From electric vehicles to autonomous cars to ride-sharing, how we get around is in flux.

 

By Bill Radford III

 

A changing transportation industry can be a big driver — pun intended — in the shift to a greener, more sustainable energy base. “I don’t know if we’re going to be the tail or the head of the dog, but we’re definitely part of the conversation,” says Peter Kozinski, director of RoadX, a Colorado Department of Transportation program that aims to transform travel in the state.

And being part of that conversation is essential, says Tyler Svitak, energy and transportation administrator for the City and County of Denver, because transportation became the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. in 2016. “If we are moving toward a less-energy-intensive system overall, then transportation needs to be a major component of that,” he says.

Denver leaders recently announced plans to add 200 plug-in electric vehicles to its fleet by 2020. A key impetus for Svitak, who is housed in Denver’s Department of Environmental Health, is the public health benefit of reduced nitrogen oxide emissions and greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not all, he says: “There’s a tremendous life cycle cost reduction as well from lower operational and maintenance costs.” With an electric vehicle, “You have about a third of the maintenance that needs to happen.”

In addition, Svitak says, “We just want to serve in a leadership role when it comes to electrifying our fleet because we’re also asking our community to consider electric vehicles for their next vehicles.” While there are nearly 10,000 plug-in electric vehicles in Colorado, a key roadblock to broader adoption “is simply awareness that plug-in electric vehicles exist and that they are something consumers should consider,” he notes.

Once someone experiences an electric car, “They tend to be pretty positive on the technology,” says Alex Keros, who works on advanced technology policy for General Motors. Maven, GM’s personal mobility brand and car-sharing service, has been one way to introduce more people to electric vehicles; that includes Maven Gig, a weekly car-rental service aimed at drivers of app-based companies like Uber and GrubHub, and includes the Chevy Bolt EV and other electric vehicles.

Keros acknowledges the pace of adoption of EVs has not been as fast as he would prefer, but says there is reason to be optimistic. “In lieu of $2-a-gallon gasoline, which I think most of us never anticipated, adoption continues to move forward and growth in the industry is good,” he says.

Cost is still an issue for some consumers. “Straight out of the chute, these technologies are a little more expensive,” says Keros. “Obviously the Bolt is meant to counteract that, given all the technology on it at a price point that most people can get into.” The 2017 Bolt starts at $37,495 — or $29,995 after a federal tax credit.

The cost of EVs will continue to fall as demand goes up, Keros says, but he says automakers must also focus on the value curve — continuing to add technology that will encourage further adoption.

GM is also among the leaders, if not the leader, in pursuing the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles, Keros says. The company is “actively talking with cities where this technology can be most helpful.”

Electric vehicles and autonomous cars are a big part of the plan at RoadX, which has the vision of transforming the state’s transportation system “into one of the safest and most reliable in the nation by harnessing emerging technology.”

Explains Kozinski: “It’s really the integration of technology into transportation as a whole — any way we can use technology to improve our system’s efficiency and overall capacity and save lives.”

That includes, ultimately, self-driving cars that can communicate with the roads on which they travel. People, Kozinski says, “get very emotional behind the wheel.” Handing that responsibility over to a computer, he says, gains a lot of efficiencies and can be a life-saving innovation.

Getting consumer buy-in will be a key hurdle, he acknowledges, but ride-share companies and organizations such as Lyft and Uber are helping set the groundwork. People are getting comfortable with the idea or ordering a ride, getting in the backseat, and being delivered to their location; it won’t be that much more of a leap, he says, for people to do so without interacting with a driver.

Of course, the roadways aren’t the only way to get around. The aviation industry has also made sustainability a key issue. Airlines are continually working to reduce jet fuel usage, says Scott Morrissey, senior director of sustainability at Denver International Airport, in the process not only reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but improving airlines’ bottom lines.

“Biofuels will certainly be part of the equation,” says Morrissey, noting that airlines also continue to look to trim fuel use through more efficient aircraft and other means. DIA has worked with airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration on implementing more efficient routing and Optimized Profile Descents, which allow for a more consistent glide path than the traditional, more energy-intensive stair-step descent pattern.

“The airport has been very actively involved in making our regional airspace more efficient, which has really significant benefits in terms of both spot fuel reduction and greenhouse gas reduction,” Morrissey says.

DIA also has one of the largest solar portfolios of airports in the U.S., and it’s also known for recycling deicing fluid. Morrissey says the airport is able to collect 70 percent of the deicing fluid that is sprayed onto aircraft through its stormwater infrastructure. “Rather than managing that collected fluid as waste,” he explains, “we have the ability to recycle it into pure, industrial-grade propylene glycol that then goes out into other markets.

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