The first half of Mobility 2030 is an admirably rich, complete, and readable account of what motor vehicles do for us and how many of their unpleasant side effects can be mitigated. Sophisticated technologies have already hugely improved air quality in many cities, through improved fuel and engine management and exhaust gas post-treatment. Techniques for modifying behavior can reduce unsafe driving. The immediate (and technically solvable) challenge is in emerging markets, where motor vehicle use is increasing, air pollution is rising, and (as a separate report from the World Health Organization notes), the incidence of road traffic injuries is rising steeply as well.
The second half of the book presents a long menu of technology options for propulsion systems, providing for each fuel system the “well-to-wheels” (complete) energy efficiency rating, which is the only proper way to compare them. The good old internal combustion piston engine remains in the running. Diesel fuel engines offer 20 percent savings in energy and CO2 emissions over conventional gasoline engines in light vehicles, but their emissions are more difficult to clean up. Hybrids (in which an electric motor–generator and battery complement the internal combustion engine) offer significant energy savings in urban driving but impose a weight and cost penalty on the highway. Fuel cells and hydrogen power are very attractive in theory, but their mass deployment remains firmly over the horizon because of on-board storage and fueling infrastructure barriers, on top of the continuing high cost and short life of fuel cells themselves.
In fact, there is no ipso facto miracle technology solution that will radically reduce the specific fuel consumption of motor vehicles (or airplanes). The lack of concise numbers-based arguments in the second half of the report is striking, compared to the first half of the report. There are almost indecipherable tables of scenarios. A diagram on aerodynamic drag suggests that an 80 km/hour (50 mph) limit could cut highway fuel consumption almost in half, but this obviously politically unpopular possibility is not pursued. Congestion gets a fairly superficial treatment — the report skirts the concepts of a different mix of individual and collective transport, and of the different patterns of living, working, and studying that this change would imply. The report ends on a note of seeming confusion and powerlessness in the face of greater events, and does not attempt to address the real question: If the energy intensity of physical transportation cannot be radically reduced, must it compete with other components of industrial society for an increasingly scarce fuel supply, or must we accept a reduction in mobility?
The long-standing forte of Amory B. Lovins and his Rocky Mountain Institute lies in boldly challenging conventional technological wisdom. Their latest report, Winning the Oil Endgame, seeks to identify the means of making such large decreases in energy consumption by road vehicles that the U.S. becomes independent of oil imports. Mr. Lovins dismisses nuclear-generated electricity as too costly. Instead, he argues for a massive development in biofuels — not just corn- or sugar-derived ethanol, but such novelties as fuels processed from cellulose by genetically modified bacteria. He takes cars and other vehicles to Weight Watchers, contending that far too much deadweight is hauled around in steel-structured designs, compared to their useful load of passengers and luggage. Stronger, lighter vehicles made from composite materials of plastic polymer and carbon fiber are, he says, more effective than extra mass in ensuring the safety of occupants, and will use as little as half as much fuel.
Mr. Lovins thereby takes a diametrically opposed stance to Mr. Jaccard’s by proposing massive energy savings at the point of use — or tapping, as he puts it, “the 30-billion barrel per year fuel supply under Detroit.” This would cut fuel consumption to the point where biomass can supplant the need for the U.S., or other countries, to import oil. The argument is powerful, although its applicability is limited to large-area, temperate-zone countries — plus special cases, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, with their massive palm oil plantations, or Brazil, with its massive sugar cane–based ethanol program. We are treated to a bewildering array of deployment scenarios, as though from a student who has just discovered simulation techniques. They don’t really add to the force of Mr. Lovins’s argument. And, of course, a key question is not addressed: If composite vehicles running on ethanol became commonplace, would society still have to constrain its fourth inalienable right, the right to unimpeded individual motorized mobility?