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The will to sustain

NAE meeting at MIT charts the future of transportation

Predicting global transportation needs and its potential effect on the environment is a tricky business, but making predictions people want to work toward is even more complicated. "As we think about the future," Dan Sperling told a regional meeting of the National Academy of Engineering members at MIT on March 5, "most projections are pretty scary. Many of the challenges leave us with a simple question: 'How important is it to us to solve these problems?'"

The director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California-Davis, Sperling is California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's point person for climate policy as it relates to transportation. A frequent spokesman on transportation-related issues around the country [he put in an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last month], Sperling described the potential for a sustainable transportation future. It can happen -- provided there are major transformations in the vehicles we use, the fuels those vehicles consume, and the mobility or accessibility systems such as railways and public transportation systems.

Sperling was careful to distinguish between transforming these things and simply transferring technology advances in each area. For example, a shift to alternative fuels that relies on corn ethanol and coal-based gasoline will actually produce more carbon dioxide because of how these fuels are processed and produced. And, Sperling added, "Even though the automotive industry has made tremendous advances in efficiency over the last two decades, most of [these advances] have been directed to making cars more powerful. In the mid 1980s, the average car could go zero to 60 in 14.5 seconds. Today, the average car does it in 9.5 seconds."

Transforming mobility and accessibility may be the most daunting challenge. "In the U.S., we have essentially vanquished mass transit," Sperling said. "Only 2.5 percent of the miles traveled by Americans today are through public transportation." But mobility, he said, is also the area that presents some of the greatest opportunities -- not only for innovation, but for improvement as well. The average automobile costs about $8,000 per year to operate and maintain. If the resources we are expending individually could be collectively harnessed and deployed in novel programs that make better use of technology -- ride- and vehicle-sharing systems, neighborhood electric vehicles, "smart" paratransit, etc. -- consumers could actually end up with more, and more appropriate transportation options.

Sperling pointed to Transportation@MIT, the new three-school initiative launched at MIT, as a model for incubating the needed transformations in transportation. Three key faculty in the new initiative -- Ian Waitz of aeronautics and astronautics, John Heywood of mechanical engineering and Henry Jacoby of the MIT-Sloan School of Management -- made presentations on aviation, automotive research, and transportation policy, respectively, and described the intersections and interconnections of the work.

Heywood, who is director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory at MIT, pointed to one of the most vexing elements of changing transportation: "As engineers, we must quantify the impacts of different solutions and find the best leverage points in the systems," he said. Getting those solutions into the market, he adds, is the next step. "Why haven't we done them already? It's not easy to find something people will like -- that is the great challenge."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 11, 2009 (download PDF).

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