Clearing the skies with research on electric vehicles

Reduced pollution and clearer skies are benefits of the reduction in travel due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Fortunately, there are other far less disruptive ways to significantly reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions.

One way is through the zero‐emission bus (ZEB) market, including Battery Electric Buses and Fuel Cell Electric Buses. As noted in recent TRB Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) pre-published research on best practices and lessons learned in ZEB deployments,Guidebook for Deploying Zero-Emission Transit Buses, ZEBs have seen significant growth in recent years.

They can be powered by fully renewable sources, have zero harmful tailpipe emissions, and improve local air quality. As ZEBs’ market share continues to grow, the price of producing these environmentally friendly vehicles has been going down. The final report is expected by the end of 2020.

ZEBs are now rolling through cities across the world. As they increase in popularity, Latin American officials can now use a new contractual model , detailed in a paper published in Transportation Research Record (TRR), which can be used to lower emissions and transit costs while improving the quality of service.

California’s governor recently issued an executive order stating that all in-state sales of new passenger cars and trucks will be zero-emission by 2035 and medium- and heavy-duty trucks by 2045. 

An active TRB Transit Innovations Deserving Exploratory Analysis (IDEA) project aims to give greater insight into which routes ZEBs can serve most effectively, the locations where charging facilities would be most useful, and the right size of onboard battery for a specific route. Transit agencies will be looking for cost-efficiency, service continuity, and environmental friendliness in using these tools to electrify their bus fleets. The Transit IDEA Oversight panel heard from the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium ’s Zero Emission Bus (ZEB) Simulation & Commercialization key innovation priorities.

Lessening emissions in the supply chain
This summer, zero-emissions trucks made news as California adopted the Advanced Clean Truck regulation, requiring manufacturers to begin selling zero-emission models as soon as 2024. Fifteen states (including California) and D.C. have also signed a joint memorandum of understanding to advance the market for electric medium- and heavy-duty trucks. The collective goal is to ensure all trucks sold in these two categories are ZEVs by 2050.

Demand for more and faster home deliveries, especially in light of COVID-19, means more vehicles are needed. TRB National Cooperative Highway Research Program’s (NCHRP) Guide to Truck Activity Data for Emissions Modelingexplores methods, procedures, and datasets needed in estimating and forecasting criteria pollutants, air toxins, and greenhouse gas emissions from goods and services movement.

To better understand how commercial vehicles affect the environment in California, the state began a Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey, as published in TRR, to gain insights on commercial vehicle movements on air quality along with economic activity, safety, and usage.

Larger vehicles aren’t only on the roads to deliver products; they also provide services. Utility service trucks, like those that fix power lines, often sit at a job site for many hours. Hybrid systems, as noted in TRB’s Reducing the Fuel Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Medium- and Heavy-Duty Vehicles, Phase Two can take advantage of battery power during the time they are not driving to allow workers to power the other functions of the truck, like buckets that raise and lower them to the service.

Finding the right conditions to increase personal ownership
Passenger cars, trucks, and vehicles that are not internal combustion engine vehicles make up about 3% of personal vehicle ownership. Over the next 20 years, that’s expected to increase to 15%.

For now, car and gas prices seem to be the biggest factors in preventing people from owning an electric vehicle. Forecasting Zero-Emissions Vehicles (ZEV) Fleet Scenarios and Emissions Implications, from NCHRP, reports that emissions models for 2040 show that if the purchase price of a new zero-emission vehicle is equal to conventional vehicles by 2030 and if gas prices increase at an accelerated rate over the next 30 years, there will be significant reductions in tailpipe emissions.

Earlier this summer, TRB hosted a webinar that further explained the research methods used in the report. Policymakers at state departments of transportation, metropolitan planning organizations, and elsewhere can play an important role in increasing the number of ZEVs into light-duty vehicle fleets.

Lowering vehicle emissions beyond the roads
Forthcoming ACRP research will help the airport industry account for electric aircraft operations in their planning.

Commuter rail may also be able to reduce wasted thermal energy. A TCRP IDEA project, Diesel-Electric Locomotive Energy Recovery and Conversion tested retrofitting locomotives with electric generator technology to ultimately reduce pollutants.

Even cargo ships have a version of electrical vehicles. An article in TR News explains “cold ironing,” the provision of electrical plug-in power for vessels when they’re in port. The article notes that international shipping was responsible for about 2.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, and that number is expected to increase.

Be it on land, at sea, or in the air, research is proving that effective processes, practices, and technology can lessen greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

Go greener with TRB
Transportation accounts for more than a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions–the largest share–and it is an issue the industry is addressing across the board, as highlighted in TRB’s Critical Issues in Transportation 2019.

As technology, the market, and policy evolve, TRB will continue to focus on research in this field. Get involved with future Cooperative Research Program work. Look for ongoing information on new projects, requests for proposals, or to nominate yourself or others to serve on a project panel. Submit problem statement research ideas and find new announcements in TRB’s weekly newsletter or on the homepages for ACRP, NCHRP, and TCRP.

Become a friend of any one of TRB’s standing committees working on environment and energy topics: the Standing Committee on Transportation Energy, the Standing Committee on Marine Environment, or the Standing Committee on Environmental Issues in Transportation Law.

TRB’s virtual Annual Meeting, online conferences, and webinars offer a chance to continue your own professional education. The Annual Meeting’s virtual agenda will present opportunities to network and share in January. Share your expertise and help move zero-emissions technology research into the future.

TRB and Cooperative Research Program reports cited in this article:

TRB committees cited in this article: Articles published in TRR cited:
Articles published in TR News cited: TRB webinars: Active projects: Additional TRB resources: External articles cited in this report: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reports:

Beth Ewoldsen, Content Strategist
Transportation Research Board
202-334-2353; [email protected]
Published September 30, 2020

This Summary Last Modified On: 9/29/2020

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