Decarbonizing transport

I’ll be talking on this topic to the Victorian Transport Economic Forum on Wednesday, 10 February 2016 from 5pm at the Public Transport Victoria Corporate Centre, 750 Collins Street, Docklands. I’m still formulating my thoughts, so I’ll be happy to read those of anyone who’d like to comment. Here are a few observations to get started

* The process of decarbonizing electricity supply is well under way and, I think, just about unstoppable. To some extent at least, this process provides a template for an approach to transport. In particular, there’s a close analogy between cars and coal. Both have negative local effects (air pollution, congestion, negative amenity and so on) that haven’t been properly taken into account, in addition to generating CO2 emissions. Focusing on the local effects may be a more effective way of reducing CO2 emissions than attacking the problem directly

* By contrast, although we have the technology to greatly reduce the use of carbon-based fuels in transport, we haven’t made nearly enough progress, and it’s not clear what is the best way to go. Should the focus be on improving existing modes of transport (for example, with electric cars), or in switching modes (public transport instead of private) or in reducing the need for travel (with urban design, telepresence and so on).

* Relatedly, is it better to rely on prices, direct controls such as vehicle fuel efficiency standards, or on some other approach?

78 thoughts on “Decarbonizing transport

  1. John, the Future Business Council’s research piece, The Next Boom, investigates some of the opportunities and the best mechanisms to drive change.

    We have also completed an in house piece contrasting the role of regulation in achieving outcomes in the transport sector compared to the water industry (unusual comparison but with good reason) – happy to share it with you if of interest.

  2. I used to think that the fuel of future transport was up for grabs and would depend on government investment in infrastructure for hydrogen (for example). The transformation of our electricity system has been faster and cheaper than expected and the infrastructure is already in place – round one to EVs.
    I still think there is a role for a fuel form – probably in air travel. The weight and store-ability of fuels has always made them exceptionally handy. Whether this will be a biofuel or hydrogen, time will tell.
    I think strengthening our electricity system to accommodate transport is unnecessary. We have 20-40% utilisation of many parts of our system. we can now generate solar electricity where it will be needed – transport could be a much needed boon to the electricity sector – drastically improving the economics of asset utilisation.
    There is a lesson from electricity about the ‘cheapest’ form of energy – energy efficiency. We have appalling penetration despite efforts since the 70’s to be more energy efficient. I think transport will suffer a similar fate – cycling, walking, public transport will take off for reasons other than fuel savings.
    I find the trend to driverless vehicles and other uses of technology fascinating. Being driven, opens the world of multitasking because you can do other things while you are travelling. Will this be the niche technology that will transform public transport? There will be a stark price difference for travelling alone vs with others – but you could get a pretty similar service in terms of the activities you are able to do in transit.

  3. John, I don’t have quite the same take on you second point. Assuming the usual engineering improvements that normally occur when scale of production is increased, I think it likely that electric vehicles can compete with petrol or diesel powered cars without any major breakthroughs or improvements. All that should be required is steady refinement of technology we already have and we can be pretty much certain that kind of improvement will occur.

    Currently petrol costs about 70 cents a litre if you don’t pay tax. To get a petrol car to give similar performance to an electric Nissan Leaf I would have to burn about one liter every 11 kilometers. That comes to about 6.4 cents a kilometer. If it costs $100 a tonne to remove CO2 produced by burning petrol from the atmosphere and sequester it the that’s going to cost about 27 cents a liter to remove the CO2 released from producing and burning a liter of petrol, which comes to about 2.5 cents a kilometer. And as for the cost to human and other life from pollution from refining and burning petrol, I don’t know how much that is, but it is a lot. If someone wants to tell me what it’s likely to be that’s groovy, but for now I’ll just tack on an extra cent a kilometer.

    So that comes to about 9.9 cents a kilometer. A replacement Leaf Battery pack currently costs $5,500 US. If I get a total of 150,000 kilometers out of it, which is not unreasonable, that comes to that comes to 5.3 Australian cents a kilometer. With charge/discharge losses a Leaf gets about 5.5 kilometers to a kilowatt-hour. If I charge it half with grid electricity for 28 cents a kilowatt-hour and half with electricity for new rooftop solar that I would otherwise only get six or fewer cents for if exported to the grid then electricity will cost me about 3.0 cents a kilometer. So electricity plus battery costs comes to about 8.3 cents a kilometer. That’s less than for a petrol car even without accounting for the direct health effects of pollution or if for a carbon price of only $50 a tonne is used.

