Transportation is one of several major sectors that contribute to climate change. Globally, the sector’s 25% share of man-made carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions is similar to its share of energy consumption. Because liquid fuels are so well suited for powering cars, trucks, boats and aircraft, transportation is uniquely reliant on oil, which is the natural resource most well suited for producing liquid fuels.

The Transportation Energy and Climate Analysis project examines strategies — both technology options and public policies — for addressing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the sector. Grounded in natural sciences and engineering, the research also draws on economics, other social sciences and the history of technology and policy. The goal is to inform business communities, policymakers and the public about cost-effective ways to mitigate mobile source CO₂ emissions globally, nationally and regionally.

A key activity is the annual Conference on Transportation, Economics, Energy and the Environment (TE3). Hosted here at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, this event brings international experts together to engage top academics with leading members of the manufacturing, energy and public policy communities in high-level, economically-grounded discussions about the future of transportation. The TE3 archive includes papers presented at the conference as well as video recordings of the events themselves.

A distinctive feature of UMEI’s in-house research on this topic is analyzing the issue without presuming the development of petroleum alternatives. Most approaches to transportation sector mitigation build on efforts to replace petroleum that have been underway since the 1970s. The belief is that rising oil prices and risks of supply disruptions would trigger a transition to alternative fuels that emit less CO₂ or even claim to be “carbon free.” However, such a transition appears farther away than many hope. The world is not close to exhausting fossil resources that can, at commercially acceptable costs, be converted into liquid hydrocarbon fuels for transportation. It is important to examine renewable fuels, electricity and other alternative energy carriers, as this project does, but premising strategy on the pursuit of such alternatives may limit progress on the urgent task of mitigating transportation sector GHG emissions sooner rather than later.

By creating new ways to think about the car-climate challenge, the Transportation Energy and Climate Analysis project will chart effective routes forward from the real-world vehicle-fuel systems that exist at scale today. It will generate ideas for constructively engaging the global industries that build vehicles, supply fuels, move freight and provide other transportation services. The work entails sophisticated, technology-neutral analysis of options for making measurable progress, recognizing that the details of tomorrow’s systems cannot be known today but rather will be shaped by the evolving needs of consumers who ultimately pay for vehicles, fuels and other mobility services. The results will lead society toward a clear vision for a policy-guided, market-driven transformation to transportation systems that affordably meet mobility needs in a climate-constrained world.

Recent research contributions include:

Carbon balance effects of U.S. biofuel production and use​

Fuel Cell Vehicles article in Elsevier Encyclopedia of Energy

What’s Next for the Automobile? in Scientific American

The liquid carbon challenge: evolving views on transportation fuels and climate

Biofuel’s carbon balance: doubts, certainties and implications

Factoring the car-climate challenge: insights and implications

A Fuel Efficiency Horizon for U.S. Automobiles

The research contributed to and draws upon the Transitions to Alternative Vehicles and Fuels study published by the National Academy of Sciences.

The Transportation Energy and Climate Analysis project also involves collaborations with related University of Michigan research initiatives including the Mcity center for research, development and testing of connected and automated vehicles, the Clean Energy Research Center – Clean Vehicles Consortium (CERC-CVC) and the Beyond Carbon Neutral project.

For short summaries of other work related to this project, see the Cars and Climate research blog.