Your future car – fighting the climate change?

March 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

I sent this as a blog text to Huffington post but they did not respond indicating (as they tell on the site) that they were not interested in it. But I see the story as quite revolutionary thinking and thought my own blog can still distribute it to those interested. Of course there is a lot to do in this field, globally and I’m not a technology expert on this. But if this is valuable thinking, someone will find it anyway. So:

Imagine that our Fords, BMWs, and Toyotas and their electric and hydrogen versions – instead of having only a low or even a zero CO2 emission – would actually fight the climate change by removing CO2 from the air? The car on the road and in park with its engine running would be transformed from a climate change threat to a global asset and virtue in protecting the atmosphere. “You cannot do that! There is no such technology! Cities are crowded already!” are the expected comments to such an unorthodox idea. But the thought experiment offers new fuel for thinking about the nature of human mobility.

Cleaning the air from CO2

Removing CO2 from the air is a fresh, inspiring dream as the MIT report tells us, but not an unrealistic one. Scientists are imaging and experimenting with novel ways to transform CO2 to valuable materials such as carbon nanofibers for industrial uses. Quite recently, Bill Gates invested in a new system for sucking CO2 from the air and transforming it to harmless carbonates. The global pressure to succeed in these innovations is almost as high as in fighting cancer. No surprise then that there is an incipient trend to imagine and work on revolutionary methods that actually clean the air and the environment, instead of just preventing pollution.

Amazing technologies aim at protecting our environment. A prototype bikini, designed by the engineers at UC Riverside cleans the seawater from various pollutants that reach the sea, cf. Huffpost Science, 10/2/2015, “This Bikini Of The Future Cleans The Ocean As You Swim”. Another invention from University of Sheffield and the London College of Fashion offers air cleaning clothing that removes nitrogen oxides from the air – about the same amount produced by the average family car each day! Then, a research team from China (Shan Gao et al., 2016) published compelling new research results in Nature:

A new material made from microscopic layers of cobalt can convert carbon dioxide gas into formate – a fuel that can be burned with no toxic byproducts and used as a clean energy source.”

It is time to take take a second look at the future roles of cars and other transportation vehicles in this, including the potential of the self-driving cars.

Cars can be a threat and an asset

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in US, the CO2 produced by human activities originates from electricity (37%), transportation (31%), and industry (15%). In transportation the “on-road vehicles” produce overwhelmingly more CO2 than other forms of transportation, e.g. on-road vehicles: 1,442.7 Teragrams of CO2 vs. aircrafts: 148.7 . In EU Cars are responsible for 12% of total EU emissions of carbon dioxide and the law requires that the new cars do not emit more than an average of 130 grams of CO2 per kilometre by 2015.

We can see cars on the road, having zero CO2 emission like Tesla and Nissan Leaf (EVs) and even the hydrogen powered Toyota Miral. But the critics, referring to the life cycle analysis of EVs, know that almost half of their CO2 emissions come from the manufacturing and mining of the raw materials of the batteries and from the primary energy sources utilized for making these cars. These energy sources – coal, nuclear, wind – vary considerably around the world and depend on the total energy demand.

Opinions differ on how to exactly estimate the total burden on the environment caused by the production, waste processes and the energy sources, but there is no doubt that the big picture is problematic. Nevertheless, a fair question remains – what if we could make air-cleaning cars capable of removing CO2 from the air? Would it be possible to aim at a car manufacturing model where it is obligatory for any car maker to guarantee that its cars clean at least as much air from CO2 as its cars on the road and the manufacturing process together produce it? Could the charging of a car actually be connected with a grid of air-cleaning systems so that every time it is charged or refueled it would participate in the air-cleaning process.? This would mean a revolution in the way we think about transport, logistics, urban architectures and the health of our environments.

Time pressures

The alarming fact is, of course, that not only the increasing number of cars but the whole car manufacturing industry, including the production of electric and hydrogen powered cars, is producing excess amounts of CO2 right now and fast solutions are needed.

Even if the car industry and the road traffic would be effectively cleaning the air, many would still resist this development because it crowds the roads, cities and public spaces. More cars would remain a genuine nuisance and the cities and motorways cannot take more than already now dominate the scarce public spaces. Many cities have made these long-lasting decisions to provide space for pedestrians, public transport and biking.

However, it is not realistic to assume that cars could be removed from the planet within the next thirty years. It is a long time in developing new technologies and it is highly likely that the developing economies will have more cars when the entering new middle class enjoys the fun and comfort of driving and owning a car. Globally, the situation is becoming serious as indicated by the health-threatening pollution in Delhi, where a driving-ban has been issued to get a million cars off from the roads. Many think that it is not even closely enough

The International Transport Forum has indeed estimated that the number of motor vehicles in the world, being now 1.2 billion will be roughly 2.5 billion by 2050. So, even if we try to limit car use, diminish the car ownership, design self-driving cars and their traffic environment, we should still think about cars also as assets in fighting climate change. The question remains, what would be the optimal strategy in preventing the gloomy future of CO2 emissions? We need a step-by-step, evolutional and creative thinking with a clear goal in mind.

Future of nomadism

People will always be moving and commuting even when the best VR systems have matured so much that information sharing, collaboration and even social manufacturing have become everyday practices. We want to get together, touch and hug each other, feel the closeness, and share the physical presence and participation at work, entertainment and in any human relationships. When commuting becomes fast, easy, cheap and acceptable, people can adopt new roles as modern nomads, different from their classic predecessors who had to move from one place to another. The future nomads can arrange their model of life and living according to their values – in the seamless world of virtual communication and physical mobility – while contributing to the clean air.

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