19 February 2006

Technology and Energy Conservation

Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology.

- George W. Bush, January 31, 2006, State of the Union Address.

Suppose I told you that I was aware of a vehicle technology that could deliver up to fifteen times the fuel efficency of the average vehicle on the roads today (Table 1085), and even more than four times the fuel efficency of a typical Toyota Prius in city driving.

Suppose that I also told you that this vehicle was seven times safer than any passenger car or light truck sold today per vehicle mile traveled.

Suppose that I also told you that this vehicle wouldn't cost much more to use than your current car, and might even be cheaper, and that it could operate on the existing road infrastructure.

Suppose that I also told you that with further research and development, already being tested in low volume custom versions now, that this vehicle could be adapted to run entirely on biofuels, for only a modest additional cost.

Would you be interested in this new technology? Would you make developing it a national priority to help our nation secure energy independence and propose a government grant? Would you call it revolutionary?

I would call it a typical 53 passenger bus (I used the 2003 fuel efficiency numbers cited above rather than those in this link).

A 53 passenger bus with just three passengers on it is more fuel efficent than the average single occupancy vehicle on the road. At 25% occupancy, it is more fuel efficent than a single occupancy Prius driving in the city. At full occupancy, it is more fuel efficient than a Toyota Prius with five people in it.

Finding a way to get more people to use the bus is a form of technology. But, it has nothing to do with more efficient engines and everything to do with "soft" technologies, like designing buses so that people can get on and off more quickly, and doing the operations research and traffic engineering and urban planning necessary to increase the effective speed at which passengers travel, simplify the system so that marginal potential users feel more confident about using it, and improving the sense of personal security that riders have on the bus.

For example, if you could create a bus, the same size as existing ones, with just 25 passengers, but quicker ingress and egress and greater perceived comfort and personal safety, it would still be a huge improvement over the single occupancy vehicle status quo.

But, until the economics of the situation, including government incentives, recognize this fact, we aren't going to see development of low risk technologies like buses, even though they are a key part of any workable solution to our nation's oil addition.


tovah said...

buses are a great way of conserving, but the bus system in Denver is woefully inadequate for many peoples needs, unless they are commuting from their homes to specific business clusters. for errands, they don't follow through.

I'm a native New Yorker who didn't get a driver's license until 22, and didn't get a car until I chose not to return to NYC from Oregon but move here instead (at 29). here I walk a lot (living on the hill helps) but have taken the bus less than 10 times in over 7 years in favor of my car because of timing and destination.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Without a doubt, the bus system in Denver is not ideal (although RTD is far better than the public transportation found in my other regional centers). It is not up to the task, at the moment, of replacing cars.

The essential observation, however, is that this is not because buses are fundamentally inadequate. It is because the bus system is not optimal.

tovah said...

true, I'm just spoiled by the relative efficacy of the NYC transit system and then tempered by the decent Portland, OR system (all but 6 months of my 4+ years there spent using it daily).

I know that there are regular studies of the use of the system, but I wish that more consideration would be paid to the fact the more and more people have unconventional commutes - both in timing and routes.