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Nov 14, 2011

A Five-Step Program for Ending Our Oil Addiction


Every day, we haul goods, shuttle our kids to school, and jet to meetings and vacations on a foundation of fire. Our mobility is enabled by combustion performed by ingenious mechanisms that harness the energy stored up by millions of years of photosynthesis, burning through 13 million barrels of oil per day.

Imagine the drone of combustion replaced by the whisper of emission-free electric propulsion. Instead of paying an increasingly high cost for oil in money, environmental damage and blood, we capture a $3.8 trillion net prize by 2050 by not using it.

In Reinventing Fire, Rocky Mountain Institute provides a blueprint for transforming transportation and freight services with uncompromised convenience, safety and performance using no oil by 2050.

By building better vehicles and using them more efficiently, engineers, managers, financiers, thought leaders and business strategists can capture competitive advantage. We will gain an ever more smoothly flowing network of goods and people and will fuel growth and investment in transformative, home-grown innovation and industrial prowess.

But how do we get there? RMI lays out a five-step program for ending our oil addiction.

1. Shift to ultralight but ultrastrong autobodies

The virtues of a lightweight auto body with improved safety and performance are universally applicable to the many auto powertrain options now available or under development.  To cost-effectively electrify autos, automakers have begun to adopt lightweight bodies that enable a smaller powertrain and fewer, cheaper batteries or fuel cells to provide competitive range.

While incremental lightweighting, reductions in aerodynamic drag and tires with lower rolling resistance substantially improve fuel economy, the true potential of “Revolutionary+” autos that achieve 125-240 mpg equivalent is fully unlocked through the use of advanced materials—such as carbon fiber composites — paired with resulting savings in manufacturing.

2. Pursue innovative state or regional policies that boost the economics of Revolutionary+ vehicles

For most auto buyers, fuel efficiency and fuel costs have historically been minor considerations. The fuel savings from switching to an all-electric auto, though important over years, can seem small on a day-to-day basis.

Such fuel savings are drastic for Revolutionary+ autos because of their extreme efficiency—especially over the entire lifetime of the auto. However, while cost of ownership of Revolutionary+ autos will be lower than for autos built and powered by traditional means, up-front sticker price will initially be higher. Innovative programs such as feebates, fleet procurement, cash for clunkers and affordable financing can offset the initial price premium of Revolutionary+ autos, helping propel automakers down three mutually reinforcing learning curves: advanced ultralight materials, manufacturing savings and electrified powertrains. This enables Revolutionary+ autos to quickly reach parity with the competition.

3. Apply vehicle-fitness based designs across other modes of transportation and encourage the production of 2nd and 3rd generation non-food biofuels

There has always been a place for fire—indeed, the history and development of our species is intimately entwined with it, and the energy density of combustible liquid fuel is as yet unparalleled. However, applying vehicle-fitness-based design principles across transportation modes could drastically reduce liquid fuel demand by 2050.

Heavy trucks that move freight across the country do so with timeliness and at competitively low rates, keeping prices low for the end users of goods. But doubling the efficiency of our freight transportation system by redesigning heavy trucks could save $800 billion in fuel costs between now and 2050. We can adopt suites of efficiency technologies in truck design including auxiliary power units (APUs), low rolling resistance tires and using more long combination vehicles to reduce the number of trucks on the road.

But even after applying vehicle fitness to all modes of transportation, in 2050 we’ll still rely on liquid fuels for transportation modes that cannot be feasibly or cost-effectively electrified, namely airplanes and heavy trucks. That liquid fuel can be forged aboveground in biorefineries using agricultural waste streams and non-cropland perennial plants, all without taking food off the world’s tables.

4. Improve how we use our vehicles

Transforming the design of autos, trucks, planes and other conveyances is only one piece of the puzzle. Changing how we use our vehicles could provide additional value to consumers and expand the range of mobility options.

Existing examples of such improvements to vehicle use and expanded mobility include mobile carpooling applications that allow commuters to offset fuel costs by selling their empty seats; car sharing programs that eliminate the need for car ownership in urban markets; and dynamic pricing mechanisms to decongest peak travel times and extract more value out of existing roads and highways. Some communities are redesigning for people—not cars—by siting offices, schools, retailers and homes in close proximity to one another and with easy access to public transportation systems. If these approaches to enhanced vehicle use reached their maximum potential, U.S. driving could be reduced by half.

