The Fuse

Our Transportation Future: Industries Collide

by Morgan Putnam | February 01, 2021

Look in the rearview mirror and you will see a transportation industry that is almost entirely divorced from our nation’s electric grid and communications infrastructure. Look forward and it is exceedingly difficult to imagine a future where transportation is not intimately linked to a modernized electric grid and a robust 5G and fiber network.

Hundreds of billions of dollars are now being invested in electric, connected, and autonomous vehicles. The successful operation of these vehicles will be entirely dependent upon a grid that can power them and communications infrastructure that enables operation in all weather conditions.

To secure our transportation future, the United States will have to undertake a massive infrastructure buildout that better integrates our existing transportation, electric, and communications networks. Doing so will require us to actively manage the collision of three massive industries.

Success Not Guaranteed

Just because our transportation future is clear does not mean that the transition will be a smooth one. Early areas of pain have already started to emerge. California is a leader in the deployment of medium-duty and heavy-duty electric vehicles (MDHD EVs). Currently, the delivery timeline for MDHD EV charging infrastructure is often longer than the timeline for vehicle delivery – an issue noted at CALSTART’s 2030 Policy Summit. As a result, some customers have received vehicles with no ability to use them.

Just because our transportation future is clear does not mean that the transition will be a smooth one.

This is especially concerning for two reasons. First, the charging infrastructure being deployed has a fraction of the charging capacity that will soon be needed. As an example, many of the projects involve 50 kW or 150 kW chargers. These chargers will quickly be dwarfed by chargers capable of delivering 2 MW of power (a greater than ten-fold increase). Second, vehicle manufactures have plans to rapidly accelerate the production of MD and HD EVs – from a few tens of vehicles today to thousands and then tens of thousands of vehicles within the next few years. Both of these reasons will lead to an intensification of the pain already being felt without corrective action.

Planning and Demonstration Projects are Critical

We are at the earliest stage of this transition and some pain is unavoidable. To ensure a successful transition we need to start planning for the infrastructure required – especially where that infrastructure takes years (if not a decade) to build.

The good news is that planning and demonstration projects have started. Last summer the West Coast Clean Transit Corridor Study released its analysis of the grid upgrades required in key transportation corridors from San Diego to Vancouver, Canada. The study found that significant grid upgrades would be required to serve MD and HD vehicles. These upgrades included new substations and transmission line extensions – infrastructure that will take four or more years to construct.

Meanwhile, the State of Michigan has committed to developing an autonomous car lane from Detroit to Ann Arbor. The project is now in a feasibility and design phase that is expected to last two-years. Once complete the project will provide critical real-world data for the development of autonomous vehicles and will ensure that we don’t fall too far behind China, which has already constructed an entire highway for autonomous vehicles.

Infrastructure is a Three-Legged Stool

EVs won’t just need a strong electric grid integrated with key transportation infrastructure. They will also require the ability to communicate with that electric grid to figure out where and when to charge.

The required infrastructure is not solely found at the intersection of transportation and electric infrastructure, or at the intersection of transportation and communications infrastructure. In point of fact, the infrastructure we need to support the future of transportation is analogous to the proverbial three-legged stool: all three legs must work together for the stool to stand upright. Electric vehicles won’t just need a strong electric grid integrated with key transportation infrastructure. They will also require the ability to communicate with that electric grid to figure out where and when to charge.

In turn, the grid will need to communicate with itself and customer-owned assets to continuously re-balance a diverse set of resources (solar, wind, storage, demand response, vehicle-to-grid) to meet customer needs. In short, all of the intersections between communications, electric, and transportation infrastructure will prove critical.

China is already acting on this fact. The country’s Global Energy Infrastructure Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO) is working to advance its Energy-Transportation-Information (ETI) framework. The ETI framework recognizes the critical interdependence of our future infrastructure systems and provides a nice analogy to the circulatory, muscular, and nervous systems of the human body.

To keep pace, the United States should increasingly focus on planning and demonstration projects that consider all three aspects of infrastructure – not just two of the three. Note, this is something for which the author and collaborators are actively advocating. Encouragingly, this is something that the Biden Administration seems to be considering, per comments by Secretary of Energy nominee Jennifer Granholm

Let’s Start by Establishing a Strong Foundation

As we look towards our transportation future, we should be focused first and foremost on establishing a strong foundation. We should build an infrastructure platform that enables plug and play integration: the opposite of the custom, lengthy, and otherwise ad-hoc asset integration processes we have today. It is this kind of infrastructure that will deliver us the scale and repeatability we need to achieve our ambitious goals.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not be shared by The Fuse.