Photo of 3Degrees members outside of the ACT Expo

What does the future of transportation look like? Since the mid-twentieth century we’ve held on to promises of flying cars, hoverboards, and civilian space travel. While one out of three ain’t bad, our perception of futuristic transport has shifted away from the spectacular toward the imperative. If we have any chance of meeting the challenge of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, we must address transportation emissions which constitute the largest single source of emissions in the United States.

Earlier this month, I joined several of my colleagues and hundreds of executives and practitioners across the spectrum of transportation at the ACT Expo, North America’s largest clean transportation technology conference. This event brings together everyone from fleet operators, to shipping and logistics, rail, infrastructure, policy and automotive makers in Long Beach, California to explore the most pivotal trends in clean transportation.

The mere existence and swift growth of this conference is a testament to the incredible momentum building within the sector. With new state and federal transportation mandates combined with the head-spinning development and deployment of clean transportation technologies, plus the growing accessibility of market-based incentive programs, the entire sector is reaching a sort of tipping point. This all comes at a time when organizations are moving beyond addressing the emissions generated within their four walls and increasingly committing to aggressive climate targets that take into account transportation and value chain emissions. 

With hundreds of the finest minds in clean transportation in attendance, I was able to listen in on and take part in many engaging conversations about the continued evolution of the industry, the latest trends, forthcoming policies, and game-changing technologies. 

Here are a few notable takeaways from my three days at the ACT Expo:

The economics for electrification are sound

Auto manufacturers seem to be in broad agreement that the total cost of ownership (TCO) parity on the vehicle side is inching closer, if not already present in many circumstances, making the economics for electrification feasible across the board. This is different from what we heard just a year ago. Many of the largest and most well-established automotive companies are very much hedging their bets on electrification, as evidenced by GM’s launch of BrightDrop earlier this year and Ford’s recent announcement of Ford Pro Charging (powered by Electriphi). Jason Skoog, General Manager of Peterbilt Motors, a PACCAR company, shared that “the [battery electric] technology is here now. We’re building and delivering these trucks today”. Adoption is still behind, but expected to rapidly increase as several EV companies continue to ramp up deliveries over the next year. It seems clear that the EV tipping point has been reached. 

Success requires streamlined collaboration and well-planned infrastructure

Many industry experts agree that a new level of collaboration and cooperation will be required across utilities, public and private sectors in order to achieve scale in electrification. EVgo’s CEO, Cathy Zoi encouraged any fleet manager thinking about electrification at their depot to get in touch with their utility immediately, as the upgrades and lead times required represent the single biggest threat to a timely and cost effective implementation of a fleet electrification strategy.

The sessions outlined several warnings to fleets that are eager to transition to electric vehicles without the appropriate charging infrastructure onsite to support the vehicles after purchasing. This is a huge and likely ongoing pain point that will need to be addressed. Muffi Ghadiali from Ford Pro Charging went so far as to say: “The charging infrastructure is going to drive the vehicles.” 

Rakesh Aneja, Head of eMobility, Daimler Trucks North America expounded that there are essentially three factors at play: availability of vehicles, availability of energy infrastructure, and cost parity [between ICE vehicles and ZEVs]; if any of these are in question, the entire equation fails.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is gaining traction 

Although the primary focus of the conference was on battery-electric fleet technology, it was clear that the sentiment around hydrogen fuel cell technology as a viable alternative for heavy-duty fleets and challenging fleet applications is increasing. Hydrogen fuel cell trucks had their own carve out on the expo floor and in session discussion, while there was limited discussion of compressed natural gas (CNG) and renewable natural gas (RNG) vehicles. This is a noticeable shift from just a few years ago. Andrew Sarantapoulas, VP of Marketing & Product Management at Linde, indicated that “There is limited supply out there of RNG. It will be harder to compete with hard to electrify industries which will need the RNG, and mobility solutions will end up needing to rely on hydrogen.”

Parting sentiments

This year’s ACT Expo was remarkable for reasons beyond the fact that it was the first opportunity many of us had to be under the same roof for a live, in-person thought-leadership event. The clean transportation sector is advancing at a rapid pace and though there are obvious challenges that lie ahead, particularly in terms of the rollout of clean charging technology and understanding the financial implications of upfront investment, we anticipate even further acceleration in the near term. 

So while I’m not holding my breath that I, or even my son for that matter, will ever experience the thrill of bombing around on a hoverboard, I am left hopeful and excited for the future of transportation. The deployment of the many advancements discussed at ACT Expo this year, will leave us strongly positioned to meet the challenge of decarbonizing the transportation sector.