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Transportation Energy and Impacts on Our World

An exotic car represents the mechanical race-horse image that drives automobile sales in affluent regions.

Robert Q. Riley
Author of: Alternative Cars in the 21st Century

    At the beginning of the 20th century many of the world's densely populated cities were facing near runaway environmental problems.  But in those days it was called "sanitation" and the effects were mostly localized. In New York City, for example, horses were polluting the streets with 2-1/2 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine each day.  In the modern metropolis of 1900, the veneer of culture had been all but shatter by nearly unmanageable sanitation problems.  But new technology in the form of the self-propelled carriage gave cities an environmentally friendly alternative. City streets could be cleaned up and paved over and the resources that went to the board and care of transportation animals could be redirected to more productive activities.

     Today, just over 100 years after the automobile rescued cities from their transportation animals we are again on the verge of being overwhelmed by our need to move freely about.  The self-propelled carriage has been transformed into a mechanical version of a thoroughbred race horse - a new object of pride and pleasure, and a new symbol of achievement and success.  This very transformation is the source of one of the biggest problems in a nearly ideal system of on-demand personal mobility.  The private automobile is perhaps the best mode of transportation ever devised.  But the demand for a continuous supply of costly motor fuel - to the degree that was never envisioned at the outset - has presented developed societies with vast environmental, military, political, economic, and social impacts of a magnitude unmatched in human history.  And this transformation into an object of prideful ownership has made it difficult to solve its energy appetite, and its large energy appetite is the primary attribute responsible for the associated problems.

An Overview of the Impacts

     The automobile's impacts are too enormous to properly cover in a document like this.  One of the goals here is to provide a sense of the issues and avoid overburdening readers with a barrage of facts and figures. Issues range from the environmental and health impacts of extracting, refining, and burning petroleum motor fuels, to the economic impacts of the transfer of wealth to regions having the largest reserves, to the need to insure a continuous supply in order to avoid bringing developed economies to a standstill (which includes military and political involvements and obligations that must be met, and sometimes warfare itself), and to environmental damage that is simply allowed to build up and thereby handed down to future generations.  At least for the foreseeable future, it is difficult to envision a world in which petroleum becomes irrelevant, even if it is no longer refined into motor fuel.  In fact, just the opposite is true.  Petroleum is too valuable a commodity to simply be burned - consumed - irretrievably destroyed for something like motor fuel.  Motor fuel must be a sustainable and replenishable resource.  And ideally, the more worthless it is the better. 

Earth's Total Endowment of Oil

      It is difficult to accurately define, but it is generally estimated that the earth's total original endowment of conventional crude oil (liquid petroleum) was probably around 2.1 to 2.8 trillion barells.  That includes both discovered and undiscovered deposits.  In reality, it is not possible to actually know what has not been discovered.  In fact, the idea that reserves are finite is also open to discussion.  Some theorize that the production of oil is an ongoing process.  Perhaps oil is not derived from "dinosaurs" at all, but instead it is a microbial process.  Others have postulated that shale oil may be an early-stage incubator of tomorrow's crude, and that by fracking we're removing the fetus before the baby has developed.  But for planning purposes, the near-term prospects rather than millions of years hence, is the most relevant factor.  It's generally assumed that deposits of conventional crude oil are finite, and probably about according to the figures given above. 

      Fracking appears to have opened up a new source that had been cost-prohibitive before, and it's still open to debate as to how it will ultimately play out.  Shale oil from which liquid petroleum is extracted (via fracking - or "hydro fracturing") has the potential to significantly change the amount of petroleum available to humans and their mechanized race horses.  But fracking is not a sure bet at this point, and it appears to be more effective at extracting natural gas than petroleum.  And there is some indication that fracking, while turning in early successes at producing petroleum, may result in a more rapid falloff in production than is typical of conventional wells.  In other words, the amount of oil that appears to be locked away in shale may not be as easily or as completely extracted as the early successes have indicated. 

      Any discussion of total oil supplies is mostly a discussion of how long it is possible to continue to use petroleum motor fuels before the ability to move freely about becomes impaired and begins impacting economies.  "Peak Oil" is a real phenomenon, but earlier projections have been pushed out to around 2025 to 2040.  The planet will not run out of oil, however.  Oil will simply become too costly and supplies will become too limited to serve as a motor fuel.  This section has to do with the real value of petroleum and whether it's a good idea to keep burning it for motor fuel.  It is truly a finite resource and it's important to be responsible with how it is used.  The ideal motor fuel will be the most worthless and dispensable commodity available.  As it stands, the entire transportation sector, which is indispensable to entire economies, is built around a finite resource that has built in limitations.  More information on proven reserves is available on the OPEC Website.   Additional figures on petroleum use and dependency are available from the US Energy Information Administration. 

