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All ground transportation will be electric, but you wouldn’t know it from media and investors

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By Michael Barnard

· 16 min read

Over 80% of all energy for transportation is for ground transportation. While longer haul segments of marine shipping and aviation are hard to decarbonize, ground transportation is where the energy and hence emissions are.

And the answer for virtually all ground transportation outside of niches like the military and a fraction of the offroad market is the same: direct electrification. Everything will have electric motors powered by batteries or grid-ties or a combination of the two. And every form of ground transportation will look pretty much like current vehicles. Hydrogen-powered kandy-kolored tangerine-flake streamline babies need not apply.

And so, a walk through a simple taxonomy of various ground transportation overhyped fluff and practical but often ignored solutions. The model is straightforward, a quadrant chart with sexy and meh as the vertical choices and practical and foolish as the horizontal ones.

What defines sexy? Lots of press. Frequent headlines. Gushing talking heads who should know better. Promises of hyperbolic deployment and profits. SPACs or ICOs. VCs. Glistening Photoshop renders. Curves. Lots of fanbois and fangrrrls who take every opportunity to rant about its wonders.

Meh? Few media headlines. Business as usual. Stuck in narrow and industry-specific journals. Lots and lots of numbers, and often not a lot of hype. Sometimes lots of institutional investment.

Practical? Lots of deployment. Lots of deals. Lots of straightforward growth. Economically viable. Don’t assume the laws of physics are mutable. Don’t assume human nature will magically change.

Foolish? Ignore laws of thermodynamics. Ignore better alternatives. Ignore tiny market potential. Ignore the history of failures of exactly the same thing. Ignore human nature. Ignore denominators. Delivery always fading into the future. Powerpoint and Photoshop, not production.

Quadrant chart of sexy vs meh and practical vs foolish for ground transportation

Let’s walk through the chart, starting with what’s sexy and practical.

High-speed rail takes pride of place. China has built 40,000 km of high-speed, grid-tied, electrified freight and passenger rail since 2007, and continues to extend its system into neighboring countries such as Laos and Vietnam. It’s moving billions of passengers tens or hundreds of kilometers at speeds up to 350 kph, and millions of tons of freight at speeds up to 300 kph. And Hong Kong’s high-speed rail system to the Pearl River Delta is finally operational.

Europe has 19,000 km of high-speed rail. Japan has 3,040 km. Morocco has 343 km and is working on extending that to 1,500 km. Even the USA has finally managed to get some high-speed rail going, with an Amtrak train able to reach 240 kph over 80 km of track, 11% of the 735 km journey along the densely populated Boston to Washington DC route. France has now banned flights between cities connected by rail journeys of less than 2.5 hours.

After rail comes electric cars. Innumerable outlets cover them. Investors throw billions into startups. Every major legacy manufacturer, including former holdouts such as Ferrari and Lamborghini, is starting to produce at least plug-in hybrids, with most of the mainstream OEMs having multiple fully electric entrants. Electric cars are taking pride of place at auto shows instead of hiding in a pavilion tucked off to one side behind the porta potties. Most people considering new cars are wondering whether the time is right to go electric, and the answer is often decided in the negative only by the massive wait lists for every make and model.

And then there are electric pickup trucks. Ford’s F150 Lightning variants sell out long before they hit dealers’ lots, and the original version had 200,000 pre-orders before the wait list was closed. Tesla’s futuristic Cybertruck rolls closer and closer to delivery with every sighting and detail change resulting in furious typing and texting by those eager to even see one in person. Often they come with plugs so Texans can have lights and working refrigerators when their fragile power grid fails again, something that’s happening a couple of times a year now.

Sharp-eyed observers will note that they shade over into the foolish category. That’s because North American pickups have become foolish behemoths, far larger than necessary for utility vehicles. They are huge beasts with hulking grills as tall as a grown man’s shoulders or neck. No reset to rational sizes came with electrification, so despite the efficiency of the drivetrain they still waste a lot of electricity.

And so fully into the sexy and foolish quadrant. Magnetic levitation trains continue to get swooning press despite having perhaps 60 km of tracks in operation, most of it low speed. Proposals are rife for new maglev systems in countries around the world. Yet 40,000 km of 350 kph rail with wheels in China tells the tale. Maglev is sexy foolishness, not a serious transportation technology.

