Thursday, September 30, 2021

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

The October 2021 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC features a pair of lead articles about "green" power for aircraft and cars, mainly electric. The cover optimistically proclaims, "The Revolution Is Here." The issue abounds with information about the past as well as the future of electric-powered transportation. I was surprised to learn that in 1900 electric cars held over one-third of the market. Gasoline-powered internal combustion automobiles came in third, after steam (!) and electric. Then as now, the main obstacles to widespread acceptance of electric cars were battery weight and range. On the other hand, electric vehicles are quiet and emissions-free, and they have fewer moving parts to maintain. In the early twentieth century, "cheap oil and paved roads" enabled the internal combustion engine to dominate the market by the 1930s. Now auto manufacturers are embracing EVs with fresh enthusiasm, not only the big names such as Tesla, but even Volkswagen. Driving range and charging times are improving as prices decrease to become comparable to the cost of gasoline-fueled cars. Driverless, electric-powered delivery vehicles may eventually become commonplace. Meanwhile, Amazon and FedEx are switching their fleets to EVs.

This NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC's second article on the energy revolution deals with flight. Commercial airliners produce vast quantities of fossil-fuel pollution. France is considering a ban on all domestic flights to destinations that can be reached by train in less than two and a half hours. Implementing that policy, of course, would imply a passenger rail system adequate to efficiently serve the needs of the traveling public. In most of the U.S., a situation like that is an incredible fantasy. Peter Kalmus, a NASA climate scientist, insists on "the hard fact" that "we don't need to fly." What world does he live in? Most vacation travelers crossing the Atlantic or Pacific can't afford the cost of a cruise ship or the extra time off work for the round trip by sea. If you have to get to the opposite coast of the U.S. for an emergency such as a family funeral, you certainly do need to fly; you can't drive that distance in a day or two.

For large aircraft, electric power runs into the problem that a battery of adequate size would weigh as much as the plane itself. One type of clean airplane fuel being contemplated is liquid hydrogen. For small aircraft, however, electric engines can succeed. A California company named Wisk is one of several working on designs for "air taxis," self-flying, vertical-takeoff-and-landing small electric aircraft. In fact, our long-awaited flying car may soon become a reality, although not owned and operated by individual consumers (thank goodness, considering the typical level of driving skill on the roads).

Each proposed solution, naturally, carries problems of its own. But, as Isaac Asimov maintained, the solution to such difficulties isn't to give up on technology but to develop better technology. If you don't subscribe to NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, do try to pick up a copy of the October issue at the library or newsstand, especially if you're a fan and/or writer of near-future SF.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. Intriguing. We recently got a brand new "smart" car. No key, internet, the service that's there for you 24-7, and they monitor the health of the car. Yesterday we were told by email that our tires were low (my husband said they weren't). I have to admit, I'm not a fan of all these things. I feel like someone is spying on me. I'm not ready for the future. I love my old car and hope it never dies, lol.