    Now an astute observer will have noticed that I have left out the cost of capital of having to pay for a battery pack to power the car. At at discount rate of 5% that would come to 2.3 cents a kilometer over a 10 year, 150,000 kilometer lifespan for a $5,500 US battery pack. However, electric car buyers won’t have to pay that much of a premium in the future. This is because once electric cars are produced in volume, their marginal cost before the battery pack is added will be much less than that of internal combustion engine cars. This is because an electric motor is far simpler and cheaper than an internal combustion engine, exhaust system, catalytic converter, and all the other bits it requires. This means the extra upfront cost of an electric car won’t be that great in the future even if battery packs don’t come down in price. And battery packs will come down in price.

    Now I could try and add some more numbers in, and also cover what should be the much lower cost of maintenace for electric cars in the futre, but I’m not sure people care, so I’ll just sum up by saying that the technology we have now for electric cars looks like it will outcompete internal combustion engine cars once it is scaled up. Getting it scaled up is important. Many countries are helping out with this, with Norway in the lead, but number of large countries including Germany and Japan look like they might contribute more than they already are.

  4. Tim Macknay :
    The rule is a 200w limit (with no speed limit) [or] a 250w limit for ‘pedalecs’ (where the motor only operates while the rider is pedalling) with a 25km/h cutout for the motor. The 200w power limit effectively caps the non-pedalling speed at around 25kmh… I would have to go more slowly on an electric-assist bike, for no good reason.

    I don’t think that’s quite true. If you can ride at 30kph without power, adding a 200W assist with no speed restriction is legal and unless the newly assisted bike has dramatically worse performance you should go faster with power on. At the extreme, if you switch to a power-assisted velomobile with a 200W motor that will get you to 50kph quite easily without pedalling.

    The problem I am working on is that there aren’t many fast electric assist bikes suitable for Australia because the rest of the world works in one of two mutually exclusive ways: 250W up to 25kph; or 300W+ with no limit (and in some parts of the USA it’s “1000W no speed limit”). As a result there are not a lot of fast road bikes designed for power assist at speed to make my 40km each way commute take less than an hour. I mean “I still hope there might be one but I haven’t found it”, except that most velomobiles can do that… at $7000 plus power assist kit for the cheapest one.

  5. @Moz of Yarramulla
    Yes, obviously if it’s a velomobile you can go a lot faster than 25km/h on a 200w motor. But you’ve pointed out yourself the reason why there are bugger-all velomobiles around. 😉

  6. @Moz of Yarramulla
    …although considering the number of twits who ride $10,000 Pinarello road bikes on their daily commute, maybe the $7000 price tag shouldn’t be that much of an obstacle.

  7. And then there is this. Probably illegal in Australia. But I want one for all except the short range, but for around the City ? brilliant.

  8. @BilB

    And then there is this. Probably illegal in Australia. But I want one for all except the short range, but for around the City ? brilliant.

    It would be illegal in Australia. It would be classed as a moped.

  9. Tim Macknay :
    Yes, obviously if it’s a velomobile you can go a lot faster than 25km/h on a 200w motor.

    My point was more that adding a 200W motor should make you go faster, full stop. It’s only the 250W speed limited ones that have issues.

    I had a Melbourne-made RotoVelo for a while but they really need proper roads to be useful. Sure, I could sit at 40kph up Royal Parade (or 50kph down it) but the rest of my route was 30 traffic lights in 10km, so the 35kg weight counted for a lot more than that brief moment of freedom through the park. Moving back to Sydney made the Melbourne experience seem great by comparison, because Sydney has fewer decent bike paths so my commute meant two major detours around deliberate obstructions that an 800mm wide velomobile couldn’t navigate. Combine that with a much twistier bike path with worse sight lines and there was never a point where I could get it up to speed and stay there.

    If you were riding from, say, Edithvale to to the city along Beach Road a velomobile would be really quite handy because those roads see and are built to cope with cyclists travelling at 30+kph. For me the on-road route to work is mostly on 4 or 6 lane major roads where you have to be able to do 70kph up a hill to survive. So I’d really want a 500W motor without speed restrictions. The EU “heavy quadricycle” rules would be ideal, if we had them here. You can also get cars in those regs

  10. Would it matter at all what the power of the above “walk car” was as long as it does not exceed a safe speed. As you can see in the video it stops instantly when the load is removed.