Next are hydrogen fuel cell cars and other light vehicles. Toyota, Honda and Hyundai still haven’t given up on this bad idea. Deeply complex. No fuel network in the vast majority of the world. Hydrogen is so expensive that Toyota has to give away $15,000 of it free with every car, new or refurbished. South Korea’s hydrogen pumps see an average of 10 failures per pump per year, including regular problems with nozzles freezing to cars due to thermal management issues with 750-atmosphere pressure gas. There’s a reason why charts of electric cars and fuel cell cars show exponential growth for EVs and a flat line along the horizontal axis for fuel cell vehicles. No one except fanbois and people stuck in the industry or in adjacent industries will buy them.

There are numerous weird entrants in the car-replacement category. A simple test is to ask if they have solar panels or three wheels. If either is true, it’s overhyped, under-engineered and undercapitalized nonsense. Sion’s solar car, recently canceled. Aptera’s solar, streamlined trike, 18 years in having spent $115 million of other people’s money to deliver nothing, and still short of about $280 million of the money required to build their claimed pre-orders. ElectraMeccanica’s Solo, with less cargo room than a bicycle and only 600 sold, mostly as quirky mobile billboards. Arcimoto’s open-framed trike, also recently defunct. Pro-tip for car ‘innovators’: basic four-wheeled electric cars meet the requirements the vast majority of people have, and very few people want to spend tens of thousands of dollars on quirky oddities that are rarely as convenient as an e-bike.

Everything hydrogen for ground transportation is dead in the water. Hydrogen trucks? Every major manufacturer is delivering bigger and bigger and longer and longer range battery electric trucks. Tesla’s early deliveries to Pepsi are delivering chips 800 km and full loads of soda 640 km. Current Class 8 vehicles are already bumping up against regulated driving hours, and that’s with today’s batteries. As a gentle reminder for everyone betting against batteries, it’s like betting against bandwidth in 2000. No one is buying hydrogen fuel cell trucks. As a useful data point, there are about 500,000 electric trucks on the roads of China, and under 10,000 hydrogen trucks. The biggest test market in the world has spoken, and hydrogen is a rounding error.

Hydrogen trains? Germany’s Baden-Württemberg has grid-tied and battery-electric trains along with deployed hydrogen trains, and now it has announced it won’t bother with any hydrogen in the future. Why? Hydrogen trains would cost three times as much to operate and provide no benefits over grid-tied and battery/grid-tied hybrid solutions. India has electrified 83% of its heavy rail. China has electrified 72% of its rail. Europe has electrified 60% of its rail and is clearly going to be bridging gaps with batteries.

Only North America is an outlier in this obvious solution, with approaching 0% of its rail electrified. Perhaps that’s why its recent transportation blueprint still pretends that hydrogen has a place in rail, along with targeting wasting biofuels for space. Of course, the USA’s hydrogen strategy is even more off base than so much of its transportation blueprint, having been authored solely by the Department of Energy when hydrogen is an industrial decarbonization problem on the same scale as all aviation globally. As Churchill said, America always does the right thing but only after having tried everything else first. And so, all American ground transportation will electrify despite governmental assumptions to the contrary, although only after dozens or hundreds of rail bankruptcies as electrified road freight eats cargo and bulk fossil fuel shipping disappears.

As with hydrogen, so with synthetic fuels built molecule by molecule from the ground up. Hydrogen from electrolysis combined with nitrogen from the air or CO2 from direct air capture to make plug-compatible or not fuels to burn in internal combustion engines. They have a few things in common. Because hydrogen is so expensive to make and always will be, and because synthetic fuels all need hydrogen, other molecules from somewhere and more processing and energy, they are all going to be more expensive than hydrogen. While hydrogen throws away two-thirds of green electricity to make and use at best, synthetic fuels throw away even more, 90% being a useful rule of thumb. We’ve been making synthetic fuels for a long time, and the laws of thermodynamics haven’t magically changed to make them remotely economically viable compared to existing alternatives.

Finally, there are Elon Musk’s transportation revolutions like Hyperloop or the Boring Company. While I give Musk all due for his efforts around solar energy, battery storage, electric cars, reusable orbital rockets and Starlink, he’s struck out a couple of times too, and his ideas for mass transit are just failures on Earth. Hyperloop is a recipe for nausea, more difficult than high-speed rail to acquire land for and construct, and so easily disabled that it would be a soft target for terrorists of any stripe. The Boring Company builds very expensive, small tunnels for a tiny number of electric cars carrying almost nobody. Musk is on record as saying he doesn’t believe that induced demand for traffic is a real thing when decades of empirical evidence make it clear that it is. Perhaps the bloom is off the rose and we’ll stop hearing about Tesla tunnels and high-speed vacuum tube transportation systems now that Musk’s Twitter acquisition and politics indicate that he’s succumbed to the fate of most billionaires: hubris, detachment from reality and being surrounded by sycophants and enablers instead of people who keep him grounded.

