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Upward E-mobility: Transportation electrification in a changed world

Credit: Image by Stan Petersen from Pixabay

How climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement are interrelated.

Climate change is one of humanity’s most important long-term problems, and transportation electrification or e-mobility is widely recognized as an essential part of the solution. The transportation sector is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. At the moment, climate change is taking a bit of a back seat to two other immediate and dramatic disruptions– the COVID pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. These two forces have already changed our lives dramatically, and have the potential to change them even more in the months and years ahead.

This paper examines early signs of what these changes could mean for e-mobility and vice versa. Specifically, will e-mobility still be an important part of the climate solution going forward? And what part will e-mobility play, if any, in the solution to the more immediate health and racial/social justice problems? We examine these questions for three specific segments of the transportation sector: personal cars, commercial trucks and public buses.

Personal Cars

Road transportation in the United States is dominated by light duty vehicles, aka personal cars (and light trucks). Each year, these vehicles travel roughly 3 trillion miles or 500 times the distance from the Earth to Pluto and back, producing 70% of the GHG emissions associated with road transportation.

Not surprisingly, the COVID “lockdown” has had a dramatic impact on this sector. The graph below shows monthly light duty vehicle miles traveled (VMT) over the past few years. As the graph indicates, light-duty VMT was growing steadily and then fell “off the charts” in the past few months. Sources vary, but percentage declines by region are reported to be in a range from as little as 40% to as much as 90%.

Source: U.S. Federal Highway Administration, Vehicle Miles Traveled retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/TRFVOLUSM227NFWA, August 13, 2020.

On the face of it, a lower personal car VMT could be bad for e-mobility. Electric vehicles (EV’s) typically cost more upfront, and savings accrue from less expensive operation and maintenance. With fewer vehicle miles, there are fewer savings and less of a motivation for abandoning an existing conventional vehicle or acquiring a new EV. And thus fewer EV’s and more GHG’s.

However, the story is not quite so simple. There may be important compensating factors at work. First and perhaps most obviously, personal travel may shift from mass transit to personal cars. Mass transit has historically been in decline, and COVID concerns will likely accelerate this process. Second, although fewer people may be traveling in vehicles in the future to go to work or school, more of them may be doing so alone or with at most one other person. For example, roughly 75% of vehicle commuters currently travel alone. Going forward, this figure may increase to near 100%.

As a result, despite the current drop and even a more prolonged shift to working at home, COVID may ultimately lead to an increase in personal car use. Left alone, this could be a GHG disaster. Appropriately managed, however, this could instead be an opportunity for faster market growth in smaller electric vehicles. What we could see in the future are fewer 4000lb hybrid minivans with seating for seven, and more 1000lb all-electric minicars with seating for two. We could also see an increased role for “alternative” forms of personal electric transportation such as scooters and e-bikes.

It is not widely recognized, but there is also a social justice element to personal EV’s. There is increasing concern that government and utility incentives for personal EVs have had a relatively limited effect on adoption and therefore on GHG, and that there main effect has been to benefit the wealthy. Tax credits by their very nature go to the wealthy and do nothing to help the less well-off. EV ownership – and the benefits that come from EV subsidies – is heavily skewed towards the rich. Discounted time of use utility rates for EV charging are most relevant to those who have ready access to home or office charging, and do very little to help apartment dwellers who must rely on a public charging network. In contrast, these incentives and programs can be designed to ensure that the dollars spent are more effective and the benefits are widely shared. This means paying more attention to alternative forms of transportation such as scooters that are relevant to the less well-off, encouraging the development of charging infrastructure in high density urban areas, and targeting subsidies to lower-income consumers.

Going forward then, personal EV’s – particularly smaller ones – will continue to play a critical role in addressing the climate issue. With more solitary travel, they may also play a role in addressing ongoing COVID concerns. And lastly, with improved incentives and programs, they may even be a source of greater social/racial equality rather than inequality.

Commercial Trucks

Each year, commercial medium and heavy-duty trucks in the United States travel roughly 600 billion miles, producing 30% of the GHG emissions associated with road transportation.

While data on trucks is less readily available than on cars, it appears that the COVID “lockdown” is having only a modest effect on their use. The figure below shows the estimated reduction in freight traffic by state as of mid-April. As the graph shows, the great majority of states have shown a decrease of 15% or less. Overall, there has been an average reduction of only 13%. This contrasts with the estimated decline of 50% or more in personal car travel.

