State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Future of Transportation: More Safety, Savings and Sustainability

GM’s “pod car” Photo: lotprocars

Updated January 31, 2013

In September, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that paves the way for driverless cars to operate on state roadways. Nevada and Florida have also passed driverless car bills, and Washington, D.C., may soon follow. Though the driverless car sounds like something out of the cartoon sitcom “The Jetsons,” it is just one of many transformations already under way in the realm of personal transportation that are rapidly making travel safer, more cost-effective and greener.

Numerous global trends are behind the transportation transformation, including: expanding mobile connectivity (smart phones are expected to reach 7.6 billion by 2020), increasing population and urbanization, the scarcity and rising prices of traditional energy sources, and concerns about the environment and global warming. Growing numbers of people crowding into cities, especially in developing countries, need to get around, but the planet simply cannot support everyone driving his/her own car. Fuel consumption and vehicle emissions are the largest man-made source of CO2, nitrous oxide and methane—greenhouse gasses that cause respiratory diseases and premature death, and hasten the warming of the planet. And by 2030, the world will generate 33 percent more CO2 than it did in 2009, according to the World Economic Forum. In the U.S., President Obama’s new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that require vehicle fleets to get 54.5 mpg by 2025 are also spurring the transportation transformation by forcing American car-makers to innovate to improve fuel economy.

Our current transportation scenario leaves much room for improvement in safety, efficiency, cost-savings and sustainability.

1.2 million people die in traffic accidents around the world annually, approximately 40,000 Americans each year.

-Traffic congestion results in aloss of $87.2 billion from the U.S. economy and a wasted 4.2 billion hours for Americans stuck in traffic yearly.

-According to AAA, the average cost of owning and operating a sedan in the U.S. rose 1.9 percent in 2012 to $8,946 based on driving 15,000 miles in a year. Yet, while 91 percent of commuters own their own vehicles (Americans own 204 million personal vehicles), most drive on average just 55 minutes each day.

-Transportation accounts for about 29 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second largest source of emissions behind the electric power industry (34 percent).


Car manufacturers are already equipping vehicles with advanced safety features such as adaptive cruise control that can sense traffic conditions, and apply the brakes to keep a safe distance from the car in front. Blind spot warning systems use radar or a camera to sense when another vehicle is in the driver’s blind spot and alert him via a sound or light on his side mirror. If a driver deviates from his lane without a turn signal, the lane departure warning system, which uses sensors by the rear view mirror or under the car to read lines on the road, warns him or brakes to keep the car in the lane. Imminent braking is triggered when a camera in the car detects an object in front and slows or stops if the driver fails to brake.

Photo: CoolValley

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (D.O.T.) Research and Innovative Technology Administration is researching connected vehicles and intelligent transportation systems to create the vision of a national, multi-modal transportation system connecting vehicles, the infrastructure and passengers via their mobile devices. The goal is a system that will reduce traffic accidents; enable traffic managers to assess traffic and manage the system in real time; give travelers access to travel times, mode and route options and the environmental impacts of their choices; and allow vehicles to communicate with traffic signals to avoid unnecessary stops and thus optimize fuel efficiency. An intelligent transportation system would allow real-time travel planning for all conditions including weather and emergencies; and could play a role in homeland security and mass evacuations if necessary.

The D.O.T. is researching V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) and V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) technology. V2V communication enables cars to sense 360˚ around them for danger, calculate the risk, and warn the driver or take preemptive action itself. Technology such as GPS (not based in the vehicle) or vehicle-based sensors combine data about the location and speed of other cars with latitude, longitude and angles to produce a detailed picture of other vehicles’ locations in the car’s computer. The D.O.T. projects that V2V could prevent 76 percent of all traffic accidents.

In V2I communication, information can be wirelessly transmitted between vehicles and highway infrastructure. Smart infrastructure can be equipped with sensors that collect data on high-risk situations and warn drivers away. Traffic signals could be synchronized to keep traffic flowing, and alert drivers to upcoming red lights. It’s believed that V2I could help prevent the 12 percent of crashes not averted by V2V. A pilot project to test V2V and V2I prototypes under real world conditions using retrofitted vehicles and “equipped vehicle systems” is now underway.

Google’s driverless car. Photo: Scott Schrantz

In 2008, Google began researching its driverless car to “help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use.” The thinking is that since 93 percent of traffic accidents are caused entirely or in part by human factors, the only way to make driving safer is to give computers more control. Google’s driverless car has driven 300,000 miles without one accident while under computer control. A scanner, called a lidar, atop the car emits 64 infrared lasers which measure the time the light takes to hit an object and return, calculating the distance from an object; another system measures acceleration and rotation around the axes of the car and combines it with GPS information to establish the car’s position; this data and information from onboard cameras is processed by the software, enabling the system to make split-second decisions about steering, acceleration and braking. Google is currently talking with car manufacturers about incorporating its technology; and the company speculates that the driverless car may be available within five years. Audi, Ford and Volvo have also been experimenting with computer-controlled cars; and China plans to test a driverless car from Beijing to Tianjin next year. The California Department of Motor Vehicles must draft safety and performance regulations for the driverless car by 2015; for now, a licensed driver will still be required to sit behind the wheel in case of emergency.


Because most drivers actually spend relatively little time each day behind the wheel, car-sharing is already taking hold around the world. Zipcar operates in many U.S. states, Canada, Spain and the U.K. Zipcar members can reserve a car on their smart phone or computer, pick it up nearby using a radio frequency identification embedded card, then return it to the same parking spot when they’re done; gas is included in the price; drivers are charged according to how long they’ve used the car. According to Zipcar, members can save over $500 a month compared to owning their own car.