We can use other vehicles more productively and efficiently, too. Heavy truck drivers can be incentivized to drive more efficiently. Trucks’ idle fuel consumption can be mitigated by using APUs. Airplanes can cruise slightly slower, glide to direct landings without fuel-hungry maneuvers and use advances in air traffic management to chart the fastest routes and carry less excess fuel. While these strategies to improve transportation efficiency and expanded mobility are succeeding in specific U.S. markets, it will fall to a new generation of entrepreneurs, regulators, city planners and innovators to maximize the true potential of smarter vehicle use.

5. Focus on outcomes, not motives

This new transportation system based on super-efficient vehicles more productively used would produce a net societal savings of $3.8 trillion between now and 2050. But it won’t happen overnight. While regulators and administrators at all levels can help chart the path toward this future state, entrepreneurs, automakers and service providers will lead the way. In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, first- and fast-moving innovators will be the best positioned to capture market share in a lucrative, transformed industry. The shift will be fraught with risk, but the advantage will be enduring.

Authored by Jesse Morris and Greg Rucks

Join the Discussion

Showing 1-10 of 12 comments

November 16, 2011

Dudes! How can you have a 5-step program for transforming transportation that doesn't mention the word bicycle? That's like a state of the union address that doesn't mention the environment. Cars, cars, cars, cars, and more cars! Makes me wonder if you're so obsessed with technology that you can't see the forest for the trees. Donna Meadows is rolling in her grave. For the half of urban car trips in the US that are 2 miles or less, I'm thinking the "end use/least cost" solution might not be Hypercars, smartphone shared or otherwise...

November 16, 2011

A pretty set of ultra-high tech (not yet on drawing boards) technology that is simply *NOT* needed. It will be too little and too late.

Three MUCH better (and ignored by RMI) solutions:

1) Make bicycling safer and easier

2) Electrify, expand and improve our freight rail system - transfer most truck freight to rail (including 100 mph express freight rail that Swiss Rail is about to start) and expand semi-High Speed passenger service (@ 120 to 150 mph) on the same tracks as express freight. 90 mph rail passenger service elsewhere.

3) Build Urban Rail as fast as the French - adjusted for population and work week. That would be 5,500 miles of Light Rail/decade (or the financial = in subways, streetcars and commuter trains).

30% of Americans want to live in TOD, but less than 2% do because they is not enough Rail Transit to Orientate Development around. More than 30% will want to live in TOD in the future. TOD saves energy at every level.

One example - Arlington County VA buys 288 gallons/capita/yr, Fairfax County VA buys 388 gallons/capita/yr and the rest of Virginia buys 645 gallons/capita/yr. The difference is DC Metro.

Multiple that effect across the USA in every town of 110,000 or larger (every town in France of 110,000 is getting at least one new tram line). Then add bicycling.

And add a few electric cars (such as Leaf) and high mileage cars (like Prius & Fit)

Best Hopes for Real Solutions - Available Today !

Alan Drake

November 17, 2011

I live in the country... just getting to town can be a trip in itself... and it's incredibly hill-y here... either you're going straight up or down... but in cities a bicycle would be be more practical...
All of my trips are long ones... and it does get 40 below... and big snow-banks...
Where I'm from they don't have public transportation... and 45min. from me the public transit is owned by a private company and it's over $3 every time you get on or off the bus... and you can't get around very well because the bus doesn't run the right times or meet up so you end up taking 6hrs. to get 8 miles away. It's nearly impossible to work and not have a car there... they have the most owned cars per person as far as cities go in Canada.
We need a few solutions I think... not just one.
Maybe they should come up with better single person or 2 people bicycles that are more enclosed or useful. :) somewhat electric for the hills... It seems not much $$ goes into things of that sort...

Why does no one ever talk about all the fuel jets and planes waste?
They burn up so much fuel it's crazy and no one ever brings that up as a problem... People are constantly flying around and that's really unsustainable.
(not to downplay all the cars by any means!!)

November 17, 2011

Kipchoge and Alan, thanks for the comments!

If you're looking at the whole transportation system with a truly integrative perspective you're both absolutely right–you have to look beyond the auto. Without doubt, the simplest, easiest way for consumers to save time, hassle, and money isn't to invest in a super-efficient auto: its to not drive in the first place.

When we at RMI encourage "improved vehicle use" as referenced in point 4 of this blog, we're talking about all of the approaches you've brought up. Transit oriented development (Smart Growth) and pedestrian/bicycle friendly communities, bikesharing, and high quality public transit on buses or trains all have their part to play in the transportation system of the future. According to our analysis in Reinventing Fire, if we pursued all of these strategies together, we could cut the amount of driving Americans do today by half without even talking about super efficient automobiles.