Source: Inrix

As long as economic activity remains acutely depressed, commercial truck VMT will be somewhat reduced. However, as the economy rebounds with increased online and home-based activity, heavy-duty truck miles will likely return to normal and medium-duty truck miles will likely increase. In the latter case, the key driver is increasing reliance on “last mile” deliveries to homes by firms such as Amazon, UPS and USPS. There may be fewer trips from home to store in a large personal car, and more trips from warehouse to home in a large commercial van. Even before COVID, this market was growing rapidly. With COVID, it is truly “exploding.”

The increased use of commercial trucks, particularly medium-duty trucks for last-mile deliveries, is a great opportunity for e-mobility. In many ways, it is easier to electrify commercial truck fleets rather than individual personal cars. Commercial entities are accustomed to absorbing higher upfront costs in favor of long-term savings, and they are increasingly under pressure to become more sustainable. In addition, commercial entities have more control over their own charging infrastructure. Pre-COVID, Amazon recently ordered 100,000 electric delivery trucks. This would be one of the largest global deployments of its kind. UPS ordered a more modest 10,000 electric delivery trucks. Post-COVID with more truck VMT, the future of electric trucks looks even better.

As with personal EV’s, there is an unrecognized but important social justice aspect to truck electrification. Local emissions from moving and idling diesel-powered trucks represent a significant health issue in low-income neighborhoods. Consequently, a shift to electrified truck fleets can help address social inequality as well.

Going forward then, electrified trucks are likely to play an increased role in addressing the climate issue. A shift to electrified truck fleets can also play an important role in increasing the quality of life for the less well off.

Public Buses

Public buses – both school and transit – play a relatively small and declining role in road transportation, representing only a few percent of total VMT and associated GHG emissions. At the same time, buses are critically important to segments of the population. The great majority of transit bus riders are low-income, and have few work and transportation choices. In many cases, they must leave home to work and they must use the bus to get to work. This stands in contrast to more discretionary rail and subway use. A large fraction of school bus riders also come from low-income families who have few transportation alternatives.

As the graph below shows, this has important implications for the recent impact of COVID. The COVID “lockdown” has reduced rail and subway ridership by 95% or more, but it has reduced transit bus ridership by less than 50%.

In the future, travelers with choices – rail and subway riders – will likely choose to travel less and/or use mass transit less when traveling. On the other hand, travelers without choices – bus riders – will likely to continue to rely on that form of transit as before.

Bus electrification then is less of a climate issue – since buses are only a small part of the GHG picture, and more of a racial/social justice and health issue – since buses are effectively a necessity for a part of the population. Those who rely on buses should be able to do so with their health and welfare protected, and bus electrification can help ensure that this is the case. As with trucks, a shift to electric buses reduces the local air pollution associated with diesel fuel and thereby helps address racial/social inequalities. Interestingly, electric vehicles – including buses – may be particularly well suited to heat sanitization to prevent the spread of COVID and other pathogens. (See for example Colin Beresford, Ford Software Heats Up Police-Car Interiors to 133 Degrees to Kill Coronavirus, Car and Driver, May 27, 2020).

Consequently, they can be part of the health solution as well.

Going forward then, bus transportation will continue to be a necessity for many. Bus electrification will continue to play a role in addressing climate concerns, and it can also add an important role in addressing both racial/social justice and health concerns.

Conclusion

The current health and racial/social justice crises are deeply affecting many aspects of our lives. E-mobility is no exception.

In our changed future, e-mobility will play an even larger and more central role in addressing climate change. Despite changes in home and work patterns, more people will likely be relying on personal cars. And because of these changes in home and work patterns, commercial trucks will likely be traveling more miles. Climate-wise, electrification of cars and trucks will be even more of a “must have” than it currently is.

At the same time, e-mobility can play an important supporting role in both the social/racial justice and health fronts. Improved incentives and programs can extend the benefits of personal EV’s to the less well off, and electrification of trucks and buses can help address environmental inequalities. Lastly, greater use of smaller personal EV’s and sanitized electric buses can ensure that transportation reduces rather than increases the spread of pathogens.

In our changed world then, e-mobility can foster a leap in near-term and long-term welfare for a broad spectrum of society. I call this “Upward E-mobility.”