Zip Cars live here. Photo: afagen

Car2go is a similar service that operates in 16 European and North American cities including Austin, Texas; Washington, D.C.; San Diego, Cailf.; Portland, Ore.; and Vancouver, B.C. Some locations use “smartfortwo” electric vehicles equipped with solar cells on the roof to charge the battery.


Research is ongoing into alternative fuels that reduce greenhouse gas emissions such as biodiesel, ethanol, electricity, propane, compressed natural gas, and hydrogen. The emissions and energy output of alternative fuels vary according to the fuel source, with some, like ethanol, being of questionable sustainability.

Better aerodynamics and low rolling resistant tires (5 to 15 percent of fuel consumption is used to overcome the rolling resistance of regular tires) can reduce fuel consumption. Anti-idling technology, such as auxiliary power systems that keep the car warm or cool and run electronic devices without use of the engine, help save fuel and reduce emissions.

Hybrid and electric vehicles that can be powered by renewable energy will become more prevalent as research develops advanced battery capacity. Adoption of electric cars has been slow due to their limited range, but as batteries become more powerful, less expensive and smaller, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and eventually battery-powered all electric vehicles will likely become the norm.

Electric vehicles could prove a better bet in a situation like Hurricane Sandy, where thousands of drivers faced gas shortages and had to wait on long lines to fill up. Electric car owners who lost power might have been able to charge their vehicles at the home of neighbors who still had power. According to the New York Times, some were also still able to charge their cars at public charging stations. Creating more public charging stations could help expand energy diversity, which would add resilience to the transportation system in future hurricanes.

Toyota’s FT-Bh. Photo: Cedric Janodet

Future vehicles will be smaller and be made from lower weight materials. Toyota’s FT-Bh (Future Toyota B-segment Hybrid), made of aluminum, magnesium, and high-strength steel, weighs less than 1800 lbs, runs on a 1-liter 2 cylinder engine and a smaller lithium-ion battery, and theoretically gets 134.5 miles per gallon.

GM and its Chinese partner, Shanghai Automotive Industry, have created the “pod car,” a driverless two-person Electric-Networked Vehicle that can be summoned with an iPhone. It is made of low-weight materials like carbon fiber and weighs 1,000 pounds; five of them fit into one parking spot.

A Vision of the Not-so-distant Future

Transforming Personal Mobility, a 2012 study (revised 2013) by the Earth Institute’s Program on Sustainable Mobility, envisioned a new mobility system incorporating the “mobility internet” (mobile connectivity), driverless shared vehicles, specific-purpose vehicles (no bigger than they need to be), and advanced propulsion systems (using alternative energy sources and power systems).

In this new mobility system, customers request a ride using an app on their smart phone. A driverless vehicle arrives within 2 minutes to take them to their destination. The vehicles are part of a shared fleet of specific-purpose vehicles (when 1 or 2 people travel, light-weight smaller vehicles similar to GM’s electric-networked “pod car” can be used) coordinated by a central fleet operator.

The rider saves money by not owning his own car, uses the travel time as he wishes, and avoids the cost and time of parking. The vehicle is dispatched according to which one is closest to the request, and after drop-off, is sent on to its next call, thus reducing “empty miles” or times when the vehicle is unused.

The study presented three different environments under peak usage conditions. The parameters of each were determined by modeling factors such as the area of the region, average trip lengths, trip rates and how they varied throughout the day, vehicle speeds, time needed per trip, fleet size, and vehicle cost.

Ann Arbor, Mich., a medium-sized city of 285,000, would need a fleet of 18,000 vehicles to serve the needs of the city’s current car owners. Once the new mobility system was up and running, it would cost Ann Arbor users $2 a day (based on the specific-purpose small vehicles) compared to the $21 per day cost of owning and operating a car themselves. At Babcock Ranch, a cutting-edge eco-community for 50,000 being planned in southwest Florida, a fleet of 3,000 to 4,000 vehicles would suffice. It’s estimated that users would pay $3 a day for the shared service. In New York City, the study was based on taking the place of Yellow Cabs. Even at rush hour, a fleet of 9,000 could handle the needs of New Yorkers who normally take taxis. The cost would be 80 cents for an average 2-mile trip as compared to $8 to $13 (depending on traffic conditions) for a 2-mile Yellow Cab trip.

Apart from time and money savings for the user, the sustainability benefits of the system would be significant: improved transportation safety, reduced congestion, increased energy efficiency, improved land use (fewer cars would mean less need for parking space), and decreased greenhouse gas emissions.

But who would pay for this system? Bonnie Scarborough, program manager for the Program on Sustainable Mobility, said, “In the initial development phase, money would have to be invested by a consortium of private companies. But once the system is operating, it would pay for itself through user fees. Ultimately, the investors would make their money back…We developed a business plan for the system to ask, ‘Would this be a cheaper transportation alternative delivering a better quality service to the users? Would it be profitable as a business?’ The answer to both questions was ‘yes.’”

The next step for the new mobility system is a demonstration project being developed with six companies that is planned for a gated community in Florida. Approximately 10 vehicles would be needed to service the first 100 residences in the community at an estimated cost of under $10 million to develop a working prototype, integrate the technology and operate it for 6 months. Said Scarborough, “It’s very exciting. We are envisioning a January 2014 launch.” The vision is fast becoming reality.






Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sean Heffernan
11 years ago

Super impressed by that Google prototype. Perhaps were are not too far off as I thought from the driverless car. Brilliant work being done.

7 years ago

Pollution is destroing not only the environment but also lives, and traditional cars are one of the causes. It’s important to promote sustainable mobility such as electric mobility. EVs, in fact, are made to help us in this situation. The electric vehicle is a green mean of transport and everyone has to understand it.