Sex/Unsexy, Practical/Impractical: Ground Transport Has Silly Nonsense & Boring Reality
All of us, most of the time, wander around on the surface of the Earth. A small percentage travel across rivers, lakes and oceans in boats of various kinds regularly. A smaller percentage than that get above the ground into the skies. And, of course, the tiniest rounding error on a gnat’s hairy thorax get above the atmosphere.
So let’s talk about moving around on the ground in this next edition of sexy/unsexy, practical/impractical. More outrage and mutters will ensue, of course, as I call out the overhyped and the actual value propositions in this domain with a quadrant chart guaranteed to annoy many. If you missed the first topic, electricity and energy storage, go look for that after you read this, and look for more articles assessing aviation and aerospace, marine transportation, carbon drawdown, and the like.
We’ll start with the sexy and practical, and that means high-speed rail. When we say that, we mean electrified high-speed rail, the only kind. Yeah, if you want to go fast by train, it’s going to be grid-tied with electric motors. Fossil fuels need not apply. The 25,000 miles of Chinese 220 mph passenger and 120 mph freight rail — enough to wrap around the equator — built since 2007 is electric. They are seeing billions and billions of passenger trips annually, trips that aren’t flying, trips that aren’t running internal combustion engines, and trips which are increasingly low carbon as China massively expands wind, solar, and nuclear generation. Europe’s 12,000 miles of high-speed rail is electric. Northern Africa’s high-speed rail is electric. The tiny portion of US rail in the new Acela class that’s high-speed is electric. Swift, sexy, zero-emissions, sleek. Lots to love about it. Tracks with grid ties delivering people and tons of cargo long distances with very low emissions, and yet managing to capture the imagination.
Then there are electric cars. Tesla leads the sexy with its 2 seconds to 60 mph beasts and promised Roadster of course. But others are getting into mix of sleek, silent, speedy cars. Porsche’s Taycan is selling absurdly well. Rimac. Mmm… Rimac. Enough said about Rimac. Except… Rimac. The hypercar marques are all jumping on the bandwagon too. Along with a lot of much less exciting grocery mobiles. There’s an electric Mustang, even though the only relationship to that iconic brand is … uh… just the name.
And now we have the pickups. Tesla’s is still pending, but keeps getting photographed with dirt all over it and a windshield wiper that could kill a bear. Ford’s F-150 has long been the best selling light vehicle in North America, and now it has the Lightning, which is getting Tesla-level pre-orders, which must have Ford’s Board salivating — finally — at the EV transition. They cross over into impractical because North American pickups are some of the biggest, silliest, and over-featured road beasts in the world, increasing in size until they make monster trucks from the 1980s seem a little small. But still, despite what it seems like, there are actually a lot of pickups that are working vehicles, not just polished grocery-getters crowding parking lots and unable to fit in garages.
So, on to the sexy but impractical. We started with highly useful high-speed trains, so let’s talk about sexy but silly things like maglev and monorails. They barely exist. There are less than 100 miles of maglev track in the world. Monorail is a Disney thing. But do they ever get press. Just ignore it.
Then there’s the entire spectrum of hydrogen ground transportation which barely exists. Let’s start with fuel cell cars.
Yeah, those Mirai sales can’t even get a pixel through the end of 2020, and it’s not like they improved in 2021 or 2022. This is a dead-as-a-door-nail category. Expensive cars that have limited interior room due to the need for fuel cells, hydrogen tanks, thermal management systems, high-power compression pumps, protection for the occupants, and then finally batteries and small electric motors, along with very expensive, very hard to find fuel just keep getting vastly more attention than they deserve. Toyota being the biggest car company in the world and stuck with FCEVs until 2-3 ancient men finally die so that the program can be axed without causing a loss of face is somewhat to blame for this. But so is the fossil fuel industry’s no-way-to-lose promotion of hydrogen as a fuel. (A lot more on the overhyping of impractical hydrogen will come in this series.)
Similar to hydrogen cars, hydrogen trucks are a dead-in-the-water category, it’s just not as evident yet. For every FCEV truck announcement there are 100 EV truck deliveries already, and this is just going to follow the EV vs FCEV car curves. The one (1)… yes, that’s right, only one… hydrogen train is completely eclipsed by the practical electric trains coming at the end of this article.
Hydrogen for ground transportation is a dead segment. It will be a zombie technology, refusing to die, likely for another decade, maybe 15 years. But it’s being artificially animated by the fossil fuel industry, major companies that are not acting in their best interest or their customers, by government departments lobbied hard by the fossil fuel industry, and enthusiasts. There will be no national hydrogen distribution system except in Germany and maybe Japan and Korea. No one else will bother. It will wither and die. Electricity is already ubiquitous.
And then there are synthetic fuels, like those promised by direct-air capture companies like Carbon Engineering and Audi among many others. The premise is that CO2 will be captured from air or flue, separated and purified. Hydrogen will be split from water using electrolysis. This would, in theory, be powered by renewables, although Carbon Engineering’s process from the earliest days was intended to be run off of natural gas, leading to more CO2e. Capturing the CO2 is expensive enough, but getting at the hydrogen was very expensive when I wrote a lengthy case study on the chemical process engineering required for this in 2019, and remained expensive when I assessed green hydrogen in a report on European efforts to decarbonize themselves at the expense of Northern Africa this year. Once the feedstocks are in hand, there are multi-step processes required to upgrade them to the point where they can be used in road vehicles either by requiring brand new engines and fuel systems in vehicles, or by making them compatible with existing internal combustion systems. Both options are much higher CO2e emissions and cost than just using the renewable electricity directly in ground vehicles. It’s not a bridge solution to preserve the capital cost of internal combustion vehicles, it’s just a bad idea. It won’t survive exposure to economic reality.
