A new report by the National Research Council has some good news for the future of US transportation. By taking advantage of biofuels, new vehicle technology, and policy reform, America has the potential to reduce petroleum consumption and greenhouse gas emissions up to 80% by 2050. The numbers apply to cars and small trucks, both of which are expected to become more efficient in both fuel economy and design in the coming years.

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With a lot of political savvy, consumer support, and advanced engineering, light-duty vehicles will see massive improvements by mid-century.”To reach the 2050 goals for reducing petroleum use and greenhouse gases, vehicles must become dramatically more efficient, regardless of how they are powered,” said Douglas M. Chapin, principal of MPR Associates, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. In order to see the most development, alternatives to biofuels would need to be readily available, cost-effective, and produce low levels of greenhouse gas emissions. While he acknowledges that the transition is likely to be costly and take several decades to complete, the report’s authors believe that the cost savings and environmental benefits will exceed the up-front costs.

The report states that the easiest way to begin the trend towards greener conventional vehicles is by reducing how much work the engine performs, making the overall vehicle lighter, more aerodynamic, creating less rolling resistance, and improving the efficiency of the internal combustion engine powertrain. In addition, average fuel economy would have to exceed 180 mpg, a goal which is not currently possible with available technologies. The report also considers alternatives to standard combustion engines, including electric hybrids, plug-in electric hybrids, hydrogen fuel cell electric cars, and compressed natural gas vehicles.

The authors predict that although the initial purchase of alternative vehicles will be more expensive, the average cost per mile will lower, especially for those running on electricity and natural gas. In the early years of the shift, they see these types of vehicles limited in body size and style, having a restricted travel range, and relying on fuels that are not particularly easy to access. Some may require energy storage devices that limit their cargo space and passenger capacity, but with wide consumer acceptance and wise political policy, an on-road fleet could eventually reach its performance goals.

In regards to reducing gas emissions, the report identifies three scenarios that combine super-efficient vehicles with alternative power sources such as biofuel, electricity, or hydrogen. Natural gas cars produce too many emissions to be seriously considered for the 2050 goal. While corn-grain ethanol and biodiesel have already been produced in the US, the report sees more potential in lignocellulosic biomass from plants like wheat, switchgrass, and wood waste. The “drop-in” fuel would be a replacement for petroleum and able to be distributed through already existing infrastructure.
Electric vehicles do not create direct emissions, but strains on the grid must be considered and hopefully carbon capture as well as renewable power generation would be able to help offset CO2. Batteries are set to drastically drop in price and make strides in range and recharge times. Hydrogen cars produce only water vapor, but the low emission methods of producing the fuel cells need to become more  competitive and infrastructure more developed.

It is impossible to know which technologies will eventually succeed, but the report is confident that with such a diverse portfolio, significant reductions for fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are on the horizon. As long as research efforts are funded and standards are tightened, government and industry can work together to start the green vehicle revolution rolling.

+ National Research Council

Via Science Daily

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