I'd encourage you to visit http://rmi.org/Transportation to learn more about our approach or get your hands on a copy of Reinventing Fire and take a look at the section of the transportation chapter on using autos more productively.

-Jesse Morris

November 19, 2011

Please see this short and fun video on Henry Ford's Hemp car from 1941, made from hemp, wheat straw, etc. that may be more eco-freindly than using carbon fiber.
I believe I recall hearing Amory lecturing about ultra light cars when I was in college back in the 70s. I'm not trying to be flip here, but why don't we have them yet; what are the obstacles that have kept these from frution all these many years?

November 21, 2011

Steve, thanks for the comments and informative video.

Lignin fibers embedded in a cellulose matrix are nature's composite material. We take it as a very promising indication that one of the main technologies underpinning our vision of a transformed automotive industry, carbon fiber composites, has an analog in nature. Carbon fiber can be derived directly from lignin by essentially removing all the hydrogen and oxygen to form long, pure strands of carbon atoms. While using raw lignin directly as a fiber source is also possible, it would not lend the same extraordinary strength-per-lb and stiffness-per-lb as pure carbon fiber, and would thus not allow the same extent of vehicle lightweighting and fuel efficiency. Another promising feedstock for carbon fiber production is recycled plastic trash, a solution currently in work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

RMI has been discussing the virtues of ultra lightweight vehicles that achieve in excess of 100 mpg from quite some time, and as you indicate, such vehicles have yet to achieve widespread adoption. There are a few differences in today's marketplace, however, that indicate a shift in industry priorities. Three mutually reinforcing technologies have further descended the manufacturing learning curve and are approaching levels that make ultra lightweight vehicles part of a compelling business case for automakers: carbon fiber, as mentioned previously, rapid structural manufacturing with carbon fiber composites, and electric powertrains, including battery technology. Several manufacturers are already building a business case on these technologies. Among them are BMW, with its i3 electric vehicle, and Volkswagen, with its XL1 hybrid sedan.

As these technologies continue to advance, up-front cost of these vehicles continues to drop. In combination with growing consumer awareness about climate change and fuel price volatility, the lower up-front cost of these vehicles is also helping fuel an unprecedented shift in consumer behavior. A recent consumer reports study found more than half of respondents would consider a hybrid or electric vehicle for their next purchase. Sixty-four percent said their next purchase would be more fuel efficient.

Greg Rucks
Rocky Mountain Institute

November 21, 2011

I too am concerned about the apparent emphasis on personal automobile transportation. I'd like to know more about what other ideas you have looked at, such as high-speed electric rail for passengers and freight, and putting some effort into what our future communities must look like in order for the species to even survive. Not the least of possible suggestions is that we need to learn how to be satisfied with less of everything material. A tall order, given the status quo in the U.S.

"Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested largely by men we have never heard of. In almost every act of our lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind."
-Edward Bernays, Pioneer of Corporate PR and Propaganda

November 28, 2011

Vaclav Smil, professor from University of Manitoba writes on the future of energy and past don Quixote "energy solution" windmills that electric vehiciles have the equivalent mpg of 37.....significantlly understates the case for electric vehiciles. He has authored numerous articiles on energy economics and is viewed by many as an expert in this area.

It is important to get the correct message out. I think everyone can understand dollar and cents. The specifications on the Leaf show that it can get between 47 and 138 miles on 24 kwh battery charge. If you take an average distance of 92.5 miles on a full charge that cost $2.40 (at $0.10/kwh). In the most fuel efficient hybrid, it would take almost 2 gallons of gaseoline to go that far at a cost between $7 to $8.

December 2, 2011

Greg and Jesse,

Interesting points and almost totally aligned with our approach at Pedalectric here in Denver. We are developing Ultra Light Ground Vehicles that combine bicycle technology with aerospace materials to build high utility vehicles that carry two persons and more with unmatched efficiency and comfort.


We have searched several times for a way to get in touch with RMI to coordinate our efforts, but we do not know whom to contact. Let me know if anyone there is interested in working with us.

December 2, 2011

I'm looking forward to reading the book, I agree with many of the points. I have been working on a lightweight all-composite two-place electric kit trike but things move very slowly without funding. I will be posting progress on the open-source design soon on www.wheelz.com. I am totally focused on EV's and it's frustrating to have people miss not only the total positive impact on the environment and energy security, but also the economy. I need to post my power point presentations on my website that present this information in a simple way. I've also been preaching a seamless integration of NEV's and mass transportation for several years and I'm seeing bits and pieces come together in different areas but we can do better. I will also write that up and post it on my website. Lot's of work to do!

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