The Convergence Of Zero-Emissions Zones, EVs, Self-Driving Tech, & On-Demand Taxi Services (2017 Masdar Engage Blogging Contest Submission)

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(This is a submission for the 2017 Masdar Engage Blogging Contest, which asks the question: “In your view, what will be the most important technological development over the next 10 years that will have the greatest impact in reducing climate change risks?”)

The most important technological innovation or development of the next 10 years in the cleantech sector? The answer to that question, in my mind, is the convergence of various technological and political factors relating to transportation. To be more clear, the convergence of governmentally imposed zero-emissions zones, self-driving vehicle technologies, electric vehicle technologies, and software solutions allowing for effective on-demand taxi service.

This convergence could well lead to rapidly plummeting personal vehicle ownership in many cities and urban areas, which would have a substantial effect on land use within cities (greatly reduced need for land-intensive parking lots and street parking), and also directly on greenhouse gas emissions. A properly managed autonomous on-demand taxi service could be much more energy efficient than the current setup is, where almost everyone owns their own car. (Without proper routing and management, though, this wouldn’t necessarily be the case.)

The potential reduction in street parking is particularly interesting, as the freed-up space could be easily converted to pedestrian or bicycle support infrastructure. The potential reduction in inner city parking lot needs is a similar situation — by doing away with or greatly reducing the extent of such parking lots, urban density could be improved, potentially reducing the need for long travel distances, and thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The incredible amount of space that’s taken up by parking lots and on-street parking is something that’s not often consciously considered, but much of the usable space in urban regions is actually taken up by roads, on-street parking, and parking lots, rather than by businesses and residences.

The potential is also there to shorten supply and consumption chains for some commonly used goods and services as a result, and thus greenhouse gas emissions, through the relocalization of some services and production. Until relatively recently, most urban regions around the world featured a setup similar to the one I’m mentioning — one where “every other corner” in a city often had its own baker, fishmonger, doctor, tailor, produce seller, etc. Some parts of the world haven’t changed too much in this regard in recent times, but in the US, it’s become the case that one needs to travel by car, bus, train, etc., to do practically anything that one needs to. This, predictably, leads to higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions than needs to be the case.

However, none of this urban/pedestrian revival is likely without a guiding hand — without government support, that is (whether at the city, town, regional, or national level) — but the possibility is there, provided personal vehicle ownership is reduced greatly. With widespread use of autonomous on-demand taxi services, as noted above, there is a good chance personal vehicle ownership will be reduced greatly.

Such a goal would be helped along by the imposition of zero-emissions zones in cities (which many around the world are now working towards), zones which would also make walking and cycling (and just spending time outdoors in general) much more enjoyable. Not having to constantly breathe in toxic, bad-tasting air (or bring your kids along to do so as well) is the main goal of such policies, but there could be other positive side-effects.

As an endnote to this piece, I’ll provide a quick summary: the convergence of a city-level move towards zero-emissions zones, the wide-scale rollout of self-driving vehicle technologies, increasingly compelling electric vehicle offerings, and growing use of on-demand taxi services, stands to greatly change many large urban centers over the coming decades. These changes could, if managed well, greatly reduce vehicle ownership and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as improve the livability of cities.

Images via Blitzzcar & Donald Shoup & Zachary Shahan

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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