        Today, transportation uses 71 percent of the petroleum in the US and produces 33 percent of the CO2 emissions.  The transportation sector is about 95 percent dependent on petroleum motor fuels.   

Hidden Costs of Petroleum Motor Fuel  

     The cost of using petroleum motor fuel is significantly greater than the price that shows up at the pump.  The costs include damage to the environment, increased health care expenses, and the military cost of protecting Middle East oil supplies.  Although many nations get petroleum from the Middle East, the US pays nearly all the related military expenses.  And none of these external costs are factored into the price of motor fuel.  They are paid through higher taxes and/or increased debt. 

       Military expenses of protecting Middle East oil supplies are paid almost entirely by the US, and there are many justifications for it.  But primarily the US has unique military capability, and any shortfall of energy supplies to any of the US allies would end up impacting the US too.  And a shortfall probably would not be selective.  If shipping lanes were closed, for example, the US would not receive energy as well.  So in the process of protecting their own flow of energy, they end up protecting everyone's energy supplies, even energy bound for China.   

        A number of studies have been done in an attempt to quantify the military cost of protecting Middle East energy supplies.  At best these studies are educated guesses and the results vary widely.  They range from zero to $1.00 per gallon of motor fuel. In another presentation I put the figure at $9.00 per barrel of oil.  About half of a barrel of oil ends up as motor fuel.  So $9.00 per barrel would equate to $0.33/gallon. 

       Other costs are even more difficult to define.  The presentation linked above lists the expense of environmental damage, agricultural losses, health care expenses due to air pollution, and increased insurance premiums at $45/barrel.  That figure calculates to $1.67/gallon, which is probably low. I have seen it range from about $4.00/gallon ($110/brl) to about $15.00/gallon ($412/brl), which is probably too high.   Ten different papers on the subject will arrive at 10 different results.  Authors/researchers are sometimes unduly exclusive, or overly inclusive, attributing almost everything to the sins of petroleum or almost nothing.  And in some cases, this may be due to the agenda of the sponsor of the study which may have asked for a particular focus.  But regardless of how it's analyzed, petroleum motor fuel is far more costly than the price that shows up at the pump. 

Global Warming and Climatic Change

        Enough has been written about global warming to fill the library at Alexandria.  CO2 emissions are the main culprit coming from motor fuel.  Carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas, but there are others.  Methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas.  But emissions of methane are insignificant by comparison.   Water vapor is another one, and as the planet warms up, the oceans evaporate faster, putting more water vapor into the atmosphere, which then increases the global warming effect.  But CO2 is the main problem coming from energy production and transportation.  For years, scientists had been perplexed about why the level of CO2 in the atmosphere fell short of the actual emissions.  What was happening to the missing CO2.  But it now appears that the oceans act as a natural sink and sequester much of the atmospheric CO2.  

       Burning petroleum motor fuel puts a huge amount of CO2 into the atmosphere; by weight, nearly three times more than the fuel itself weighs.  It doesn't make sense that a gallon of gasoline weighing only 6.8 pounds can produce 19 pounds of CO2 when burned, but that's what happpens.  That's because not all the CO2 comes from the gasoline.  Much of it comes from the air during combustion.  So a car driven 3,000 miles across the US at 20 mpg fuel economy, ends up putting 2,850 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.  There are 240 million cars in the US (2013), and each car is driven, on average, about 15,000 miles per year.  If it's calculated at the same 20 mpg, the result is 180 billion pounds of CO2 from US drivers alone.  But there are just over one billion cars in the world (2014).  Without researching the driving habits of non-US drivers, it's not possible to do the math for the entire world (figures are undoubtedly published), but that's a lot of CO2 and a lot of thirsty fuel tanks. 

      Global warming results in climatic changes.  Computer models predict that rainfall patterns will migrate toward the poles leaving the planet's richest farmlands with inadequate rainfall.  Weather will become more severe and unpredictable and hurricanes and tornados will increase, both in frequency and severity.  Ultimately the ocean currents that drive the world's weather patterns will shift and weather will become markedly different, and with little hope of reversing the effects. 

