)

The Consequences

Governments the world over have implemented policies to support electrification of the transportation system, and to date they have been modestly successful. A key objective of most policies is to accelerate the price competitiveness of these vehicles with traditional ICEVs and to build out a reliable recharging infrastructure to assure drivers they will always have access to transportation energy. I don’t have a problem with these programs.

Where I have concern is when the governments take it  a step further and marginalize any solution that does not fit this narrative, such as those jurisdictions seeking to ban the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles and, by consequence, reduce investment in research and development for such engines and their appropriate fuels. By adopting policies that exclude other decarbonization solutions, these leaders are stifling innovation and putting all our eggs into one basket. My questions amount to the following:

  • What solutions will exist if the aspirational goals of existing policies are not achieved, and alternative solution development has not been supported?
  • If all expectations are placed on replacing the existing global fleet (1.5 billion vehicles) with a new technology, how do we address the emissions being generated in the meantime?
  • How can we ensure all communities, regardless of income or infrastructure capabilities, retain access to affordable, reliable and cleaner transportation energy as we make this transition?

This is why innovation is so important. Perhaps single-solution policies can be successful and achieve the desired results, but that is a big risk if we shut the door to any alternatives that might provide emissions reductions that can be achieved earlier and benefit more communities. We can and should pursue both near- and long-term solutions.

Optionality

Our goal is to reduce emissions – GHG and air pollutants. This is a great goal that we can all support. How we get there needs to be open to as many viable options as possible. Yes, we should be supporting and bringing to market new technologies, but at the same time we should be exploring new energy options that might be applied to the existing 280 million ICE vehicles in the U.S. today.

Think back to 20 years ago. Electric vehicles were not considered viable and were rarely discussed. Even 10 years ago, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected in its Annual Energy Outlook that EVs would represent less than 1% of sales by 2040.  Times, conditions and circumstances change. Who’s to say that a solution that seems an unrealistic long shot today might not become the shiny new viable solution in 20 years? Should we not aspire to have that option available? I think so, but even in this scenario, we cannot wait 20 years – we need near term solutions, like low carbon liquid fuels that can be used in the world’s 1.5 billion vehicles, while we explore long term options.

We should be embracing options. We should throw the doors open to smart people who have ideas, invite them to sit at a very large table with a lot of other smart people and explore every solution available to us today and down the road. If we allow our future to be constrained to just one idea, our chances of achieving our goals will be greatly reduced. If we create this level of collaboration, under the single purpose of sustainably reducing GHG emissions, then we may, in fact, find that shiny new viable solution in five years rather than 20.

This is why the Transportation Energy Institute, during the first half of 2024, is publishing reports on electric vehicle infrastructure, biofuels economics and e-fuels. It’s why we published reports last year on decarbonizing combustion vehicles, electric vehicles, biofuels and consumer behavior. And its why every year at our annual conference, we feature a diversity of perspectives to explore the options that might be available to the market, that can achieve our emissions objectives while preserving access to affordable and reliable transportation energy for all drivers.

Join the conversation – register today for TEI’24 and give us a call to find out how to engage in the research process and our industry discussion groups.

And don’t forget to always let the music play:

Don’t tell me about the answer cause another one will come along soon.
I don’t believe you have the answer, I’ve got ideas too.

Recent Transportation Energy Institute Blogs

Scroll to Top