Over the last 50 years, advancements in transportation have been slow. Automobiles, planes, helicopters and trains move at about the same speeds today as they did in the 1960s. But lately, the transportation industry has entered a new era of innovation — one that doesn’t just update individual aspects of vehicles, but reimagines transport technology from the ground up.
From streamlined aerodynamic designs to super-efficient self-driving cars, here are a few innovations that are expected to help make the future of transportation greener and cleaner.
Lightening the Load
Reducing a car’s weigh by about 220 pounds could increase its energy efficiency by over 3 percent, therefore lowering greenhouse emissions. That’s why engineers are looking to magnesium — the lightest metal on earth, one that’s easier to come by than steel and aluminum — to make transportation more lightweight.
But the problem with magnesium is that it isn’t as malleable as steel or aluminum. It’s prone to breaking under the conventional extrusion process, which makes it more difficult to use in manufacturing. Mixing magnesium with elements like dysprosium and ytterbium can make it stronger, but the process is very expensive.
Researchers have begun to study magnesium at an atomic level to see which other elements might yield plasticity at lower costs. There have also been successes in a new extrusion method, where magnesium is heated and softened through friction only — without resistance heaters. These breakthroughs could make manufacturing magnesium parts far more cost-effective. Not to mention, the manufacturing process itself may be more eco-friendly.
Another material slated for both cars and airplanes is unidirectional (UD) tape. UD fibers are durable, lightweight and moisture-absorbent, and they are often used in the aerospace and defense industries. UD tape can be quickly molded for aircraft parts and has the ability to withstand extreme temperatures and environmental conditions. Most importantly, it reduces overall vehicle weight, improving energy efficiency. One company, FORTAPE, was able to streamline manufacturing methods to reduce their otherwise expensive price tag. Two of their technologies are being used for aeronautic window frames and automotive door panels, but they are poised to be implemented for many other parts.
When we think of aerodynamics, we often think of vehicle design but not the medium through which the vehicle travels. In 2013, Elon Musk proposed the hypothetical “hyperloop,” which would transport passengers at hundreds of miles an hour in an airless tube. The absence of air reduces friction and energy usage, reducing what’s currently a 3-hour train ride from D.C. to New York to half an hour.
Since 2013, this scenario has moved from hypothetical to tangible. Many companies are now racing to develop the technology, designing and testing magnetically levitating pods on tracks. Hyperloops could save passengers from weather delays and city congestion. Given the reduction in energy usage, it might be a far greener alternative to airplanes and cars.
Virgin Hyperloop One’s plan, for instance, is to have pods hurtle along an electromagnetic track. Currents running through the tracks will propel the pods forward until they levitate and are driven by magnets. Once the pods are in hover mode, only a little bit of energy would be required to maintain speeds of nearly 700 mph.
Currently used in Formula 1 racing, Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) technology could eventually be used in passenger cars, too. It’s a system that transfers braking energy into electrical energy, which can be stored for later use. For instance, the kinetic energy of braking would be converted into electrical power and used to charge lithium ion batteries.
Another patent, created by Dr. Thomas Tso Hei Ma, stores acceleration power as compressed air in a tank and functions as an air-combustion engine combo, which lowers energy consumption and carbon emissions.
Self-driving vehicles present the most significant shift in transportation, particularly when it comes to safety. Over 90 percent of accidents are caused by human error, but self-driving tech will remove the human variable altogether.
Another opportunity for autonomous vehicles is fuel efficiency. Autonomous vehicles will be easier on the pedals than we are. Humans are more prone to hard braking and flooring the accelerator, which contribute to carbon emissions — not to mention driverless vehicles can be programmed to take the most fuel-efficient routes everywhere they go.
Evidence suggests a strong correlation between gridlocked traffic and carbon emissions. The University of California Transportation Center reports that improving traffic speeds from, say, 34 to 53 mph could lessen greenhouse gases by around 20 metric tons. Because driverless cars travel synchronously and are less likely to brake hard, there’s a fair chance we’ll see a significant reduction in traffic.
Finally, autonomous vehicles will also improve aerodynamics — in this case, commercial trucks driving in a closely-followed platoon to reduce draft. Driverless vehicles will be in constant communication with each other, so rather than a “shockwave” of braking that travels upstream, autonomous vehicles would travel at a closer following distance. A study from MIT predicts that platooning could save fuel costs by upwards of 20 percent.
One caveat for driverless vehicles, however, is that they might increase the number of miles driven on the road. Zero-occupancy cars are a major concern, as is suburban sprawl, since people might be more apt to live farther away from their workplaces. In other words, self-driving vehicles could increase fuel consumption and our eco-footprint without proper oversite. For this reason, there’ve been talks around incentivizing car owners to partake in ride-hailing services to reduce the number of unoccupied vehicles on the road. Think of it this way – if someone else’s unoccupied car will pass your place of work on the way to pick them up, you can simply hop in for the ride instead of driving yourself and adding to the number of cars on the road.
With proper planning, innovations like driverless vehicles and the hyperloop could fundamentally change roadway infrastructure itself — largely designed to account for human error. That means a reduced need for wider lanes, traffic lights, guard rails, medians and even sound walls. Slimming these structures down could make way for pedestrian-oriented spaces rife with vegetation. That’s a major boon for the environment — and by design, a major win for us.
Haden Kirkpatrick is the head of marketing strategy and innovation at Esurance, where he is responsible for all initiatives related to marketing strategy, product and service innovation, and strategic partnerships. Haden is an innovator who is constantly thinking about where transportation technology is headed and what it means for car insurance. Learn more about Esurance’s car insurance policies on their website.