And so to the foolish and meh category, starting with pipelines. This might surprise people, but pipelines are squarely there. The lens that this analysis puts upon the world is one of decarbonization, and pipelines virtually only carry natural gas and petroleum in various forms from crude to refined diesel. The USA alone has about 5 million kilometers of pipelines, often pressurized by burning natural gas to create the required energy.

When the world is as decarbonized as it’s possible to get, fossil fuels will be a fraction of their current state. Natural gas will barely exist, and only where it is a useful industrial feedstock for something essential. Perhaps 15% to 20% of oil will still be pumped for useful, non-combustion industrial feedstocks, but that oil will be the sweetest, lightest, closest to water crude, and increased shipping costs will result in more of it being processed closer to the source than the current model does. CO2 pipelines running from naturally occurring underground sources of the molecule to tapped-out oilfields for enhanced oil recovery will no longer be viable or used.

Pipelines around the world will be ripped up and the scrap steel fed into electric steel minimills to make useful things instead of the massive fossil fuel distribution network that exists today. The surreal Russian sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline is a foreshadowing of the future. Canada’s tripling of its Trans Mountain pipeline will go down as a doomed, barely used stranded asset that was tens of billions over budget. Pipeline company stocks will crumble. Building new fossil fuel pipelines in the next few years is an exercise in delusion.

Also in this category as an energy source for ground transportation are biofuels. Few people get excited about them, except in the negative. In the USA, they are a mechanism to throw federal dollars at rural corn farmers for their votes. That said, there’s a lot to like about biofuels, and I project that they will dominate the segments of aviation and marine shipping that can’t be electrified with batteries. But if all ground transportation is electrified, and we need biofuels for ships and aircraft, wasting biofuels on the ground is a foolish idea. It’s not the biofuel, but the use case.

Finally, the place where the real money is. The place where few headlines exist. The place where VCs don’t bother to tread. A quadrant devoid of all SPACs.

Some of these solutions I’ve referenced to explain why the global decarbonization test bed has already eliminated alternatives to them. Grid-tied trains are a clear example, with every major geography and economy in the world quietly extending catenary overhead lines along more and more track. The longest train route in the world, the Trans Siberian Express is electrified. All of China’s high-speed rail is electrified. Morocco got the message too. Canada and Mexico would probably electrify if it weren’t for the USA’s private rail ownership by 700 or so corporations leading to dysfunction.

Unlike other countries, US rail was built by robber barons, and their descendants still own and operate it. They aren’t interested in decarbonizing further. The USA has twice as much rail per ton of freight and ten times as much rail per passenger as Europe, and the ratio with China is even worse, 2.5 times and 100 times respectively.

Battery electric trains are fit for purpose. In the future what will happen is that trains and ships will both use containerized batteries that are charged in transshipment ports, just another type of specialized container. There are places that are expensive to run catenary lines through or over, such as tunnels. In the UK, their experience with forcing overhead lines into historically unsuitable places leads to three times the cost per kilometer. But a rail car or two of batteries negates the need to put grid connections everywhere, allowing trains to pass through tunnels, over bridges and move around in rail yards. That’s why Baden-Württemberg is going with grid-tied and battery hybrid models as necessary. Grid tie what you can, batteries to bridge those segments. And battery cars can soak up the braking-generated electricity from the motors that currently get blown out the top of engines in big heating coils.

Battery trucks, as noted, are massively dominant in China, and massively dominating vehicles actually being built and sold by truck companies, despite the hype their occasional H2 announcement and sale creates. Europe has had some routes for freight trucks set up with overhead catenary lines, and that’s possible, but probably not necessary in most places. The USA delivers more tons of freight over longer distances than the rest of the world because the federal government invested in a massive highway network for strategic defense purposes.

Despite the US hydrogen strategy and transportation blueprints myopia, battery-electric trucks will dominate at all ranges. Megachargers are much cheaper and easier to build and supply than hydrogen stations. They don’t need to be everywhere, they need to be on major trucking interstate routes. With the inevitable emergence and regulatory approval of semi-autonomous truck platooning on interstates, both labor costs and driver hours restrictions are eased.

