On a Sunday afternoon in November 2020, American modern transport company Virgin Hyperloop successfully conducted the first human test of its mobility prototype in Nevada.
Chief technology officer and co-founder Josh Giegel and head of passenger experience, Sara Luchian strapped into their seats inside a pod before it accelerated at an astonishing speed of 160 kilometres per hour down the length of the track.
This had been the dream of the world’s richest man Elon Musk since 2014, which has now come to dictate potential ways to create the future of human and cargo transport.
His vision of a futuristic transportation system of magnetically levitating pods traveling through nearly airless tubes at speeds of up to 1,223 km/h is now moving to reality, with the technology being tested in Europe, Japan, South Korea and India.
In his 2013 Hyperloop Alpha paper, Musk argues that his innovation could be safer, faster, more affordable, weather-proof, self-powering and less disruptive to people living along the route.
But what holds more promise is the technology’s ability to help cities across the world cut on carbon emissions from transport systems that still rely on fossil fuels.
For travellers and shipping companies, initial estimates show that hyperloop travel could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90-95 per cent per traveller.
Virgin Hyperloop estimates it would be possible to reduce fossil fuel emissions from flying by 58 per cent if every passenger flight between about 498 and 1,496 kilometres worldwide were replaced with hyperloop runoff renewable electricity.
“There’s no world in where we have to cause pollution. It can be run off of all sorts of sustainable energy,” says Kristen Hammer, the company’s materials engineering manager.
Currently, carbon dioxide emissions in the transport sector are about 30 per cent in the case of developed countries and about 23 per cent in the case of the total man-made carbon emissions worldwide, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.
To reduce such high emissions from the atmosphere, ideas of innovative vehicle technologies have been floated around the world, including the very imaginative thought of commuting using electric flying cars.
Will public transportation take to the skies? This could soon be a reality. Successful demonstration flights of autonomous aerial vehicles (AAVs) have been carried out already.
Although similar to drones, which are generally unmanned, AAVs are different as they are essentially autonomous human-carrying drones, designed for ferrying passengers.
Last Sunday, Chinese electric-vehicle start-up HT Aero introduced a flying car which it plans to mass produce by 2024.
The vehicle will have a lightweight design and a rotor that folds away, the company said, and that will allow the car to drive on roads and then fly once the rotors are expanded.
Air, an Israeli start-up has also unveiled the design of its all-electric two-seater eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) vehicle, which will allow people to fly ‘on their own terms’.
You may not have heard about it, but the Ehang 184 is a concept for 5G-connected urban air mobility, controlled through a smart city command centre, and is set to be the world’s first air taxi to debut in Qatar for the FIFA World Cup in 2022.
Autonomous cars are also on the cusp of widespread deployment. Although largely still constrained to testing environments and pilot projects, they are on roads today and are active in cities like Las Vegas, where Lyft offers autonomous rides for a fee.
And as many vehicle manufactures acknowledge battery recharging and range issues will keep hampering efforts towards achieving the Paris Agreement, automotive engineers are gradually moving to solar power.
Unlike traditional electric vehicles that must periodically pull over to recharge batteries during a long road trip, solar cars can keep on going, with startups now embedding cars and trucks with photovoltaic cells that can convert energy from sunlight into electricity.
Several start-ups, such as Aptera Motors, Atlis Motor Vehicles, Fisker Inc., Lightyear One and Sono Motors, as well as established manufacturers like Hyundai, Tesla and Toyota, are developing solar cars or hybrid versions of them.
They are integrating solar cells into roofs, with other vehicle body parts, such as doors, hoods, tailgates and trunks also helping tap solar power into batteries.
For water transport, electric ships are being powered by the biggest lithium-ion batteries, aiming to cut carbon emissions.
There are about 50,000 cargo ships operating around the world, and each year their engines spew about 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide according to the International Maritime Organisation.
Indeed, the 15 largest container ships alone emit more nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide pollutants than all the world’s cars combined.
