If you pay attention only to the headlines, it would be very easy to believe that there is only one path to reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector – electrification. National and regional governments continue to announce plans to phase out the internal combustion engine (ICE) and push for battery electric vehicles (BEV) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) powered by hydrogen. Each of these technologies have a lot to offer and will provide great benefits to consumers and the environment, but they may not be applicable to all use cases and, despite government efforts, the market’s transition to these vehicles will take a very long time. To have a more immediate and long-lasting effect on the market that ultimately benefits consumers, we must explore more options than just these two technologies.
In thinking about what song to attach to the topic of this edition of The Commute, I was fortunate to ask Alexa to play Sammy Hagar and the second song that she played for me was “There’s Only One Way to Rock.” It seems appropriate, because there are so many different ways to address the emissions challenges facing the market in a way that will ultimately benefit the consumer that we have to keep our eyes open. Sammy talks about how rock has been “called by different names all over the world, but it’s all the same.” I feel the same about what we as society are trying to achieve with transportation – lower emissions coupled with reliable and affordable mobility. My primary concern these days is that we seem to be short cutting the work that must be done and regressing to a singular solution, which is not a “sustainable” strategy.
“And this world can disagree
They don’t understand how it can be
And it’s not my point of view
It’s a fact and you know that it’s true, huh, oh yeah
There’s only one way
There’ only one way to rock.”
The Bright Future for Electric and Fuel Cell Vehicles
There is no doubt that momentum continues to grow for these zero tailpipe emission vehicles – from government initiatives to manufacturer announcements, the future is bright. Despite these continuing developments, I remain cautious about forecasts for market expansion. From history, we can learn that the vast majority of projections are wrong because they do not take into consideration the unexpected. Who would have imagined the semiconductor chip shortage the market is dealing with this year that has forced the temporary closure of several vehicle manufacturing facilities? Who would have thought dealerships would be offering far above Kelley Blue Book value for our trades simply to have inventory to sell? These types of unforeseen dynamics wreak havoc on forecasts.
I wrote a few months ago about the history of the hybrid electric vehicle (HEV). Years ago, I read projections indicating that more than 100 new HEV models would soon be available. Over the past 20 years, the U.S. has never featured more than 55 different hybrid vehicles. So, when I hear projections of more than 500 BEVs to be offered globally within the next few years, I read with a healthy dose of skepticism because there are always events that undermine the best intentions.
That said, there is no denying the momentum behind efforts to increase EV sales and that is evident in the actual performance of these vehicles at retail. The second quarter of 2021 alone recorded more BEV sales that the entire year of 2017 and BEVs accounted for 2.4% of all light duty vehicle (LDV) sales – up from 2.0% in first quarter and just 1.6% in 2020.
Keep an Eye on the Big Picture
The acceleration in sales is noteworthy and impressive, but we must continue to look at the market in context. Since 2013, U.S. consumers have purchased 141.6 million new LDVs. Of those, 98.6% have been powered by gasoline, diesel or a gasoline-battery hybrid system. How long might we expect these vehicles to remain on the road?
As you may have seen in past editions of this column, we have run the numbers based upon historical new vehicle sales and scrappage rates and know that it would take a decade for a new technology to reach 50% market share IF that technology was included in every single vehicle sold. The bottom line is this: If society is waiting for new technology-enabled vehicles to save the world from transportation-related emissions, the war has already been lost. We need a diverse strategy to address our environmental challenges in a way that ultimately benefits consumers.
What About Non-Light Duty Vehicles?
Most of the electrification policies being considered primarily focus on the light duty vehicle sector. To a degree, I guess this makes sense – in the U.S. there are more than 250 million registered light duty vehicles and, in 2019, they combined to account for 58% of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. But what about the approximately 12 million medium- and heavy-duty vehicles that contribute 24% of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions? It is generally accepted that electrifying these vehicles will be much more challenging than doing so for new LDVs, yet they pack a disproportionate punch with regards to GHG emissions.
If these numbers are accurate, they raise the question: Are current efforts focused on gaining the greatest bang for our emissions-control buck? If light duty vehicles emit 1,085 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent from approximately 250 million vehicles, this equals about 4 metric tons per vehicle. Meanwhile, the 12 million medium and heavy duty vehicles emit 444.4 million metric tons for an average of 37 metric tons per vehicle. How are we going to address this, not in 15 – 20 years when electrified powertrains might make economic sense for these vehicles, but now?
Multi-Pronged Approach is Required
Media headlines and political stump speeches do not like complex messaging – it doesn’t fit the sound byte and you risk losing your audience very quickly. For that simple reason, I understand the short cut messages being pushed upon the population. But when pencil hits paper to structure policy that will redefine the transportation sector forever, it is incumbent upon leaders to tackle the complexity, to evaluate the specific vehicle use cases and develop sustainable and feasible solutions. Not all light, medium and heavy duty vehicles function the same or serve the same purpose and understanding these nuances is critical to crafting a sustainable strategy that will reduce emissions quickly and effectively while preserving the economic value required by consumers. Remember access to reliable and affordable transportation is critical for consumers; as is access to reliable and affordable goods and services that are enabled by the medium and heavy duty sector.
The Transportation Energy Institute is working on a variety of papers that will help inform these deliberations. Within the next nine months, we will publish papers on the following subjects:
- Comparative analysis of life cycle assessments for electric and combustion engine vehicles and their energy sources. This paper will look at the cradle to grave lifecycles of each powertrain system to determine where emissions originate in order to help develop strategies to improve the performance of each. Because both vehicle types will coexist for decades, we must endeavor to improve the environmental footprint of each.
- Assessment of the medium and heavy-duty vehicle market. This is a dynamic sector of the market that is comprised of various vehicle types, use cases and energy needs. By segmenting the sector into its composite parts and providing insight into the size and energy needs of each, this report can help guide pragmatic approaches to emissions reductions.
- Leveraging the lower carbon intensity of biofuels. There is no argument that renewable biofuels present a lower carbon intense liquid fuel option for combustion engines. This paper will seek to quantify this advantage and evaluate the various policies that could be pursued to effectively leverage this positive environmental attribute in a way that benefits the market and consumers.
- Recognizing the potential for combustion engines and liquid fuels. Despite the headlines extolling the death of the combustion engine, it is far from extinct and there are countless ongoing research projects to determine how efficient these engine-liquid fuel systems can become. This project will review these initiatives to highlight what might be possible for lowering emissions from the currently dominant powertrain system so that the market can take advantage of these opportunities.
Addressing Individual Needs is Key to Success
I love Sammy Hagar and I agree that there is only one way to rock and that is with all of your heart and soul. But I believe you can achieve that experience with most any kind of music that appeals to your unique preferences. Similarly, when it comes to reducing emissions from the transportation sector and benefiting consumers, we need all kinds of solutions to appeal to the various vehicle types, use cases and energy needs of the market. Only then will we truly be able to say we are doing something for the future of the environment – otherwise we are taking a short cut that I think is very insufficient. Hopefully, the information the Transportation Energy Institute is seeking to provide can offer some additional insight to guide strategies that will benefit both the environment and the needs of consumers.
“I’ve heard it called by different names
All over the world, but it’s all the same
Now there’s so many ways to make love
A million ways I been thinking of, oh yeah
… But there’s only one way
There’s only one way to rock, yeah”