Meanwhile, the Association of American Railroads and the Department of Transportation are pretending that American rail is uniquely challenged compared to the much greater length of rail globally running through equal extremes of geography, weather and density. Claims of exceptionalism don’t stand up to scrutiny. As such, resistance to electrification will persist while road freight gets cost and operational benefits and eats rail’s lunch. This will be happening as 4 million coal cars and 70,000 oil cars disappear from the rails.

Revenues per mile of track will go down in the USA. The ability to maintain them will go down. Accidents like Ohio’s disaster will increase. US freight costs will be higher than the rest of the world’s, leading to competitive disadvantages that will add up to more steep grades for rail. Bankruptcies and consolidation will be rife. The survivors will eventually work together with the federal government to shut down likely half of US tracks and electrify the majority of the rest because the alternative is a death spiral of dwindling revenues and increasing maintenance and operational costs. But it will likely be well into the 2030s before the USA finally accepts that memo, and obviously longer before it’s well underway.

Personally, I would like to be proven wrong in this outlook for the USA. Perhaps Buttigieg will get the heads of the 10 major stakeholders in the space together and hammer out an agreement to electrify the major freight corridors in the USA, Canada and Mexico, leaving the smaller track owners to wither away naturally. But I doubt it. America at present appears unable to look beyond its borders for solutions, and still considers itself unique in a good way.

Then there is the rest of the practical but not exciting segment. A bunch of it is just migration to urban areas, urban densification, improving urban walkability and bikeability and generally making every city more livable. That’s happening around the world, and will continue apace. Continued increase in transit availability with electrified light rail, electrified subways and increasingly autonomous hence cheaper electric buses and shuttles are entirely viable in more densely populated cities. Urban innovations like complete streets that have shade trees and separate walking, biking and driving lanes, with more space for the first two, are spreading rapidly, providing urban heat relief and much more throughput. The first third of the new US transportation blueprint expresses these good intentions, but sadly in the USA the levers the federal government has to pull are fairly weak.

Electric bicycles saw a massive surge with COVID-19 as people wanted to get out of transit or just out of the house. In 2018, I estimated that the global electric bicycle market was perhaps $1.5 billion USD, possibly a low-ball aggregation and extrapolation. With COVID-19 that shot up to estimates of $47 billion with 10% CAGR projected for years to come. The combination of urban densification putting work closer to home for many people and longer ranges of electric bikes means that they are displacing the use of cars. Many couples have an e-bike or two, possibly a cargo bike or child electric bicycle bus instead of a second car. Wherever there is food delivery, there are electric bikes. Parcel delivery is increasingly electric trikes in more densely populated areas. They are just bikes with batteries, quiet, odorless mopeds, but they are a great wedge.

And other small electric personal vehicles are increasingly prevalent. There are electric skateboards, self-balancing unicycles of multiple types and of course standup scooters with handlebars zipping around city streets as last-mile vehicles for transit users, as entire distance commuter vehicles for urban dwellers, and as food delivery vehicles. This segment takes up next to no road or bike path space, integrates well with bike and pedestrian traffic, and sips delicately at energy. A 10 kg skateboard with a 15 km range takes up no space and uses next to no power compared to a 2,000 kg car, and in urban areas will often have door-to-door times that are faster.

So that’s a tour of the quadrants. The not-sexy, unhyped but immensely practical quadrant should be getting a lot more of the press', investors' and policymakers’ attention. It’s where the majority of the money and most of the real climate solutions are.

But the sexy but impractical quadrant is like a shiny coin to a magpie, drawing the eyes and attention away from what is useful and sensible. In Europe and North America, dreams of hydrogen for transportation and energy still have many enthralled. Others, typically the same ones pushing carbon capture Rube Goldberg devices, are enthralled with making fuels from scratch. Many are ignoring empirical reality, the laws of thermodynamics, the basics of economics and global empirical evidence to promote nonsense. All of the sexy but impractical proposals will fail, but will they fail fast enough for us to address the climate crisis?

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Cover image: DALL-E generated image of a hot pink very long 1950s convertible with big tail fins cruising along a road by the ocean, digital art
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About the author

Michael Barnard is Chief Strategist at The Future Is Electric Strategy (TFIE), Advisory Board member of electric aviation startup FLIMAX, and co-founder of distnc technologies. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards, and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics, and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. He previously served as Advisory Board Member at Electron aviation and as a Strategic Advisor at Agora Energy Technologies.

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