03 Transportation
03 Transportation

Share of global emissions (IPCC)

Ready for lift-off

In the birth and development of new technologies, their initial penetration can seem exceedingly slow; sometimes decades are required before they make any real dent in the marketplace. However, scholars of technology have found that once a new technology passes a market share of 5 to 10 percent, it often takes off, climbing a rapid adoption curve.

At a global scale, electric cars have reached that point. Indeed they now represent about 9 percent of car sales worldwide, 17 percent of sales in Europe and 16 percent in China. In Norway, which adopted highly favourable tax policies toward electric cars, basically the entire new-car market has gone electric. Even in the United States, a country excessively wedded to petrol cars, electric models now represent nearly 5 percent of sales, meaning the market may be poised for take-off there, too.1

There is reason to think sales of electric cars would be even higher if it were possible to build them fast enough. Car manufacturers report that they are constrained by supply, not by demand. Soaring requirements for the critical minerals needed in batteries, including lithium, have not been immediately met by rising mine output. Prices for lithium carbonate, the basic raw material of batteries, soared nearly 500 percent from late 2021 into 2022, though they have come down somewhat recently. Virtually every electric car manufacturer in the world has waiting lists for the most popular models. In the United States, the single most popular light-duty vehicle on the market is the Ford F150 series of trucks. When Ford announced an electric model, the F150 Lightning, it planned to produce 40,000 units a year; runaway customer demand has forced the company to quadruple that goal.

Source: Bloomberg

The rising popularity of electric cars may be the single best piece of news for the energy transition in 2022. There is no longer much doubt that we can, and will, achieve a mass conversion to electric cars. This is a critical development for advanced economies like those of the United States and Germany, where private transport represents a significant and rising share of emissions; in fact, transportation is now the top source of emissions in the United States.2 In a petrol car, roughly 80 percent of the energy in the fuel is wasted as heat; when the full production chain is analysed, electric cars are at least twice as efficient, and so their rapid adoption is desirable under nearly all circumstances. It is even more desirable if they can be run on a cleaned-up electric grid, and as we have seen, grids in Europe, the United States and other advanced economies are getting cleaner.

Many problems still need to be solved, however. No country has built enough chargers for electric cars. Few have adopted “right to charge” policies to guarantee that chargers will be built in apartment buildings and in urban streets. The cars themselves need to improve; on extended journeys, charging still takes too long.

Moreover, even if the new-car market switches rapidly to electric drive trains, it will be a long time before all the cars on the road are electric. Cars are, of course, long-lived assets, with well-made models now running for a decade or longer. This point only heightens the urgency of the switch; if petrol cars are still being sold in the 2030s, it will certainly be well into the 2050s before we can get them all off the road.

Governments face a difficult choice about how much money to spend solving these problems. Should tax money really be spent on subsidising private transport when public transport is chronically starved for capital? This is another example of the hard decisions we face: the suburbanisation of the world is not going to be undone quickly, and so electric cars are the only way to clean up automotive emissions in the near to medium term. But surely the longer-term answer is to build denser cities with better public transit systems.

Whither heavy transport?

Even if light-duty transport is beginning to look like a reasonably solvable problem, the situation is murkier for heavy transport. A global agreement is in place to force ships to begin cleaning up their exceedingly dirty “bunker fuel”, but it is not yet clear how they can eliminate emissions entirely. In aviation, a very weak global agreement has been adopted that is expected to force airlines to buy offsets for some of their emissions, but that must be viewed as a stopgap measure at best. Electric aeroplanes may play a limited role on short routes, but batteries are just too heavy to power a plane on long trips. The long-term answer will almost certainly be to develop more sustainable forms of jet fuel. Vegetable oils can be converted into jet fuel, and significant investments have been announced to build factories that can do this, but costs are still high and it is unclear how quickly the airline industry will move to adopt the technology. Once again, a big push is needed from public policy to pull these fuels into the marketplace and begin scaling them to reduce the cost. Strong environmental and ethical standards are also needed in the way the vegetable oils are produced, since they could easily compete with food production. In principle, a system like this could have much lower greenhouse emissions than jet fuel derived from petroleum, but that needs to be proven, not assumed.

Another vexing problem is what to do about lorries. Around the world, most goods in trade move by lorry, not by rail. It is not yet clear how lorries could be electrified and their emissions eliminated. Running them on compressed hydrogen cannot yet be ruled out, though it would be inefficient, given the energy losses involved in producing green hydrogen. Batteries may reach a point of development where they can do the job alone. This is by no means certain, but we may get a test of the proposition soon; Tesla has showed off a prototype of a heavy lorry and is promising to begin commercial production before the end of this year.

Two large, futuristic-looking electric lorries drive down an open road with wind turbines in the background.

Prototypes of Tesla’s heavy-duty electric lorry, due to go on sale this year. Image: Mariusz Burcz/Alamy

Another possible approach may be to equip lorries with small batteries and power them along most of their journey through overhead electrical lines. This would be similar to the way trams already operate in much of the world. The small battery would carry the lorry through the last few kilometres of its journey. Small trials of such a system have been run already, but no government has made a major commitment to test the approach at scale. Which of these potential techniques is likely to be the cheapest and the most environmentally benign in the long run is still entirely unclear.

One bright spot when it comes to heavy transportation is the potential for electrifying buses. For a century, cities across the world have used overhead lines to supply power to buses with electric motors, known as trolley buses. Anybody who has visited San Francisco has likely ridden a trolley bus. But this kind of system has limits, with the installation of the overhead lines being too costly in areas of low population density. Now, batteries are permitting the electrification of more buses. Because they run fixed routes that take a predictable amount of time, and can be scheduled to return to a depot and recharge as necessary, buses are an ideal early target for the electrification of heavy transport. For now, battery-powered buses are more costly up front than fuel-burning buses, but the lower operating costs can offset that to a degree. The city of Shenzen, in China, has already converted its entire municipal fleet to run on batteries. The earliest stages of this conversion are also beginning for school buses in the United States and other countries.