    This product clearly highlights the stupidity of the 200 watt power limit.

  11. Would it matter at all what the power of the above “walk car” was as long as it does not exceed a safe speed.

    Because power limits are effectively acceleration and also overall-mass limits. Or, perhaps even more straightforwardly, power limits work as energy-involved-in-collision limits, which is what we’re actually concerned about more than speed.

    Kinetic energy, f=ma, and all that.

    Or, sort of in formal risk-assessment terms: we can limit the hazard a possible outcome — in this case, the risk of collision or accident — represents by:
    a: reducing the likelihood of the negative outcome happening [eg, operator licencing]
    b: reducing the consequences of the negative outcomes that do occur [speed / mass limits, collision-safety features]
    And we can have different sets of trade-offs — low-speed vehicles with untrained operators, high-speed high-mass vehicles with strict operator-training requirements and legally-mandated collision-safety design features, and intermediate combinations, and all these individual trade-off combinations produce acceptably-safe results. However, because of the way speed and mass and power trade off, if we only have one of them limited it has to be power, not speed.

  12. And getting back to this…

    > So I’d really want a 500W motor without speed restrictions.

    Time for some hard facts: at 500W the engine is doing twice the work you are even if you’re pedalling flat-out, which yeah you’re really going to be doing every time you open the throttle I believe you really truly really honest gov.

    What you want exists, and is called a “motorbike”; strapping some fundamentally-ornamental pedals onto such a contraption does not change that.

    [which is another one of the reasons for the power limits, of course: hard to call it a pushbike if the pushing is a third of the power. Plus of course the extra weight of extra power makes the pushing less effective]

  13. That is nonsense Collin at #66. If a device of the kind at #64 accelerates rapidly its load will fall off and the device will stop as it drives at ground level. All parameters of battery powered devices can be finitely controlled: acceleration, terminal speed, operation in the presence of obstacles such as people, even directional control. Your “a.” would mean that all moveable devices operating in public space and over 2Kg would require registering and user licensing. So shopping trolleys, push bikes, kites, radio controlled drones, large radio controlled toys, some sports devices, many types of doors and gates,,,. You can take safety fetishism to great extremes, but what does it achieve? In Europe people ride bicycles without helmets for casual cycling but don a helmet where higher speeds are desired. It is a matter of judgement and community experience. And they achieve this with comparable safety results despite far higher useage in many cities. The moment we set our average 62 kilogram mass into motion we accept a degree of risk. That cannot be eliminated by safety fetishist legislation. What we could do is take New Zealand’s lead and introduce no fault accident compensation policy so that no matter what happens people are assisted for all of their activities.

    I completely reject your conclusion, “because of the way speed and mass and power trade off, if we only have one of them limited it has to be power, not speed” as being a failure of understanding. The current legislation eliminates any possibility of multiple safety control parameters in mobility technologies,…” if we only have one of them limited” , as if it was not possible to achieve such multi parameter control. This is a total failure of understanding of the capability of powered system control in this our modern world that is so totally dependent on accurate multi parameter power control.

  14. OK. So it looks like I made some assumptions about your knowledge that I shouldn’t have: sorry.

    Breaking people’s bones, tearing their flesh, jellying their brains: this is what physicists call “work”. Takes energy to tear ligament from bone, or retina from eyeball, and the energy comes from the motion of the vehicle and the rider. Can’t come from anywhere else, after all.

    If there’s not enough energy to cut skin or damage capillaries, if there’s not enough energy to injure, then there’s no injury that happens, and for lesser energies there are lesser injuries. We want lesser injuries, and we can do this by:
    + reducing the risk of accidents by restricting operations of some vehicles to those appropriately examined, trained, and qualified [not directly related here; if you have any questions I can help you]
    + requiring design features — brakes, soft bumper bars, seatbelts, crumple zones to absorb energy before it’s imparted into occupants or bystanders
    + limiting the total energy involved in accidents

    We do all three of these. Design rules and graduated licences — stricter for faster and heavier vehicles — are fairly straightforward, although if you’ve got some questions we can deal with those. The third one, energy involved, you seem to be having difficulty with.

    So. Energy of a moving vehicle is a function of its mass and its speed. Faster -> more energy, heavier -> more energy. Faster or heavier -> more energy -> more damage if there’s an accident. But we can trade these off: a heavy and slow vehicle can be designed to have the same “kinetic energy” as a fast and light vehicle, and thus present equal hazard in an accident.

