NREL aims to change the way we commute

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NREL’s transportation research will help cut down traffic as Denver and the greater metro area continues to grow.
NREL/Warren Gretz

Colorado’s cars alone emit an average of 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. And in 2013 the state’s transportation sector accounted for nearly 30 percent of the 90 million metric tons of CO2 produced that year. But the new Sustainable Mobility Initiative recently launched by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in Golden, seeks to change that.

Partnering with government, private industry and research companies, the Sustainable Mobility Initiative explores existing technologies that could reduce the amount of energy consumption and emissions related to travel, while making the individual vehicle safer and more energy efficient.

For one project under the Sustainable Mobility umbrella, NREL is partnering with the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (DOE ARPA-E) and its TRANSNET project to research the use of mobile technology as it relates to driver behavior. This research suggests that giving travelers real-time information will steer them toward more energy-efficient travel decisions and routes.

This is a step forward for the DOE, whose end goal for the TRANSNET project is to release a smartphone app aimed at encouraging travelers to make energy-saving decisions by making it easy to do so.

“It’s really this notion of a multi-modal system. So it’s not just relieving traffic congestion, it’s taking full advantage of all the opportunities now whether it’s mass transit or increasingly ride sharing and Ubers and Lyfts and all of that,” says Eric Rohlfing, deputy director for technology at ARPA-E. “Trying to incorporate all of that and give the traveler the tools on his or her smartphone that enable energy conscious and sustainable transportation choices in an urban environment.”

Meanwhile, NREL is also researching ways to improve the individual vehicle to make it smarter and safer by looking at current safety technologies used in cars like blind spot awareness, virtual guardrails and front-facing cameras. As vehicles become more automated, NREL plans to design a system that will collect and share information related to traffic among all vehicles on the road. NREL’s own analysis suggests these technologies have the capability to drastically save travel-related energy up to 90 percent by 2050.

“Up until this point the DOE has looked mainly at vehicles and seeing how we can save energy and avoid [greenhouse gas] from fuels or engines,” says Stanley Young, NREL’s Urban Mobility project leader. “But the connected automated vehicle is the first thing that’s come along in decades that is going to fundamentally change the way we behave in terms of making trips, planning trips, linking trips, things like that.”

Young believes making vehicles more intelligent is the next way to save energy, and NREL has plans to test this through Automated Mobility Districts, something Young is excited about.

“For the end of this decade there will be implementations of fully driverless vehicles in a constrained geographic area, like a campus or a district,” Young explains. “This will probably couple with policies to restrict vehicle usage or at least some type of policy that once you get to the edge of the district you’re encouraged to park your vehicle or to take transit then hop on whatever this Automated Mobility District is.”

These districts could include many forms of transportation, but Young believes the most efficient is an automated fleet of cars. He says there are already early examples of this type of district, citing Denver’s 16th Street Mall as one area outfitted with hybrid shuttle busses and where cars are prohibited. Young argues the next step in an area like this is adding automated vehicles to such areas.

Also a part of the initiative is CDOT’s RoadX program, which looks to utilize NREL’s transportation research to take congestion out of highways like I-70 and I-25. By providing commuters with real-time map information and reducing commuter travel times, CDOT wants to save energy and emissions by making traffic move more efficiently.

In addition, NREL’s Integrated Network Testbed for Energy Grid Research and Technology Experimentation (INTEGRATE) project is looking at connecting transportation systems to the energy grid by promoting electric vehicles and home batteries. This is the hypothetical next step in the transition away from fossil fuels.

With global atmospheric CO2 remaining above 400 parts per million, any opportunity to reduce emissions is important and NREL’s research efforts could help reduce emissions nationwide.