Moving – with the times

Moving – with the times

The times they are a changin’ – and so should we. Not least of all with regards to how we get around every day. GAVIN MYERS looks at some of the current and future trends in this important aspect of our lives…

“What we need is a sustainable transport pathway. We need to avoid transportation when and where we can; we need more video teleconferencing, remote offices and the like. We need to shift to some new, cleaner options, like high-speed rail. And we need to improve some of the options that exist, such as hybrid and electric cars.” So said John Christensen, head of the UNEP Risoe Centre on Climate, Energy and Sustainable Development, at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17).

Yes, the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) says transport is a major emitting sector – they estimate it accounts for 23 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions globally. A study conducted by the UITP and the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that, on average, public transport consumes 3,4 times less energy per passenger/kilometre than cars (obviously being even more favourable during peak hours), and in cities where citizens walk and cycle a lot, each individual saves 500 to 600 litres of petrol each year. However, as the UITP admits, demand worldwide for transport appears unlikely to decrease in the foreseeable future and rapid motorisation, especially in developing countries, will see fuel demand grow by 40 percent by 2035.

In the same vein, the problem with Christensen’s observation – as utterly correct as he is – is that, over the short- to medium-term at least, it’s simply unrealistic to expect such a vast change of mindset in anything other than a gradual manner. And especially in a country such as South Africa, which will need a drastically changed infrastructure. Furthermore, vehicle manufacturers, their suppliers and all associated parties would doubtless be distressed at the prospect of suddenly losing massive amounts of “bums on seats”.

The UITP, for one, realises that and so proposes that by doubling the market share of sustainable transport modes we will have a real opportunity to address climate change, plus revitalise and develop economies and create jobs.

As such, said manufacturers are picking up the gauntlet with aplomb and taking their individual roles in reducing the road transport industry’s carbon footprint increasingly seriously. As you’ll see in the two instances on forthcoming pages, both Mercedes-Benz and BMW take a comprehensive, holistic view of their operations’ impacts on the environment. From “cradle to the grave”, every level of their individual operations is tied in with corporate guidelines on how to best approach the subject.

Of course, they aren’t the only ones. However, what we’re interested in isn’t necessarily how a vehicle is manufactured or what happens to it once it’s no longer fit for use. What we want to look at here is the vehicles themselves: What do the makers of our daily transport have in store for us in the not too distant future?

The electric MINI E, the first electric vehicle to go on sale in South Africa, will soon be available to local customers. In that regard COP17 was revealing indeed, many taking the opportunity to showcase the future – but now. Apart from BMW and Mercedes-Benz using the opportunity offered, the Renault-Nissan Alliance and Toyota both showed great involvement at the conference. A dozen cars from the Renault-Nissan Alliance were used to provide zero-emission shuttle services for delegates, comprised of Nissan’s highly acclaimed LEAF electric vehicle (EV) – of which more than 20 000 have been sold on three continents, making it the most popular EV worldwide – and Renault’s soon to be launched Fluence Z.E. family sedan. The company’s Kangoo Z.E. light commercial vehicle – the Twizy, a fun-to-drive two-seater urban commuter vehicle – and its ZOE, a compact hatchback, were all shown.

The Renault-Nissan Alliance plans to sell 1,5 million zero-emission cars by 2016. Nissan has announced plans to launch the LEAF in South Africa in 2013.

Toyota – regarded the “greenest global brand” – also provided a fleet of 30 vehicles, mostly hybrids, to shuttle ministers of state and senior officials to the various events.

Toyota also recently introduced its vision for the future at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show, beginning with the Aqua (Prius C in some markets), a compact plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. One level up, Toyota previewed its FT-EV III (Future Toyota – Electric Vehicle III), a short-distance vehicle due for launch hopefully during 2012. The FCV-R (Fuel Cell Vehicle – Reality & Revolution) concept is Toyota’s mid-term solution: a practical, family sized vehicle fuelled by hydrogen, with a cruising range of more than 700 km. It represents the next step towards the commercial launch of a Toyota fuel cell vehicle by 2015.

So everyone is beginning to do their bit. But what are the limitations? As mentioned, implementing this sort of technology requires a huge supporting infrastructure, beginning with filling stations selling hydrogen and providing battery-charging points. Mercedes-Benz estimates that, in a country the size of Germany, 1 000 such filling stations would be able to serve a large population of fuel cell cars. There would also need to be EV charging stations at workplaces and in public areas.

Of course, with this come costs: quick-charging stations cost several tens of thousands of euro and the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles the size of a Smart cost almost as much as the standard car (however, Daimler does see the market for electric car batteries running up to a volume worth €50 million in just 10 years’ time).

Standards are another problem. Only recently has an international standard for charging plugs for electric cars emerged. With regard to charging, Germany is focusing on a 63 amp three-phase power system, while Italy, Japan and the United States are on a 33 amp single-phase system. Timing is also crucial, so as to not put strain on the power grid, so intelligent electronics could be needed to control public systems.

Then there’s the question of what the end-user will ultimately pay for choosing to shun fossil fuels – new technologies are generally always associated with higher costs. Electric mobility will need to be made attractive to the consumer. A number of bank tax relief schemes and government subsidies that help potential buyers afford such vehicles, and help commercial customers to run them efficiently in their operations, have already been set up in a number of countries. France offers an incentive of €5 000,00 for vehicles that emit less than
50g CO2/km, with similar initiatives in China and Japan.

Actual operating costs aren’t that far off current petrol- or diesel-powered vehicles, with the average cost of both electricity and hydrogen electricity working out at €0,3/100 km – sufficient to travel about 100 km.

It’s clear the solution required is a multi-modal one: we all need to move to rail, such as the Gautrain, take to BRT and car-sharing schemes (such as Daimler’s car2go project) and embrace the move to electric motoring. Then our world might be like the one on the next page …

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