Supporting change

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation at the US Department of Energy Reuben Sarkar gives Alex Kreetzer an insight into how the government and transportation industry are working towards a more efficient future.

Vehicles have been at the heart of infrastructure within global cities, moving people and goods from place to place everyday, driving the economy. However, emissions levels from transportation continue to pose serious issues for civilians and the environment. Alternative fuels, including vehicle electrification, are one potential solution to this challenge and, governing bodies around the world are providing funding and supporting research to  achieve the economic and ‘green goals’ that they aspire to reach.

To learn more about how government organisations are working towards a greener future through improving infrastructure, I speak to Reuben Sarkar, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation at the US Department of Energy (DOE), who has focused on the development of innovative, sustainable transportation technologies for more than 17 years. Since the beginning of the decade, DOE began major studies into EV charging station deployments to determine where best to deploy charging stations to support a growing EV market. “Those studies indicated that charging at work was second only to charging in the home as the two primary locations for EV charging, suggesting most of a city driver’s charging needs can be satisfied on most occasions with those two locations,” he says. This illustrates more of a focus on the customer, rather than the infrastructure itself, as convenience is the main driver of EV adoption.

To optimise EV growth in cities, the DOE has already developed citing tools that can identify the best locations from potential sites to locate charging stations for consumers, which will help develop more efficient and structured smart cities. The DOE has also created an EV Readiness Scorecard, which is used as a checklist for areas which are preparing to install EV charging stations. Sarkar stresses that, “more charging is needed at places such as multifamily dwellings, solutions for on-street parking as well as leased business spaces where lessors may not have permission to modify the property to add charging for employees.” He also believes that introducing network chargers and connected infrastructure are enablers in allowing consumers to find available charging stations. “We’re working with our national labs to identify research opportunities to improve the convenience, accessibility, reliability and affordability of charging,” Sarkar continues. “Additionally, advances in battery technologies and packs that can achieve longer ranges in excess of 200 miles provide more flexibility to find a place to charge.” By taking this approach, as well as managing grid integration, urban areas can develop surrounding infrastructure and support growth in the long run.

A push from both sides

It is true that having more visibly available infrastructure can help attract people to switching over to EVs, as this would overcome the so-called ‘range anxiety’ and allow consumers to not sacrifice any benefits from conventional fuel vehicles. However, as Sarkar explains, building infrastructure, while necessary, is not alone sufficient to drive mass adoption. “Cost of vehicle technology needs to continue to come down, performance such as range needs to go up as do charging rates which even at today’s fastest chargers still take comparatively long to refuel relative to a gasoline vehicle. Misconceptions on the reliability of these newer technology need to be addressed.” Automakers and suppliers need to develop and improve such things as battery technology and constantly look at how they can improve EVs as the surrounding infrastructure increases. However, it seems that we are involved in a chicken and egg scenario, where automakers are waiting for the supporting infrastructure and governments are waiting for the ‘EV Boom’. We are starting to see a mutual understanding from both sides of the fence, with automakers now working alongside governments, states and countries to build a vast network of EV corridors that will allow people to travel to and from different cities and connect them across the globe.

However, this does pose another challenge: standardisation. This is currently a huge issue for cities as we are witnessing a turf war between automakers that prevent certain people using charging stations. Sakar tells me that, “if there is any expectation by the industry for there to be a national network of chargers then yes, the industry needs to settle in on some standards. I am not here to advocate for a particular solution, but the industry needs to put its heads together and find a collaborative solution,” he says. “I am not sure consumers view having a unique plug as a positive differentiator in making a purchase decision.” So, on top of automakers working alongside governments, they must also collaborate with each other, to propel EVs into the limelight.

Through this, the transport industry can continue to work towards the research and development of electric charge points as well as identifying national inter-state alternative fuel station corridors. Although the DOE does not focus on deployment or commercialisation of this technology, it helps states and other agencies to inform their efforts, whilst analysing future activities to enable and support Extreme Fast Charging (350 kw+) and innovations in related charging and battery technology. “We provide objective input to states, as well as municipalities, and other agencies such as EPA on the readiness of technologies to support their efforts,” says Sarkar.

