The Fuse

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition: Game-Changer for Transportation?

by R. Kress | December 03, 2015

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition emerged this week just ahead of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris. With big names such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Saudi investor HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and Alibaba’s Jack Ma, along with many others, the new organization is an ambitious project geared toward energy technology initiatives that produce zero emissions.

 The big question for energy security is how successful an influential group like this can be at bringing about substantial changes in the transportation sector.

With a mission to close the gap between government funding and private investment, the Coalition plans to invest across many sectors, including electricity generation, agriculture and transportation. The big question for energy security is how successful an influential group like this can be at bringing about substantial changes in the transportation sector.

But transportation issues represent perhaps the most challenging area for the Coalition to tackle. With a long history of public-sector funding, transportation has traditionally evolved slowly over time. Can the world’s wealthiest actually fund solutions for transportation on both the supply and demand sides of the equation?

“The transportation field has been very bureaucratized and very routinized for decades. Anything that shakes it up is probably a good thing,” David Bragdon, executive director of transportation at policy advocacy group TransitCenter, tells The Fuse. “Traditionally, transportation has been more of a public sector activity and that’s slow to change. It’s harder to make a business case that your shareholders are going to be compensated until the users of roads start paying the true costs of using them.”

Bragdon also notes a somewhat worrisome detail regarding infrastructure for parties interested in reducing oil demand: Adding roads tends to add more vehicles.

“A lot of the highway building agencies want to just expand highways infinitely while not understanding the connection between supply and demand. More supply actually induces more demand—that’s unique [to the transportation sector]. If a city builds more water pipes, people don’t drink more water but if they build more highways, people will drive more.”

Greater variety in the transportation sector is key

Instead, Bragdon sees supporting service-based start-ups similar to Lyft or Uber as being more transformative in the transportation sector. He says that one major transportation issue lies in the number of options available to consumers throughout most of the country: They either travel in private vehicles or publicly funded transportation options. Bragdon says adding innovative concepts that allow people to share vehicles could be more swiftly implemented and produce more optimal outcomes.

Supporting service-based start-ups similar to Lyft or Uber could be transformative for the transportation sector.

“If [a service] contributes to reduced car ownership, then it has a positive impact. If people can live a lifestyle where they use a greater variety of transportation in urban areas, it makes a positive difference.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) energy and transportation program’s senior vehicles analyst Luke Tonachel echoed the notion that the transportation sector opportunity for the Coalition lies in technology and services instead of infrastructure.

Tonachel, in an email interview with The Fuse, said: “Increased … investments can more rapidly drive down the cost of vehicle batteries and accelerate the pace at which vehicles are powered by zero carbon renewable electricity from the wind and sun.”

Tonachel also noted that upcoming affordable electric vehicles such as the 200-mile Chevy Bolt are a reflection of how alternative automotive technologies are advancing quickly, making for a strong investment opportunity.

Will Detroit follow Silicon Valley?

Jim Carroll, futurist and consultant on transportation and other topics to a host of blue chip companies, takes an optimistic view on how the Coalition can impact transportation and fuel consumption, but first traditional automakers will have to learn from Silicon Valley.

“I think the challenges lie with Detroit. When you look at what’s going on with Apple, with Tesla, or the tech companies in the automotive space, they’re innovating at the speed at which Silicon Valley has innovated—which is to say, very fast,” Carroll explains. “The Detroit and Tokyo companies are used to long lead times, long R&D times. That’s not how Silicon Valley works. We have this very real clash of cultures: how we innovate and the speed at which we innovate.”

But unlike Bragdon and Tonachel, Carroll sees transportation infrastructure as another possible beneficiary of the Coalition’s investments. He notes that robust highway infrastructure would be a strong point of investment from the Coalition. This would include bolstering the emerging technology in vehicle-to-vehicle communications, proximity awareness, and collision avoidance.

Investment from the Coalition could include bolstering the emerging technology in vehicle-to-vehicle communications, proximity awareness, and collision avoidance.

“There’s a tremendous amount of stuff going on but initiatives like [the Coalition] say ‘let’s speed it up. We can do a lot more and we can do it faster,’” Carroll says. “That’s part of the challenge with transportation—everyone’s talking about self-driving cars but there’s so much more than that going on.”

Carroll also notes that investing in “road train” technology, which connects vehicles into “road trains” that can travel semi-autonomously, would be another way that the Coalition could invest in making the trucking industry more efficient, by reducing drag and improving wind aerodynamics by grouping trucks much the way competitive cyclists employ a peloton.

“These are small incremental steps which can have a very big impact [on fuel consumption],” Carroll says. “[The Coalition is] opening the minds of a lot of people to new potential and getting them thinking about what can be accomplished…with energy and transportation.”