The Future of Transportation

The Dirty Past and Promising Future of Fuel, In 4 Charts

A once-in-a-generation change in the way we transport ourselves is happening now. But just how did we get here — and what will the future hold?

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Lais Borges/Inverse; Getty
The Future of Transportation

When Americans go somewhere, it's with the help of a lot of gasoline.

This is a fact of life in America. Consider these statistics: Some 90 percent of the U.S. travels by car and of those folks, 85 percent fill their car with gasoline. A 4-million-mile system of roads — the largest in the world — guides our vehicles, which 91 percent of Americans have.

With this comes carbon emissions — lots of them. Some 4.6 million tons of carbon dioxide is spewed from a single American tailpipe each year and about a third (28 percent) of U.S. carbon emissions come from cars. Isn’t there another way to get around? For your average American, the answer has long been no. The options just aren’t plentiful. Over 80 percent of all fueling stations are for gasoline. In 2023, 84 percent of cars sold were gas-burning and just about all (94 percent) of the fuel used for transportation is petroleum-based.

“The infrastructure for gasoline production and distribution is so embedded in American roadways and towns, alternatives face a huge uphill battle,” says Gabriel Filippelli, Chancellor’s Professor and executive director of the Environmental Resilience Institute at Indiana University. “The system behind that infrastructure, the fossil fuel industries, have no incentive to remove their strategic advantage in the marketplace.” Yes, gas cars are part and parcel with the infrastructure we pay for — with an estimated 80 percent of federal funding for transportation going toward the highways that carry gas-powered vehicles.

But systems can change. And if you look back at the history of transportation, new technology has long been the impetus for adaptation. As electric cars inch ever closer to maturity, and government programs incentivize their use, a new take on travel could be just around the bend.

How We Get Around

When Americans want to get somewhere they usually do so by getting in a car and on the road. (Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics)

Graphic: Lais Borges/Inverse

The U.S. government doesn’t have the best track record for successfully nudging us away from gasoline.

Take the gas pump. Look closely the next time you fill up on fuel, and you’ll see a tiny sign stating that this product “contains 10 percent ethanol.” There’s a story behind that. In 1973, the government introduced a policy that required gas companies to add a certain amount of ethanol — a fuel derived primarily from corn — to reduce dependence on imported oil. (We hadn’t even considered gas’ influence on the climate yet and were still a decade out from the bombshell National Academy of Science’s climate report.)

In the 1980s, the ethanol program ramped up to help replace lead-based octane enhancers, and from the ’90s onward, it has ostensibly been used to limit pollutants, for energy security, and to limit greenhouse gas emissions (even though the evidence that this helps has been called to question and some studies have shown ethanol may even be worse than gasoline). Today, nearly all gasoline has about 10 percent ethanol while a wimpy 7.43 percent of all vehicles (so-called “flex-fuel” vehicles) run on 100 percent ethanol.

What Fuels Our Cars

Looking back just a year, the latest data, you can see that cars that run on something other than gasoline make up less than 15% of the roadways. Experts expect this graph to change — fast. (Source: Alternative Fuels Data Center)

Graphic: Lais Borges/Inverse

In other words, ethanol has never been an alternative fuel — more an oil enabler. And today, in 2024, we’re still stuck on gasoline. One alternative to gas-powered cars that has been given a turbo boost in recent years is of course the electric vehicle. “EVs are a proven production option and have now been nearly mandated by many major car companies for future sales,” says Filippelli. “The ‘refueling’ systems are now being substantially built out thanks to the IRA [aka the Inflation Reduction Act].”

But infrastructure isn’t everything. Americans, whose lives revolve around cars, need convincing that electrics will be just as convenient, cheap, and fast. Thanks in no small part to Tesla, we all know that electric cars are fast as hell and can hang with the best of them (Insane mode was quite the PR win for the entire category). But for those of us looking for more practical rides — to get the kids to soccer practice, trek to the beach, commute to work with an affordable refill — well, the attitudes are changing there, too. “While the U.S. is undeniably behind China and the EU, EV sales in the U.S. grew 50 percent in 2023 while hybrid sales grew 60 percent,” says Edward J. Klock-McCook, a transportation expert at RMI, a non-partisan energy think tank. A recent report from the foundation found that attitudes toward EVs in the U.S. are warming up, with the share of those intending to buy an EV rising from 29 percent in 2022 to 48 percent in 2023. In 2023, Klock-McCook notes, the Tesla Model Y was the fifth best-selling vehicle in the U.S. of ANY fuel type, behind full-sized pick-ups from the Big Three and the Toyota Rav4.

