On the highway towards a fossil-free, autonomous future

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Publish date: June 8, 2017

The world is moving away from fossil fuels, thanks to rapid technological development, according to Tony Seba, who recently featured as one of the speakers at an event organised by Bellona in Oslo.

The world is moving away from fossil fuels, thanks to rapid technological development, according to Tony Seba, who recently featured as one of the speakers at an event organised by Bellona in Oslo.

Seba, an author, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and instructor in Entrepreneurship, Disruption and Clean Energy at Stanford University, points out the rapid technology development will soon wipe out conventional transport as we know it today, and decrease demand for fossil fuels.

These shifts, or so-called disruptions, are abrupt, and usually happen much faster than we would imagine, says Seba, who believes that few people will own a car in the future, as autonomous vehicles will offer more profitable solutions. This is linked to the fact that most people live in overcrowded cities with few parking spaces, and are exposed to health damaging air pollution levels. He compares the coming shift to other recent developments, such as the rapid switch from mobile phones to smart phones and the subsequent, market-changing apps.

Tony Seba's presentation in Oslo, Norway Credit: Nils Bøhmer

Saddle up for change

Now it is time for personal transport and an electric vehicle revolution. This transition is being facilitated by constantly improving battery technology; both in terms of performance and cost. Soon electric vehicles will meet the demands of most people, with prolonged battery longevity, range and reasonable pricing.

Along with electric mobility, autonomy will form a central component of the transport system of tomorrow, as computer systems become increasingly compact and cost-effective over time. For example, operating, autonomous vehicles in Singapore and Pittsburgh use advanced radars, which have seen their prices falling from approximately 60 000 to 200 euro, since 2012. One main obstacle however that still needs to be addressed is public acceptance concerning the safety of driving on autopilot mode, and the change in perception of cars as “computers on wheels”.

Car sharing will have a great impact on mobility in daily life, reducing “empty seats” and numbers of cars on the roads. As we shift away from car ownership to “mobility as a service” families will be able to order vehicles to drive them to their destinations throughout the day, thus avoiding the costs and implications of owning a vehicle.

Renewables in, fossils out

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If these changes, as predicted by Tony Seba materialise rapidly, we will see the gradual demise of the fossil fuel industry. With decreased demand and falling prices, drilling for oil will become highly uneconomical. Moreover, renewable energy is becoming cheaper and developing on large scale. A recent example comes from Germany, with the first zero-subsidy offshore wind energy project.

Also the quickly decreasing cost of solar energy continues to improve its competitiveness and is a major driver for solar’s global success story[1]. Large-scale solar projects are booming from California[2] to India[3], and last year was the most successful for the sector, with expected growth to continue this year.

We will see a change in the energy market, with the deployment of battery storage for renewable energy along with the wider uptake of electro-mobility. This way, houses will be able to produce and store energy on a small scale, according to demand.

In the energy sector, batteries store renewable energy and discharge it when it is needed at every level of the grid, enabling the growth of renewables in the energy mix and offering important stability services. Energy storage and EV batteries should therefore be at the core of our transition to a sustainable electric transport system.

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What about jobs?

One main concern regarding a more autonomous future is the fear of losing jobs in the transport sector. Importantly, this new development opens up for new opportunities on the job market[4]. In particular, storing, organising, and analysing data will be among the new opportunities that will rise up from the ashes of our conventional transport system as we know it today.