AVs, EVs, or Rail: Posts to the World Economic Forum

Updated: Aug 5


Part of the great fun in teaching is to continue to work with students on interesting topics after the semester has ended. Thus far, two articles have been published to the World Economic Forum's Agenda Blog. (Any current or former student interested, please reach out! Would love to do more.)


How carmakers' switch to electric vehicles will strain supply of battery minerals (2021)

With Sawyer Hall, of the 2021 class.

Idea in Brief:

  • As electricity generation transitions from fossil fuels to renewables, it will place a burden on the world’s supplies of critical battery minerals.

  • The world’s battery capacity must grow to 40 times larger than it is today, and electric vehicles will require 80% of that future capacity, as well as an increased need for integrated circuits. Competition for both will develop between vehicles and other uses.

  • Trains, trolley busses, and other continuously powered vehicles should play a central role in transportation planning, easing the demand on these critical minerals.

Additional articles:

  • NYT: “What if Highways were Electric?” "There’s a debate over how to make the trucking industry free of emissions, and whether batteries or hydrogen fuel cells are the best way to fire up electric motors in big vehicles. [But there is] a third alternative: a system that feeds electricity to trucks as they drive, using wires strung above the roadway and a pantograph mounted on the cab." My note: autonomous trucking becomes much simpler if the trucks are constrained to following the lane which is beneath the overhead cables.

  • NYT: America Isn’t Ready for the Electric-Vehicle Revolution To paraphrase: "China largely owns the battery supply chain, possessing about 90 percent of global capacity to process raw lithium, about 70 percent of cobalt and 40 percent of nickel. China also has almost all the manganese- and graphite-refining capacity.

  • WSJ: Lithium Brines in the Salton Sea The U.S. race to secure a material known as ‘white gold’ turns to the Salton Sea, where energy companies hope to extract lithium from a geothermal reservoir.

  • WSJ: Tax Break for BEVs Too Hard, say US Automakers. includes good background info on the battery supply chain.

  • EVs are the cleanest cars, but their supply chains are damn dirty

  • Touches on BEVs, Fuels Cells, ethical mining practices, and the need for micro mobility and public transport


The hidden downsides of autonomous vehicles (2019)

With Sanjeev Santhanam and Bharath Kaimal, of the 2019 class

Idea in Brief:

  • The cumulative energy impacts for Autonomous Vehicles could range from a 90% decrease to a 200% increase in fuel consumption by the year 2050.

  • While autonomy is often touted as a way to cause fewer crashes and smoother traffic flow, it may also lead to increased highway speeds, increased feature content, a greater willingness to commute long distances, and an increased demand for delivery services.

  • The sustainable solution includes vehicle electrification and light rail, and adds a shift in mobility patterns by maximizing the use of shared vehicle trips. This would improve impacts on energy and CO2 emissions, and dramatically reduce the number of vehicles on the world’s roads by 2050.