Finally in this segment are 3-wheeled inanities from companies like Aptera, Arcimoto, and ElectraMeccanica. They have most of the disadvantages of motorcycles and cars, with few of the advantages of either. Outside of weird regulatory pockets like Quebec and a couple of states in India, 3-wheeled motorized vehicles make no sense at all. I suspect the founders of these firms spent a little too much time in one of those Indian states getting into altered states in their early 20s and never fully returned to our reality. Ditto their enthusiasts. Electrifying this segment does not make it more interesting or useful.
Moving clockwise around the quadrants we get to the impractical and unsexy. Yeah, biofuels for ground transportation. The entire segment is going to be grid-tied or battery-electric with zero emissions, low-noise, no air pollution, great energy distribution systems and little fuss. Biofuels for ground transportation are a subsidy grab for farmers, a vote buying scheme which has had a fortuitous side effect of enabling them to be useful fuels for a couple of hard-to-decarbonize segments which will be explored in later installments of this series. There might be a few locomotives running biofuel, but that segment is going electric too.
And so, to the final quadrant, the unsexy but deeply practical solutions to ground transportation.
Let’s start with the really unsexy stuff, urban density, urban planning, and transit. The entire world is moving to cities. All resource extraction is automating and all resource extraction is rural, so human transportation in the hinterlands is dwindling (although it doesn’t feel like it to the people still living or working in the middle of nowhere). Outside of US’, Australia’s, and Alberta’s weird sprawl, urban areas are densely populated and getting denser. And in densely populated cities, people walk, ride bikes and e-bikes and tiny personal EVs and take transit vastly more than they get in individual automobiles. The suburban dwellers in North America and Australia who — pre-COVID — drove into central business districts every day in their two-ton cars and SUVs might not be aware of it, but they are outliers globally, and outliers in the cities that their vehicles take up inordinate space in as well. Urban complete streets — one of the few useful outgrowths of New Urbanism — move people on foot, bike, e-bike, micro-EVs, car share, transit, and yes, personal cars, vastly more efficiently than suburban thoroughfares dominated by people stuck in cars by themselves.
So urbanization reduces travel distances substantially, especially where sprawl isn’t considered normal.
Let’s talk e-bikes. In urban areas around the world, they are replacing families’ second cars, or being their only car. They are allowing people to travel up to 10 miles for their daily commute without particular concerns or sweat, but with good health benefits. They were blowing up pre-COVID, with my late-2018 estimate being that they were a $1.5 billion global market, and COVID supercharged the trend. They are possibly the biggest transportation decarbonization story that’s barely recognized.
And then there’s micro-mobility. E-scooters. E-skateboards. A couple of types of one-wheeled electric vehicles. I assessed the last-mile or short trip e-mobility segment in 2016, a couple of years after I bought my first electric rideable in Singapore, an original Solowheel. If you haven’t seen one, you don’t live in cities. If you live in densely populated cities, they are delivering everything. The number of couples on scooters I’ve seen, either on his and hers or just riding double is astonishing. And that doesn’t even get into Lime.
Suburbanites, rural dwellers, and hence a rather remarkable number of Canadians, Americans, and Australians — lots of born and bred English speakers in other words — are missing the small personal mobility segment entirely. It’s big, invisible, slow, quiet and kind of boring. Unless you consider the implications. Lots fewer car, taxi and Uber trips. Lots more quiet, zero congestion, zero emissions travel.
Next we get to freight trucks and other large road vehicles. There’s a remarkable amount of hype around H2 trucks, but what’s being delivered to market in rapidly increasing numbers are battery-electric. There are about 500,000 electric buses in China, and a fraction of that number in the rest of the world. The major cities of China have entirely electric garbage truck and utility vehicle fleets, and once again the rest of the world is slowly following. Innumerable freight delivery vehicles in China and around the world are quietly going electric. Mid-range semi-tractors are being delivered in multiple countries around the world, and Tesla’s Semi and Megacharger are making more and more appearances. Multiple major truck manufacturers are delivering electric trucks. Battery-electric is going to eat this segment just as it is eating light road vehicles.
And so, back to trains. Absurd miles of track globally are fully grid-tied. Of course, all subways are electric. A huge percentage of urban and regional light rail is fully electric or rapidly electrifying. Freight rail around China and in large swaths of Europe is grid-tied electric. After all, locomotives have been hybrid beasts for decades, with diesel generators and electric motors. It’s been the combination of choice for a long time, and so adding juice from the grid or adding a tender car full of batteries is a trivial technical expansion. Many English-speaking analysts are stuck in North American mindsets where it’s not that common, but then rail is much less dominant in the Americas than in much of the rest of the world.
I was crawling around a diesel-electric locomotive on a Canadian National Railway operations course in 2010 when they were my client in Montreal. That’s when I got my grounding in the tech and realized that dynamic braking was just regenerative braking that wasted the electricity as heat through coils on the top of the locomotives, and that that energy was exploitable. It’s a small step for freight rail to put that energy back into batteries, but it’s a huge step to try to turn the rail system into a hydrogen-fueled mode. So it won’t happen. Freight rail will be grid-tied. Where it isn’t grid-tied it will mostly be battery-electric locomotives. In a few and diminishing number of places it will be a small amount of biodiesel bridging the gaps. It will be quieter, simpler, less polluting and lower CO2. It won’t be sexy, but it will work just fine.
And so, ground transportation’s quadrant chart of sexy and not, practical and impractical. Lot of muttering, some howling and a bit of frothing will start in 3-2-1.
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