UH forum: Future transportation technologies runs counter to energy sector

The future of transportation is expected to include more electric cars, amped up battery systems for autos, self-driving vehicles and improved mass transit – all developments that threaten the oil and gas industry.

Plenty of consumers still buy gas-guzzling vehicles now, but experts at a University of Houston energy symposium Tuesday said the long-term trends move away from today’s transportation system that favors the fossil fuel industry.

How fast the trends change is another question as putting new technology into everyday use can be expensive early and face other challenges, said Ken Laberteaux, senior scientist for the Toyota Research Institute in North America.
“We have for a long time built an economy around the notion that transportation is cheap,” Laberteaux said. “Fundamental massive change . . .  will come with some friction, and not just because people love oil,” he said.

The event, dubbed “Navigating the future of person transportation, hit topics ranging from ride-sharing to distracted drivers.

Quincy Allen, Texas Department of Transportation engineer for the Houston district, bemoaned the 500 traffic deaths a year in the Houston area and the 3,500 annual deaths statewide.

“It’s so hard to get people to set the cell phone aside so they won’t be distracted by it,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer is there.”

He hopes the future brings more autonomous vehicles that regulate speed limits, eliminate tailgating and cut down on easily avoidable fatalities.

Emil Frankel, interim president and CEO of the Washington-based Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit think tank, criticized the transportation sector for barely changing for many decades.

But he called  electric cars, ride-sharing services and Google’s self-driving car project part of an ongoing technological revolution.

At Toyota and elsewhere, Laberteaux said, the debate is whether to ease in  self-driving features – like collision avoidance and self-parking – or go full-tilt autonomous. And should cars be equipped to have drivers step-in as a back-up, or fail safe, measure?

Laberteaux also talked about Toyota’s line up cars, noting that it just unveiled its upcoming Prius Plus hybrid electric car that will 120 miles per gallon equivalent. But Laberdeaux said Toyota isn’t moving to all battery-powered vehicles like Tesla any time soon.

“Batteries are heavy and they’re expensive. Heavy is a big issue for efficiency,” he said, stressing that more technological advancements are needed.

The UH Energy Symposium Series has served for three years as a gathering place for industry officials and environmental experts to talk about key energy topics.

Tuesday’s event, attended by more than 300 people, was the final of four energy forums this academic year at the University of Houston. The series last examined the Iran accord and global oil markets in February. FuelFix.com is a sponsor of the symposium series.