In the Year 2020, Part III: Transportation, Urban Planning, and Energy

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Check out Part I and Part II in our series about life in the year 2020.

Our cities are a mess. Based on grids of pavement for devices of transport that pump poisonous fumes into the atmosphere, they and their inhabitants are slowly but inexorably being choked into submission. Many of them are rotting from the core – their eroding downtowns often unattainable in heavy traffic from the distant, sprawling suburbs that surround them.

And in those suburbs, life isn’t necessarily much better. Many are just as bereft of green space, and most are so expansive that one needs an automobile just to buy a gallon of milk. What’s worse, some of us have been convinced we’d be better off grabbing that gallon of milk in a beast like a Ford Excursion or Hummer. As for entertainment or a sense of community, well, there’s always the food court at the local mega-mall – if you can find a parking space.

A bleak outlook? Admittedly, yes, and certainly not all of our cities are in such a state of disrepair. Nonetheless, our current urban model is far from the ideal for a number of reasons, Our cars continue to pollute and clog our environments, our urban footprints – not to mention our landfills – continue to expand, and our retail, entertainment, and social zones continue to centralize. “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.” Joni Mitchell may have written the words in 1970, but they were never more apropos than today.

With all of this in mind, but also some potential solutions, we embark on Part III of our look at life in the year 2020. In Part I, we went all atmospheric on you in our look at cloud computing and future computing in general. In Part II, we speculated how research in the fields of biotech, genetic, and nanotech science will likely afford you a better, longer life. But here in Part III, we hit where we live (a good many of us anyway) with an overview of what we might experience and begin to experience in our cities a decade from now, as seen through the eyes of several people who are a lot closer to the subject then we are.

The Future of the Car

We start with what many perceive to be Public Enemy Number One: the automobile. Today’s car is naughty for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the gasoline-based, combustion-powered engine that propels it down the street. Not only does that engine foul the environment, but it and all its associated machinery take up a ton of Traffic Jamroom. Just take a look one day at the nearest traffic jam – which shouldn’t be hard to find – and try, in your mind’s eye, to separate the vehicles from the humans. Granted, trucks carrying freight and buses carrying passengers are another story altogether, but when the footprint of an average car absolutely dwarfs that of its occupant by ten or twenty times, the whole concept suddenly seems downright ridiculous.

But changes are already afoot. Sales of large cars and SUVs have plummeted in the past few years. Many drivers have recently opted for smaller cars or hybrid technology. Others lucky enough to live close to their places or work are taking the two-wheel bicycle approach. And of course, rapid transit has never been so popular.

But what of the future of the four-wheeled pod we know as the car? It’s clear, given the emissions, the price of gasoline, the limited supply of oil, and numerous other factors, that pure gasoline-powered combustion engine vehicles are on the way out. But what will ultimately replace it?

Hybrids, Green Diesels, and Solutions on the Horizon

Gas- and diesel-electric hybrids are currently the rage of the alternative fuel market. The latest model of Toyota’s Prius has scored critical praise everywhere it’s been released, and world-level car shows are filled with hybrid prototypes. Volkswagen’s just-announced L1 diesel-electric hybrid concept car, targeted for a 2013 production date, is said to achieve an astonishing 189 MPG.

Arcimoto PulseElectric car technology currently sports an equally high profile, even as battles wage between the “plug-in” and “fuel cell” camps. Eugene, Oregon’s Arcimoto has just debuted its tiny, quirky-looking Pulse, a three-wheeled plug-in car with a range of fifty to one hundred miles. The Chevrolet Volt – which features a small gas tank to charge its batteries – is apparently on track for a late-2010 unveiling. Nissan’s nifty Leaf, with no gas tank at all, should hit North American dealers by 2011. And then there’s the sexy new roadster from California-based Tesla that is said to accelerate from zero to 60 MPH in an impressive four seconds (Scientific American calls it a “rocket”) and hold a charge for nearly 250 miles. Too bad then that it comes with a price tag teetering over $100,000.

So rosy are long-term forecasts for the electric car that Carlos Ghosn, the big cheese over at French automaker Renault, says they will “account for 10 percent of the global market in 10 years.” Tesla’s business development chief, Diarmuid O’Connell, went one huge step further when he recently prognosticated that pure electric vehicles will make up 30 percent of the total market within the decade. At the same time, several research firms put that number at just one or two percent.

The Case for Hydrogen Fuel Cells

So, what’s the ultimate solution? What will we see gracing our roadways by 2020 and beyond? Gary Golden, lead futurist with New York-based foresight and innovation organization Future Think and consultant to firms such as DuPont and CitiGroup, talked to us recently and emphasized that hybrids, while likely with us for some time, are most definitely not the technology of the future. “They do nothing but add manufacturing costs and complexity. There is no value to either side.”

Hydrogen RefuelGolden prefers hydrogen, but is quick to point out that the mainstream media is confused about this whole electric versus hydrogen topic. “There are only two choices: a mechanical combustion engine – internal combustion engine or diesel – or an electric motor. That’s it! You can fill that combustion engine with oil, biofuels, et al. Electric motors, on the other hand, need electrons. We can sit here and debate whether [those electrons come from] a battery or hydrogen fuel cells or capacitors, but the most likely future is that it will be all of the above. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are electric cars. Hydrogen converted in a fuel cell produces electricity – this is something that most mainstream reporters fail to understand.” And the future of the electric vehicle, according to Golden, is the integration of batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, and capacitors.

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