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Dr. Kara Kockelman: The future of motorized travel

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SciLine Interviewed: Dr. Kara Kockelman, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. She discussed the readiness of the electric grid for more electric vehicles; potential impacts of self-driving vehicles on cities and states; and the re-emergence of ride-sharing and public transportation systems as the pandemic recedes, and how these modes of transit might change.

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Interview with SciLine

From the viewpoint of environmental sustainability, do you see any promising trends – and/or concerning ones – when it comes to motorized travel?


KARA KOCKELMAN: There are definitely promising trends and concerning ones. You know, battery electric vehicles – so all electric vehicles – are a wonderful innovation and plus, really helps, I think, incentivize other manufacturers to try and deliver competitive vehicles. And around the globe, we’re seeing a lot of investment there. It’s the single best way that we have to decarbonize quickly. But vehicles do last a long time. And there is a lot of reluctance on the part of many Americans still to buy a battery electric vehicle. There’s also a lot of apps using our cellphones, our smartphones for forming ride pools or carpools. And so these can be casual through, like, the Waze carpool app, or they could be more formal through Lyft and Uber. And so those allow for ride hailing as you don’t have to own a vehicle, hopefully a better vehicle and a more efficient vehicle than you would have purchased on your own, and ride sharing during the course of your travel to save you some money, but also to save the roads some congestion. And we expect to see that translate into shared autonomous electric vehicles with dynamic ride sharing.

So when you share a vehicle, it doesn’t mean you have to be in the vehicle together. It means that you don’t own the vehicle. You borrow it or rent it, and then you hand it off to someone else. And the ride sharing is when you’re riding together and sharing together in that trip. So that’s extremely important to fill all these empty seats that we’ve had for way too long on our roadways. Another trend we’d like to see, you know, with Manhattan I’m talking seriously about a cordon toll is something called credit-based congestion pricing. And so I think there’ll become more and more demand for that as we see automation take over, making driving easier, making congestion actually worse on our roadways because these smart cars can save us a lot of time and travel burden by taking away the driving task. But they also make us less reluctant to go long distances. One of the concerning trends that we have noticed as, you know, Americans continue to have this love affair with very large overpowered vehicles and they are not pushing for plug-ins and all-electric vehicles in the showroom or online for the most part, so that’s really unfortunate because that is so critical right now.

Is the electric grid ready to support more widespread use of electric vehicles?


KARA KOCKELMAN: Our local grids, our statewide and national grids can absolutely handle more and more battery electric vehicles because we’ve become more efficient in all our other demands. And so they’ve actually been losing demand in many cases. The battery electric vehicles will help fill that. And, of course, most of us charge in the middle of the night with our battery vehicles, when other demands are traditionally quite low. And we rarely fast charge. You know, that might be something for long-distance shipments of freight vehicles. That might be a big demand. And, of course, they will be banking that demand in a battery on site for that kind of a direct charge and that very fast current movement.

But all our vehicles can be set to charge at whatever time of night we want. And we can have a smart communication with the grid on a second by second or sub-second level to sense when renewables are high. There can be communications to help those battery vehicles not just charge in the middle of the night but when the wind is blowing or when the sun is shining. And these – this is just standard level two charging, which is what our refrigerators and our washing machines for clothes are used. So it’s simply like adding air conditioning to your home more or less. And as these other appliances become more efficient around your home, this is going to simply fill that that demand.

How might advances in self-driving vehicle technology affect the ways that people get around?


KARA KOCKELMAN: So advances in self-driving vehicle technology really should make our roadways safer and pedestrians and our bicyclists and our motorcyclists safer because of the many cameras and other devices that allow that vehicle to see in all directions and pay attention during the entire trip. It also means that fleets of shared self-driving vehicles may become available in your town soon. We do see them in places like San Francisco, in Pittsburgh and, of course, the suburbs of Phoenix, where Waymo has long had a fleet of self-driving vehicles. And now they are without any safety drivers at the helm. And people are getting to their destinations without having to grab a steering wheel or wonder where the pedals are. So fantastic technology for fleets of shared vehicles and hopefully people sharing rides in those vehicles at the same time while staying safe, and if they’re electric, you know, causing fewer emissions for our planet.

Ride-sharing and public transportation systems lost ridership during the pandemic. As the pandemic recedes, how might these modes of travel change, compared to before COVID-19?


KARA KOCKELMAN: So the modes themselves probably won’t be any scarier than they were before COVID. But one qualm is that our habits have changed, and more vehicles have actually been acquired during this period. Even though we were very worried about the economy, you know, a lot of people who were not driving did start driving, maybe not to work, but for other destinations. And I think we may have had more people licensed as well, although it was more difficult to get a license because the Departments of Motor Vehicles were not seeing people in person for a while there. Congestion has fallen. That has also taken riders away from public transportation because that stop-and-go traffic isn’t there. So that’s inspired more willingness to drive by some people in the peak times of day. So as long as those habits endure, that will be a problem for regaining that ridership.

What emerging technologies or policies hold promise for making motorized vehicles more environmentally sustainable?


KARA KOCKELMAN: So we are running out of time as a species in decarbonizing our nation and the planet to kind of moderate the big climate changes that are coming. And battery electric vehicles are the best technology we have right now alongside renewables, of course, in the power generation sphere. And that also means some nuclear and natural gas alongside because the cost of building the batteries to store that renewable power is very high. But the co-benefits of this kind of switch are tremendous. So we’re talking a lot less particulate matter, and that means many fewer early deaths that we’ve seen from years of harming our lungs in this polluted environment. It also means safer and smarter vehicles and runways and less noise pollution, lower energy costs, more innovative U.S. companies able to compete globally in the energy and transportation sectors.

And for the future, I really think shared autonomous electric vehicles with dynamic ride sharing between people who don’t know one another, sort of like a minibus, are key services that we need to harness and make use of, alongside a policy of credit-based congestion pricing. Because self-driving makes vehicles much easier to use, and we’ve long wanted to manage traffic, much like we manage demand for anything else, whether it’s airline seats or hotel rooms. And these smart vehicles hold that technology already on board. It’s also not that difficult to retrofit our existing vehicles to help reflect the real cost of congestion that we’re delaying others when we get out there on a congested segment of roadway. But at the same time, we don’t want to send all that money to some Department of Transportation. We’d really like to have a credit for that travel because congestion’s not a cost that the agencies pay. The travelers behind us are paying and we’re paying because we’re following some other travelers on that roadway. So that will be a really nice way to monetize some of those travel benefits and allow us to really improve traveler welfare across the board, across a region, any congested region. There’s a lot of benefits to be gained there if we play it right.

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