    But this is where it gets clever: the speed a vehicle can reach is a function of the vehicle’s mass and its power. Faster is more energy, more injury — but a low-powered fast vehicle must be light! Heavier is more energy — but a low-powered heavy vehicle must be slow! By limiting the engine power, the design tradeoffs oblige the designer to produce a vehicle so that it produces an acceptable amount of energy in a collision — given the likelyhood of collisions given the training the operators have recieved — without the speed or the mass being so strictly regulated.

    Which is why engine power plays such a big role in licencing requirements for vehicles: it’s one of the dominant influences in risk, particularly at lower speeds.

  15. Collin, your arguments are completely blown apart by vehicle failures such as the one in Keillor East yesterday. The vehicle was clearly insufficiently designed to protect the occupants at the speed that the vehicle is capable of operating to. All such vehicles should immediately be withdrawn from service, all motorised vehicles should have 110 kph speed limiters applied, as according to the rules that you feel are necessary for 200 watt personal mobilisers.

    Do you not see how ridiculous and unsupportable your argument is on a community wide basis?

  16. @BilB

    Actually, I agree. Automobiles in Australia should be speed limited to 110 kph and “urban” rated trucks and vans to 80 kph. Highway rated trucks should be speed limited to 90 kph.

  17. Not only that, Ikonoclast, based on the thinking of Collin S, the engine power should also be limited because it is power more than speed that provides the “energy to tear ligament from bone, or retina from eyeball”. As Collin says “a low-powered fast vehicle must be light! Heavier is more energy — but a low-powered heavy vehicle must be slow!”

    The other glaring conclusion from yesterday’s vehicle failure is that driver and vehicle licensing does not prevent vehicle collisions.

  18. So I have to explain risk assessment and risk management, how safety isn’t the only thing we care about and how policies involve trade-offs.

    Bugger that for a game of solders.

    BilB: you are operating under a large set of misunderstandings that have lead you to erroneous and dangerous conclusions. Honestly it’s not worth my effort to try to help you any more. It probably never was.

  19. Kinetic Energy = 1/2 Mass x Velocity Squared.

    Kinetic energy increases with the square of the speed, so an object doubling its speed has four times as much kinetic energy. The energy in a collision is related to the mass involved and the relative closing speed of the objects. The power of the engine makes no difference at the point of the collision; though the engine’s mass certainly count. So with a speed limited vehicle, the limited top speed will limit the maximum energy it can put into a collision. Of course, if the other vehicle is moving it will put energy into the collision too depending on the vectors of forces.

    The engine’s power, in the case of a speed limited vehicle, will control acceleration and hill-climbing ability but not top speed and thus not the energy available to go into the collision.

    If we took risk assessment, damage and human lives seriously we would speed limit vehicles on our roads. With modern electronics this would be a cinch. It would save fuel too. Fuel consumption rises rapidly at higher speeds. Most private autos on our roads are overpowered compared to practical utility needs.

  20. In other words, Collin, you have run out of substance to support your position.

    Ikonoclast, you will be thrilled to know that vehicles in Japan (all? some? unsure) have an extremely annoying bell in the speedo that sounds when the vehicle exceeds 110 kph. It would be a very good feature if it was adjustable and could be isolated when desired, but not isolatable for P platers.

    Most accidents have only a few key factors: inattention, inexperience, risk taking, random circumstance, or mechanical failure (rare these days). Speed is only a contributing factor. The reason why we have (relatively) so few accidents is that traffic under most circumstances has a safety factor of 2 (2 participants each performing to protect themselves). The deadliest accidents occur when that safety factor reduces to less than 1. Those accidents are where the driver of the accident vehicle becomes unconscious while still moving ie sleep, extreme alcohol consumption, drugs, extreme emotion, medical, etc.

    The arguments about motive power are entirely too simplistic and the fact that they have been the primary basis of legislation limiting the use of low energy transport is entirely regretable.

  21. All transport over land can be done by electric vehicles – trains, buses, trucks.

    This does not occur because we have governments that are beholden to capitalist commercial dogmas. Low emissions transport is more expensive than fossil fuel transport.

    Although there are some boutique examples of electric buses in for example South Australia and developments such as:


    However it is unlikely that the carbon emissions from a world full of electric transport will be less than 1920 levels.

    So what is the benefit – are we not just delaying climate Armageddon.

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