From fuel cells to flying cars, the list of designs vying to be “car of the future” is longer than the waiting list to test-drive a Prius hybrid at Toyota of Berkeley. Some people tout biodiesel hybrids as a technology whose time is now, while others hold out for mass adoption of zero-emissions fuel cells. But, say some, it’s unlikely that any of these new, greener fuel sources will produce that magic bullet to save us from all our transportation woes.

According to some visionary experts, to truly solve the challenges posed by what the car companies call “personal mobility,” we have to look at the bigger picture: at not just what we’re driving but where, when, and why.

Dan Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies (ITS) at the University of California, Davis, believes our first order of business is to break free of a transportation monoculture—our current mindset. “All vehicles are used for all purposes,” he says. “All vehicles run on petroleum fuels. All roads are made to serve all vehicles. Almost all parking is free, except in center cities.”

Sperling thinks we can scale down the monolith with incremental steps: sharing vehicles, using electric vehicles for short trips, letting new communication technologies coordinate people and their transit, employing low-emissions vehicles, and creating parallel infrastructures so smaller vehicles aren’t competing on the same roadway with delivery trucks.

Automotive Engineering

To Sperling, the soaring popularity of hybrid cars is just the tip of an evolutionary iceberg. As industry changes to meet consumer demand for greener vehicles (helped along by rising gasoline prices), “Internal combustion engines are going to be seen as an ancient, inferior technology, maybe even fairly soon,” he says.

He foresees a new reliance on electric drive technology, most likely a combination of hydrogen fuel cells and battery electrics. “Vehicles that run on electric power are more efficient, quieter, more reliable. They provide the opportunity for accessories on the vehicle because you have what we call mobile electricity. They get rid of mechanical and hydraulic systems, replacing them with electric systems and drive-by-wire like airplanes have been for many years.”

Entrepreneurs banking on a breakout from the fossil-fuel monopoly see room for competing technologies to coexist. Rex Hodges is CEO of Sacramento-based Anuvu (pronounced “a new view”), Inc., a fuel cell company that is profitably retrofitting cars, trucks, and vans, mainly for fleet owners such as utilities companies and cities. “It’s difficult to compete with a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle if we’re in full mass production,” Hodges says.

Sperling agrees. Because of its low weight, compressibility, abundance, and — when coupled with a renewable energy source like wind or solar — zero emissions, “There’s a good likelihood that fuel cell technology will dominate as a way of providing electricity to the motors on the vehicle.” Depending on when and if the major auto manufacturers decide to get on board, Hodges says, mass production could be as little as four years—or as much as decades—away.

Hodges suggests taking an ad-hoc triage approach to new technologies. Biodiesel could first be put into larger-scale operation on school buses, for example. “The lungs of school children are particularly sensitive to diesel particulates from the combustion process. Biodiesel cuts way back on particulates, so you have kind of a very, very localized pollution issue centered around the bus itself and the population that rides the bus.”

Battery Power

One innovation is based on a simple but startling statistic: approximately three quarters of all car trips are five miles or less—that run to the supermarket for a quart of milk or to the video store to rent a movie. Using a two-ton SUV to carry a single adult a few miles to pick up a prescription is, in the words of energy expert Amory Lovins, “using a chainsaw to cut butter.”

Enter neighborhood electric vehicles, or NEVs. Battery electric vehicles have never taken off as a primary form of transportation largely because of limits on their range and speed and persistent roadside recharging challenges. But manufacturers are increasingly recognizing that electrics can be efficient get-around-town cars.

DaimlerChrysler’s GEM is a perfect example. With a top speed of 25 mph and a 30-mile range, a body resembling a sturdy golf cart but with the drive train, handling, suspension, and amenities of a car, zero-emissions vehicles like the GEM are already finding a place in some homes.”We recognize that we’re not the first car in the garage [given] that limitation of 25 mph,” says Rick Kasper, COO of Global Electric Motorcars (GEM). “However, we get greater consideration for being the second vehicle for, let’s say, the consumer in a master-planned community or a gated community, a retirement community.”