      Much remains unknown.  Scientists do not fully understand the planet's natural stabilizing effect.  The sequestering of CO2 by the oceans is one example.  The planet's natural variability in weather patterns is known from historical data, but the dynamics behind it are not fully understood.  Speculation exists, for example, about volcanism and it's effect on global average temperature.  Several times in history, volcanic activitity has touched off a significant drop in global temperatures, and even started a mini ice age.  And then the planet righted itself and freezing temperatures declined and no major ice age developed. 

Humans as Integral to the Planetary System

      Humans are indeed an integral and dynamic part of the larger planetary system.  We like to think of ourselves as free and independent, but we are likely just another part of the overall system with behaviors that may be largely tied into the system and significantly influenced by it. 

      Herd psychology, as it applies to overpopulation for example, has been extensively researched.  It has been observed, for example, that an overpopulated species can developed self-destructive behaviors and thereby cooperate in limiting their destructive effects on the overall system.  This writer suspects that the planet can remain healthy with a population of two billion or so humans, even living with their polluting mechanical race horses and plastic bags.  This giant garbage disposal, this self-stabilizing ecosystem called Earth, will likely take care of destructive forces that do not exceed certain boundaries.  When one sees the unrest and destruction in today's world of 7 billion inhabitants, and headed for 9 or 10 billion, one is reminded of the behavior of an overcrowded population of rats.  Some rats become depressed, and others become overly aggressive.  Some become unpredictable with docile behavior one moment and aggressive behavior the next, and for no apparent reason.  A community that was peaceful becomes destructive even within itself.  Some lose interest in sex and stop breeding more rats.  Some stop eating and others eat too much or the wrong things.  If alcohol is added to drinking water, overcrowded rats quickly begin to prefer the alcohol-laced water - essentially becoming alcoholics.  But in general, the rat population becomes self-destructive and cooperates with nature in returning its population to a level that results in overall health.  This might be going on with humans.  This document is about cars and energy, but we are really discussing a many-faceted challenge.

Alternative Technologies

      Much has been written about alternative power systems and alternative fuels  Readers may be surprised to learn that both are already in use and making good penetration into the marketplace and onto the highways.  The greatest penetration has been by ethanol motor fuel blends, natural gas vehicles, battery electric vehicles, hybrids, and with some limited success with hydrogen.  As I pointed out in Alternative Cars in the 21st Century, better technology is part of the answer.  But it is only part of the answer.  The next step, following this section, has to do with other part - ideas that are just now being considered by the large OEMs and could have a huge impact on the fundamental issue of high energy demand of today's mechanized race horses . 

      Ethanol:  Currently gasoline sold in the US contains about 10 percent ethanol, an alcohol fuel.  Engines can run on pure ethanol (E100) but fuel systems are not designed for it.  Currently E10 (10 percent ethanol) is the maximum amount of ethanol allowed in gasoline motor fuel.   The effect is that it reduces gasoline consumption by about 10 percent.  

      Natural Gas (Methane):  There are 142,000 natural gas vehicles on US roads today. As natural gas reserves have dramatically increased, a push is on for much greater application of this environmentally friendly fuel.    T-Boone Pickens has been one of the greatest proponents of NGV.

      Hydrogen:  Hydrogen is perhaps the best and most environmentally benign fuel around.  Fuel cells must run on hydrogen in order to experience their greatest efficiency.  But conventional reciprocating engines also run well on pure hydrogen with just minor engine modifications.  It can be economically produced, but it is difficult to store on board a vehicle due to its low boiling point.  For the near term, compressed hydrogen is the only practical way to carry it on board a vehicle.  The American Hydrogen Association is undoubtedly the place to visit for information about hydrogen and converting your vehcle to run on it.  Here's a link to a PDF document on hydrogen developed for the US Department of Energy.

    Hybrid Vehicles:  Hybrid vehicles cover a broad range of alternative power systems that operate using a conventional combustion engine and an electric assist or a full electric power system.  Many operating strategies have been developed in an attempt to arrive at the most efficient way to combine these two power systems.   One system was developed at Robert Q. Riley Enterprises, and prototyped in a specially designed three-wheel vehicle, the XR3 Hybrid.   Most OEMs now have a hybrid in their line of vehicles. 

     Battery-Electric Vehicles: Battery electric vehicles, vehicles that operate on pure battery power, have had a rough start and are now beginning to attract a large number of consumers. A recent report showed that BEV purchasers turned in the highest level of customer satisfaction of any vehicle, regardless of the power train. Consumers love their electric cars.  Perhaps the two most popular are the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla.   

