Regardless of the beliefs of the current EPA chief, the vast majority of the scientific community continues to assert climate change is due in large part to carbon dioxide emissions, at least 15 percent of which is attributable to the transportation sector. In short: gas-powered vehicles are killing the Earth.
However, the transportation industry wasn’t always as dependent on oil as it is today ― and it probably will break its oil addiction relatively soon thanks to rampant innovation for personal and public transit.
If we don’t soon change the way we travel the world, there might not be a world left to travel. Thus, everyone should spend time learning about transportation and emerging options that may make it more sustainable.
A Brief History of Transportation in America
While people were traveling from place to place well before 1800, it wasn’t until Thomas Jefferson’s presidency that transportation truly became complex. The Louisiana Purchase added unknown swaths of land to the U.S., but land-based transit was yet untenably slow and uncomfortable. Lewis and Clark failed to find a waterway that linked the east and west coasts, so massive construction efforts began to create manmade canals and packed-dirt roads to link America’s great cities. While water travel was preferred nearly everywhere, some regions were too poor, too densely populated, or too dry to build canals ― so innovations were sought.
Throughout the beginning of the 19th century, early railroads were tested around the country. Boston saw the construction of a funicular railway, which employs cables and counterbalances to drive carts up slopes. Horse-drawn trains also saw some use, but the rails were too expensive to warrant the slow transport. Finally, after seeing the success of steam-powered railcars in England, capitalists began installing railways around the U.S., largely replacing existing roads and canals with fast, efficient rails.
Unfortunately, steam power is not as sustainable as it sounds. Though clean water vapor is used to drive the pistons that drive the wheels, dirty coal must be burned in excess to heat the water to boiling. Coal is perhaps the worst air polluter in human history; it is the primary cause of smog, acid rain, and toxic fumes. Even today, U.S. coal energy plants produce a cumulative 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide, which amounts to about a quarter of all carbon emissions. Though steam-powered railways became America’s primary mode of transport during the 19th century ― bringing prosperity and sustenance to far reaches of the country ― they were far from environmentally friendly.
The next transportation innovation was the electric trolley car, which initiated public transit systems within cities. Built into tracks embedded in streets, trolleys followed set routes and relied on electricity provided through overhead wires. However, like railcars, most trolleys relied on coal ― this time supplied from a coal electricity plant rather than a furnace and boiler.
By 1930, more than half of all families in America owned automobiles. When the car first appeared, it seemed an expensive luxury, but as roads around the country improved, cars became transportation necessities. Perhaps surprisingly, Ford’s first Model T boasted an impressive fuel efficiency of 21 miles per gallon; by 1930, that number dropped to about 14 mpg because cars became heavier and used materials that were lower quality, and by the 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo skyrocketed fuel prices, efficiency was at just under 12 mpg.
Incoming Innovations Developed for Sustainability
These days, fuel prices are relatively stable and cars are becoming increasingly more fuel efficient, but our continued reliance on fossil fuels remains as unsustainable as steam-powered trains. The second-largest producer of greenhouse gases, transportation of people and goods releases about 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. Thankfully, innovators are continuing to improve our transportation options for a more sustainable future.
The first hybrid car was developed in 1898 by Ferdinand Porsche. Combining internal combustion with electric power, that early model boasted a range of 40 miles. In fact, hybrid models were popular in the beginning of the 20th century – until Ford transitioned to wholly gas-powered engines. Fortunately, strife at the gas pump as well as a growing environmentalism has renewed interest in hybrid vehicles, so fuel efficiency is rising once again.
Though some cars on the road already run using biodiesel – essentially burned cooking oil – further development is necessary for the practical widespread use of alternative fuels. Electric cars are the best alternative and are more sustainable than gas-powered vehicles. Much of the country’s electricity is still generated by coal power plants, so powering electric vehicles often requires environmentally unfriendly sources. Yet this emission factor will decrease over time. Fortunately if you charge the battery with alternative energy sources, i.e. solar, wind, energy efficiency, electric vehicles become an even more environmentally sound alternative.
Though hired cars aren’t new, ridesharing has become exceedingly popular in the past few years. In theory, the practice encourages Americans to avoid congesting motorways with personal vehicles and encourages entrepreneurs to improve their fleets with economical and eco-friendly cars. Ridesharing apps, which can be developed thanks to platforms like RideCell, might be the future of the transportation industry.
Autonomous vehicles are perhaps the most exciting innovation in transportation since the Turn of the Century. Utterly futuristic, robot cars can navigate without human interference, choosing the fastest and safest routes possible. Additionally, driverless cars tend to be more fuel efficient than human drivers, so widespread implementation of this tech could reduce emissions significantly.