What will drive us tomorrow? When it comes to the future of transport, we need every solution we can get

Published: December 19, 2018 12:18:05 AM

Hydrogen, as a fuel, has the potential for heavy freight; natural gas looks promising in trucking and shipping; biofuels could be the new aviation fuel.

This year, India hosted its first summit on the future of transport, MOVE. The government said it would back an initiative to increase electric vehicle fleets for businesses.

By John Abbott

In 1807, when he patented the first hydrogen-powered engine, François Isaac de Rivaz could have been forgiven for thinking he had found the future of transport. Yet here we are, more than 200 years later, still wrestling with the same question. What will drive us tomorrow?

Some still say hydrogen. Some say battery electric power. Some say natural gas. But we must explore all the options. The future of transport will be shaped not by one solution, but many. De Rivaz’s hydrogen car may not have been a success, but we can learn from his inventiveness, his vision, his will to do things differently. Because when it comes to the future of transport, we need every solution we can get. In India, it could be the plans for businesses to increase their use of electric vehicles, or it could be shared transport.

Transport accounts for more than a quarter of the world’s energy use and one-fifth of global energy-related CO2 emissions. There are a billion vehicles on the roads and this is expected to double by 2040. We must all consider this region’s energy future and how society will meet demand while reducing emissions to tackle climate change and air pollution.

In October, the IPCC outlined the need for an ever more rapid transition to a lower-carbon world. This begins with CO2 emissions falling sharply from 2020. That is barely a year away. We need multiple solutions because no one solution can meet all needs, in all places, at all times. That is certainly a key conclusion of Shell’s latest scenario work, which was cited by the IPCC. Our Sky scenario sets out a challenging but plausible route the world could follow to meet the aims of the Paris agreement and restrict the rise in global average temperature in this century to well under 2-degree Celsius. Given its significant impact, the transport sector must rise to this challenge. And to find solutions, we have to continue to work together.

Take battery electric cars. This year, India hosted its first summit on the future of transport, MOVE. The government said it would back an initiative to increase electric vehicle fleets for businesses. Meanwhile, Indonesia has introduced incentives for electric cars on imports and battery manufacturing. And China accounts for about half of global production and has the highest number of electric cars on the road. Shell is increasing its activities, too. In Europe, for instance, we acquired NewMotion, one of Europe’s largest providers of charge points, operating more than 40,000 private points for homes and businesses.
When it comes to hydrogen as a fuel, it has the potential for heavy freight, including rail. De Rivaz would certainly approve. In Japan, their vision of a “hydrogen society” begins in 2020, with plans for fleets of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles serving the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Shell, too, is increasing its investment in hydrogen. In Germany, our plans include a JV to establish a nationwide network of 100 filling stations by 2019.

Natural gas has potential in trucking and shipping. China has the world’s largest fleet of vehicles running on LNG and it is a sector that is beginning to grow in India. We have one LNG filling station in China, and nine in Europe.

The region recognises the potential of advanced biofuels, which could help the aviation sector.

Digitalisation, too, is creating potential for many other solutions. We see a future in which autonomous vehicles are connected and working as fleets. It is a future of innovative business models from ride-sharing to mobility-on-demand. In addition, we all have to join hands to improve today’s fuels and lubricants. Together with carmakers—and policymakers—we can continue to improve the efficiency of engines.

There is much happening, but if we want to meet the challenge posed by the future of transport, we must work together on a multitude of solutions. If we focus on one only, we risk the fate of de Rivaz’s hydrogen engine. And we must not let brave ideas stall, just when we need them the most.

The author is downstream director, Royal Dutch Shell

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