Where Does the Energy Go     

       The foregoing is almost exclusively focused on the technology and energy sources of automobiles.  But an important consideration is not even mentioned.  Why does it take so much energy to move a vehicle around town, and is there a way to slash vehicle energy appetites?  Vehicle mass and size are the two most fundamental attributes that influence energy demand.  Most of an automobile's energy goes to getting itself to the destination, and the occupant, usually one or two, comes along for the ride.  But without occupants, it would still consume about the same amount of energy to get itself around town. 

        Going to the extreme to make a point, if a vehicle were the size and weight of a can of Pepsi, it would take almost no energy to move it across town.  If I were to carry the can of Pepsi across town, then most of the energy would go to getting me across town, and the Pepsi would come along for the ride. Without the can of Pepsi, I would still use about the same amount of energy going across town.  Of course these are ludicrous ideas, but they illustrate a point.  At the other extreme, the conventional automobile extreme, it is also unreasonable to assume that a vehicle must weight 1-1/2 tons and have seating for four, when most trips are made with two or fewer occupants aboard and significantly smaller and lighter vehicles would significantly lower fuel consumption.   Seating for two provides enough seating capacity for 87.2 percent of all trips, and space for three accommodates only 7.4 percent more trips for a total of 94.6 percent of all trips.  Overweight oversize cars that have far more capability than is necessary is where the energy goes.  It goes to the vehicle itself, and mostly to the unused and unnecessary parts of the vehicle. .

      What this points to is an around town vehicle for those repetitive trips, like going to work, where high occupancy may not be especially important.  Most multi-passenger vehicles, however, are purchased for the exceptions - times when greater capacity is needed and for trips between cities.  Having owned several two-passenger cars, I can attest to the fact that low occupancy capability was rarely an inconvenience.  And it was a pleasure to drive a nimble vehicle instead of a large clumsy one.  And for long-distance trips, it was fun to rent a car and avoid wear and tear on my own car, or drive our other car which was a full-size family sedan.  But the idea that one must have two or more 3,000 pound multi-passenger vehicles is a costly illusion - and a habit. 

 Safety Issues

      Smaller, lighter vehicles raise important safety considerations.  It's possible to design small, lightweight vehicles that have good crash survival provisions.  Vehicle size and weight should not be envisioned as safety features.  Otherwise, the natural inclination would be to design larger and heavier cars, and therefore more fuel-thristy cars.  According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) 24,270 people died in vehicle crashes in 2013.  And this happened at a time when the techology exists for avoiding vehicle crashes altogether - if not all of them, at least the greatest percentage of them.  A better approach to safety would be to think in terms of crash avoidance rather than crash survival.  If crash avoidance technologies had been implemented, it's likely that many of those lives would have been saved.  If it's legitimate to think in terms of high-tech power trains in order to save fuel, it is just as legitimate to think in terms of high-tech crash avoidance technologies in order to save lives - big cars/little cars, it makes no difference.

The Automobile as an Object of Pride and Prestige

      The idea of smaller, energy-efficient vehicles for personal mobility seems to naturally introduce questions about styling, desirability, and luxurious appointments.  Consumers of high-end cars have become accustomed to the idea that big is beautiful.  Big can be beautiful, but it's not inherently beautiful.  Good automobile design is challenging.  Make an ugly toaster and nobody will notice it because it's small.  But a car is a big, overbearing device, so it had better be beautiful or your potential customers will not be able to run fast enough to get away from it.  And even small cars are big devices - much bigger than a toaster.   So the same effort that goes into the design of a large vehicle must also go into a small vehicle.   An exotic sports car is a good example.  In this case, small is beautiful.  Size and beauty are unrelated. 

       Vehicle layout and styling - vehicle theme and personality - would normally not be considered a fuel saving attribute.  But if fuel economy were three times greater (a reasonable goal), fuel consumption would be cut by two-thirds for those vehicle-miles-traveled using this hypothetical alternative car.  It is important to create design cues that we tend to associate with style and value.  Speak to the cunsumer in the language of design in a way that creates a new object of pride and prestige, and new joy of ownership.  For a more in-depth discussion on this aspect, please see the document on this site entitled "The Power of Design.".  

        NOTE:  The introductory paragraphs of this document were condensed by the author from his book, Alternative Cars in the 21 Century. 


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