The design of such communities is exactly where ITS researcher Mark Delucchi focuses attention in his research paper, “How We Can Have Safe, Convenient, Clean, Affordable, Pleasant Transportation Without Making People Drive Less or Give Up Suburban Living.” Says Delucchi, “Solving these transportation-related problems in suburban areas where most of the growth in the US takes place, outside of central cities, has definitely proven to be by far the most difficult challenge. People who move to the suburbs do so specifically because they want a lifestyle that allows them the freedom to drive private automobiles everywhere.”

Among the major findings of Delucchi and his ITS partners was that “virtually all that is undesirable about the current land-use transportation system—impacts as far-ranging as pollution, congestion, accidents, infrastructure costs, and even loss of community—stems from the presence everywhere of fast-moving, heavy vehicles.” Simply put, smaller, slower cars (like NEVs) mean happier communities.

But how to get people out of their Land Rovers and into NEVs? According to his team’s research, Delucchi says, “Every vehicle that was a lightweight, low-speed mode had to have its own separate [road] network completely independent of the other traditional, faster, heavier vehicles in order for people to be comfortable using them.”

Delucchi proposes planned communities where every place is linked by two parallel but completely segregated street systems. Pickup trucks going to and from Home Depot would never share the road with mini-cars going to soccer practice. Even non-motorized vehicles would have their own paths in congested areas.

The surprisingly simple radial layout, complete with city center and outlying “big box” commercial areas, would give residents a safe, inviting place to drive modest, zero-emission vehicles and possibly even combat the social fragmentation associated with suburban sprawl.

So far, no towns have been built according to Delucchi’s plans. But he thinks it would be perfect for new greenfield developments throughout the Central Valley or new university towns such as the University of California, Merced. Once in place, he says, “If it is successful in the sense that people tend to use the light-weight, low-speed modes a lot, it would have an impact on transportation problems that would exceed any conventional solution we’ve ever seen proposed.”

Share the Load

While zero-emissions vehicles have garnered a lot of attention, the cutting edge of transportation may, in fact, be as simple as sharing, that Golden Rule of preschool. Sperling explains that the concept stems from the fact that “Because most of our vehicles sit around 95 percent of the time, [they’re] one of the most underutilized capital assets we have in our society.” When you juxtapose idleness with the costs of financing, maintenance, insurance, and registration, car owners may start to realize they’re paying for a whole lot of nothing.

Shared vehicle services, such as the nonprofit City Car Share, where members pay dues and rent by the hour and mile, offer a cost-effective alternative. With over 3,000 members around San Francisco Bay, the number of City Car Share’s highly visible lime-green VW Beetles is evidence of the popularity of such services. Nationwide, more than 40,000 people are sharing close to 900 cars through similar organizations.

The benefits of shared cars are compounded when coupled with transit systems such as BART. “The reason [people] don’t use BART,” Sperling says, “is because they don’t live or work near a BART station. People hate to make the intermodal transfers.”

But what if a car-share program were to make that transfer a snap by, say, having prime parking spaces at the station reserved just for shared station vehicles? And what if that same system could guarantee that a shared vehicle was waiting for you at work so you could get to your afternoon dentist appointment?

Transportation researcher Susan Shaheen has designed several highly effective car-sharing experiments based around East Bay BART stations. Using wireless GPS tracking, internet-based reservations, and a “smartcard” device that provides access to vehicles, Shaheen’s CarLink I and II programs prove that car sharing could lower personal vehicle miles traveled, increase mass transit use, and remove cars from overburdened roads.

“A lot of people thought this was a cost-effective and convenient solution to driving a single-occupancy vehicle,” Shaheen reports. “By providing a flexible, demand-response alternative, this did open up more choices,” such as riding a bike to work or using mass transit.

Like Shaheen, Sperling realizes that transportation alternatives such as car-shares need good communication to work. He envisions a future where personal transportation assistants (PTAs, like PDAs) link people with mobility companies. PTAs could be a incorporated into small, handheld devices that tell you when and where shared cars or even conventional buses are available.

But just as with green fuels and zero-emission vehicles, technology alone won’t change the habits of a century of car culture. Says Sperling, “In many ways, technology is the key to allowing it to happen. But it implies some fairly substantial changes in behavior.”•t

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