The long term effects

Smart Cities are connected, data driven cities that will allow citizens and businesses to unlock latent value in order to get more from less. This means more productivity, higher quality of life, convenience, safety, efficiency and accessibility. Through further development, smart cities have become living, breathing entities that breed innovation through a range of different experiments, thus creating a more efficient future. “From the DOE’s perspective, our focus is to improve energy security, economic productivity and US competitiveness through more efficient use of affordable energy,” adds Sarkar. “Our aim is to conduct the early stage R&D, bring the most advanced modeling and simulation, high performance computers, sensors, controls, big data analytics and cyber physical systems thinking to generate new fundamental knowledge that will enable our cities to navigate the complex smart city space, make informed choices through the myriad of scenarios, and to achieve the quality of life metrics sought after by our communities with the optimal use of our energy resources.”

Future mobility will transform day-to-day transportation, significantly decreasing energy consumption and emissions; arguably the only way to deal with the rapid growth of megacities around the world. Through its SMART Mobility Consortium and Energy Efficient Mobility Systems Programme, the DOE uncovered that connected and autonomous vehicles have the potential to decrease energy consumption of light-duty fleets by up to 60%, based on the use of conventional internal combustion today. These studies also indicated that the US could see a 200% increase in fuel consumption due to dramatically increasing demand, which foreshadows that the efficiency gains from technology alone may not be enough to offset an unchecked growth in the demand for travel. “Switching to more efficient powertrains, such as EVs or fuel cells, in which fuel sources can be coupled to renewables, has the potential to further increase those energy efficiency gains from CAVs and along with ride sharing,” says Sarkar. “However, increasing demand for transportation and vehicle mileage traveled cannot be disregarded, solutions need to comprehend efficiency, demand, and fuel diversification.”

On the horizon

It is difficult to predict when autonomous vehicles will arrive on our roads and there is uncertainty about what will happen to existing vehicles, so it is interesting to see whether we will have to completely replace older vehicles or if there will be a smooth transition where we will see such things as dedicated lanes and roads for autonomous cars. Sarkar tells me that there are many ways this may play out. “It takes about 17 years on average to turn over the US light-duty fleet. Mandates to include certain levels of features, retrofits, retirements may all serve to hasten that transition. Connected and automated vehicles themselves may accelerate the transition if fewer people buy cars and the higher utilisation results in faster turnover of those vehicles and faster pull through of vehicles and new technology. Product development cycles may shorten and the transition might happen more rapidly.” he says. “I personally suspect that the rate of change will be geographically and demographically dispersed with small pockets of change happening faster in more controlled environments and in other places change happening more slowly.”  

So, based on the region, it is only a matter of time before we see urban environments become revitalised through this kind of innovation. And, if you look at struggling communities in poorer parts of the world, this influx of technology and investment could revamp these areas. However, that depends on how much of a focus this is for them. Sarkar agrees that new technologies and investment can be an opportunity to revamp any community, although stresses that struggling communities may have different sets of priorities and access to capital. “I think a key consideration regardless of where your community lies along the development spectrum is to focus on specific problems you need to solve, how you will measure success, and then decide how best to use technology and investment to solve those problems and measure outcomes. Successful smart cities will be prudent on their use of technologies and very specific on problems and measurable outcomes.”

So, it may be too early to predict the outcome that connected cars and smart cities will create, from both a business and an energy perspective. But there is one thing that we are sure of; there will be significant potential opportunities to improve our cities. Sarkar agrees, but warns that there are also potential pitfalls. “Right now the focus is on trying to develop that fundamental understanding and new knowledge of the factors at play and how they might affect different outcomes and to provide objective information, research and tools to enable informed decisions and to inform future R&D.”

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