A walk to the future

The future of transportation is our technology theme of the year 2022.

In 2019 we chose edge computing as the technology of the year and in 2020 we chose the fifth generation of wireless communication technology (5G). An annual feature from the January issue, and reflecting the thoughts of the editorial team, our Technology of the Year aims to highlight an area that has achieved a key breakthrough or reached a milestone in development. In 2021, when the world was in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, we took a different approach and highlighted the impact of the pandemic on digital technology.

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This year, with the world still in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, circumstances once again dictated our thinking. The pandemic has, for many of us, created an opportunity to rethink travel and transportation; consider the need for any travel and air travel it may entail; and consider our carbon footprints and how they can – or should – be reduced. In recent months, the urgency of such actions has been further highlighted by the 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP26), held in Glasgow in November 2021. For our technology the n the year 2022, we are therefore exploring the future of transport.

Road transport is the main source of carbon dioxide emissions from transport and accounts for around 15% of all carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. The transition to a more sustainable road transport system is imperative. Behavioral changes – from traveling less to moving to more sustainable modes of transport such as bicycles or trains – will be important in achieving this. But technology has a central role to play and that’s where we’re focusing our attention, with a series of How To articles exploring the key challenges for the future of road transport.

Various low-carbon technologies for road transport are already available on the market, including battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles (which combine a battery and an electric motor with a fuel tank and a combustion engine), as well as fuel cell electric vehicles that are powered by hydrogen. But as Patrick Plötz of the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems Research and Innovation in Germany argues in the first of our commentary articles, technical and economic developments in battery technology mean that it is unlikely that hydrogen technology plays a major role in the future of road transport. According to him, hydrogen will play a role in applications such as aviation and navigation. However, with road transport, the focus should now be on battery electric vehicles in passenger and freight transport.

Building electric vehicles requires a lot of resources – and many vehicles will be needed. Currently, there are around 10 million electric cars on the road. According to the International Energy Agency, the global fleet of electric vehicles must grow to 145 million by 2030 in order to meet existing government policies. And to meet the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, 230 million vehicles will be needed by 2030. It is unclear whether the necessary resources will be available to meet these numbers. As Lund University’s Jessika Richter explains in another How To article, in order to avoid creating resource problems while trying to meet the necessary climate goals, a circular economy approach to electric vehicles is essential.

Fostering wider adoption of electric vehicles will also be key, and cities will be at the heart of this process, a point highlighted by the Commentary article by Oliver Heidrich and his colleagues at Newcastle University, Faraday Institution , the International Energy Agency in Paris and Urban Foresight Ltd. A range of situational and contextual factors influence the adoption of electric vehicles in cities, and a variety of mechanisms, including policies and incentives, will be needed to bring about the necessary change.

The successful development of electric vehicles – and electric mobility more broadly – ​​depends on power electronics. As Ontario Tech University’s Sheldon Williamson explores in another HowTo article, the field will face a number of challenges in the coming years, particularly in the control of electrical energy storage systems. and improving charging infrastructure. This infrastructure includes the development of wireless charging, a technology that could have implications for the (lower) costs and (higher) adoption of electric vehicles, as well as the creation of autonomous electric vehicles.

When it comes to self-driving vehicles, predictions about the technology’s potential benefits abound – from safer roads to lower emissions. But as Matthew Dean and Kara Kockelman of the University of Texas at Austin argue in their How article, fundamental policy changes are needed to help cities and states realize the benefits of these vehicles. Left alone, we are likely to see only a repeat of the problems plaguing transportation systems today. Like many of the challenges surrounding the transition to more sustainable transportation, action is needed now.

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A walk to the future.
Nat electron 5, 1 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41928-022-00720-2

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