Fuel Stations in U.S. by Type

One big barrier to alternative fuels getting a foothold in the American fleet is fueling stations. Gas stations are everywhere — while there are currently only roughly 160,000 electric charging stations (and far fewer for other alt fuels like Hydrogen and CNGs). The White House is fast to point out that there was almost no U.S.-based production of fast chargers in 2020, and now, there are some 26 companies manufacturing them in the U.S. — with the capacity to produce more than a million charging stations each year. (Source: Alternative Fuels Data Center)

Graphic: Lais Borges/Inverse

The reason for the recent changes? “No small part of that is cost,” says Klock-McCook. This has probably been the hardest part of getting EVs on the road. Why? There’s the relatively cheap gas and diesel Americans enjoy, the fact we have larger distances to cover than Europe (“though this is more in people’s minds than reality when you look at the average daily driving distances,” Klock-McCook notes), and more lax fuel economy standards than much of the world. This is, in part, why the government’s role has been so important — subsidizing America’s electrification to counteract the (also heavily subsidized) fossil fuel industry has truly moved the needle.

A $7,500 tax credit from the IRA has spurned billions in investments into electric cars (over $120 billion by some estimates) and we’re just now seeing what may be the turning point. “The fourth quarter 2023 number indicates a continued appetite, and I think that we will see another surge as the new tax laws, allowing for the point-of-sale rebate of the EV credit, have just come online,” says Filipelli. “It is true that many of those folks that waited for the price point of EVs to come down have maybe already purchased one now that they are cheaper.”

The Cost of Fuel

Based on a Gasoline Gallon Equivalent, gasoline is still one of the cheapest fuels in America, only beat by Compressed Natural Gas. Electric prices are still relatively high, on average, but the price is far less volatile than gasoline and EVs have so many built-in efficiences that it is in general less susceptible to the pump price politics. (Source: Department of Energy)

Graphic: Lais Borges/Inverse

Challenges lay ahead of course. For one, electric vehicles won’t be an immediate answer for everything. “Moving heavy things (trucks, busses, trains, ships, planes) by EV is a huge challenge,” notes Filipelli. And in these instances, there might be a better cost-effective and carbon-light fuel than electric. “The advantages of hydrogen for these is pretty clear,” he says.

Klock-McCook agrees that certain situations, like long-haul trucking or bus transportation, might require hydrogen, but it “only makes sense in the limited use cases where battery electric can’t do the job,” he says.

More important is the fact that driving everywhere — using a vehicle to move, on average, 1 to 2 people — is inefficient no matter what’s in the fuel tank. “Mass transit via non-fossil fuel options remains the most significant way that America can lower its carbon footprint,” says Filipelli. “We can’t just EV our way out of the climate crisis.

Klock-McCook puts a number on it: “In order to stay aligned with a 1.5 degree C scenario, we must also reduce passenger vehicle trips traveled by 20 percent.” That’s not to say we need to stay home 20 percent more — it’s that we need to use cars 20 percent less.

There are two real ways to do this: Public transportation and people power. For the former, investments in buses and trains and other mass people movers, and divestment from ever-expanding highways and roads are necessary. You can’t pave your way to less traffic experts now readily admit, as more roads just invite more cars and more traffic.

As for people-powered transportation, experts look to cities and towns for zoning reform that requires new developments to think about how walkable and bikeable neighborhoods are. After all, the e-bike holds a lot of promise as a simple and increasingly affordable car replacement, especially considering nearly one-third of car trips in America are less than one mile long.

The onus shouldn’t be on we the people to walk more and bike more — especially on streets crowded with heavy and dangerous vehicles. We all need to get around and are incentivized to do so in a thousand different ways. So why not give us a nice tree-lined sidewalk to help us get from here to there? One foot in front of the other has and always will be the cheapest and most efficient alt fuel.

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