That means electrifying cars and other modes of transport is not enough to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that has spurred innovations in the shipping sector.
Ships, besides releasing almost three per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide, are a main source of nitrous oxide and black carbon (soot).
While international trade is expected to increase in the coming years, emissions from ships and boats may increase by as much as 250 per cent by 2050, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
To control this, Norway has commissioned one of the world’s largest all-electric container ships to move products along the Scandinavian coast expecting to reduce carbon emissions by eliminating about 40,000 trips each year that would otherwise be made by diesel-powered trucks.
Energy storage solutions provider Corvus Energy has supplied German cruise line AIDA Cruises with a 10,000kWh lithium-ion battery system, the largest pack to ever be delivered to a ship.
The battery was installed last year on the company’s AIDAperla cruise ship, which can carry more than 4,000 passengers and cruise members.
“The cruise industry is seeing the potential in energy storage as the benefits are numerous—not only for emission reductions but also for comfort and safety reasons,” said Corvus Energy CEO Geir Bjørkeli.
On rail transport, electric trains (ET) and hydrogen trains (HT) are considered zero emission at the point of use.
Battery and hydrogen fuel cell-powered trains are among the rail industry’s only viable options for reducing greenhouse gases. An estimate by Wabtec shows that an electric battery that replaces diesel will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 3,000 tonness per year.
With airline flights globally expected to double in the next 20 years, the possibility of reducing carbon footprints is always on the horizon, by going electric.
Swiss company Solar Impulse, successfully built an electric plane that could run on solar power and demonstrated its prowess with a 26-hour flight, but more improvements have been launched.
Advancements keep continuing, as a wide range of companies have shown interest in electric planes, in efforts to reduce emissions that averaged 915 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019 according to the Air Transport Action Group.
In 2017, Slovenian aircraft manufacturer Pipistrel introduced one of the first all-electric airplanes – including an electric propulsion system – that has been certified for use in flying schools.
Companies are also researching ways to introduce more electricity into the engine itself, replacing the gear box that drives the hydraulic pump, fuel pump and oil pump with electrical systems.
Jet planes could eventually evolve into hybrid vehicles, much like cars – with both a jet engine and an electric motor. Both would provide propulsion for the aircraft.
For developing economies, more investments in Non-Motorised Transport (NMT) networks and strategically located traffic calming facilities such as speed bumps and zebra crossings as part of standard road infrastructure provisions could help cut carbon emissions.
“This has a potential of influencing model choice for short distance travellers due to enhanced safety mobility for pedestrians and cyclists,” says Romanus Opiyo, the programme leader for sustainable urbanisation at SEI Africa.
He adds that developing countries should embrace e-mobility that targets converting fuel-powered two and three-wheeler public transport commonly known as boda bodas and tuktuks into battery powered vehicles.
“As people consider purchasing new e-bodas and e-tuktuks, governments can encourage uptake of green energy by lowering the tax for those embracing such technologies and operating charging stations,” he told Climate Action.
But to achieve this, developing economies will have to invest more in charging infrastructure and power storage facilities, according to Amos Wemanya, Power Shift Africa’s senior energy advisor.
“Electrifying the transport sector, based on renewable energy sources will reduce emissions, but we will also need favourable fiscal policies, financial support and technology sharing between developed and developing countries.”
But autonomous vehicles and planes, combined with Artificial Intelligence (AI) still hold the biggest potential of a convenient transport system in the near future.
Self-driving public vehicles running on advanced algorithms will be picking up people who are going in the same direction, even in cities in developing nations.
Envision a transport capsule that blurs the boundaries between home, car, entertainment centre, workplace and well-being hub – and a whole new in-car services industry.
Central AI software may control urban traffic systems, directing traffic flow so congestion and road accidents are both consigned to history.
Autonomous ships are expected to be crossing seas in the near future. Advanced AI can calculate optimised routes and maximise speeds by using weather and sea currents data.
Using maritime data already produced through ships’ smart systems could be the biggest wave forward in commercial shipping since the introduction of containers.