This year saw multiple transport milestones: from the world’s first electronic freight trucks, to fully solar-powered trains, to landmark decisions to ban the sale of purely diesel and petrol-powered cars across the world.
Could this year mark the point when the transport sector truly charts a course for sustainability? Here are the top five transport stories in 2017.
1. End of the road for petrol and diesel cars
In a move that was heralded as a tipping point for the global automotive industry, China in September said it is working on a plan to end the manufacture and sale of fossil-fuel powered cars. The country, which is the world’s largest car market, did not announce a fixed timeline for this goal.
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Other countries which made similar commitments this year include the United Kingdom and France, which plan to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040, and India, which announced a goal to sell only electric cars by 2030. This was a plan that some saw as ambitious, and others as unviable.
Sweden-based, Chinese-owned industry giant Volvo also announced that it will make only electric and hybrid cars from 2019 onwards, becoming the world’s first major car maker to abandon pure internal combustion engine cars.
2. Dockless debates
Traditional models of bicycle-sharing in cities where users can rent a bike from one location and return it at another station have been around for a while, but 2017 was arguably the year of dockless bicycle sharing.
Chinese companies such as Mobike, Ofo, oBike and ReddyGo expanded exponentially, in China and cities worldwide. Ofo for instance placed 100 bikes on the streets of Oxford, UK, and said it plans to have 20 million bikes on the road across 200 cities by the end of this year. Competitor firm Mobike also launched 1,000 bright orange bikes in Manchester. In Australia, China-backed ReddyGo in June brought “thousands” of bikes to Sydney, while oBike debuted in Melbourne.
Many acknowledge the schemes as an effective means of reducing air pollution and traffic congestion—especially in China’s notoriously smoggy cities—but the rapid proliferation of bike-sharing has created a situation where supply vastly exceeds demand, and users have abused the dockless model to indiscriminately dump bikes in public places.
3. Electric overhaul for freight
The company widely regarded as a leader in electric car innovation unveiled the Tesla Semi Truck in November, opening up the potential to electrify the global freight vehicle market.
Available in models with a range of 300 and 500 miles, the trucks will be available for purchase in 2019. Companies such as package delivery firm UPS, US retail giant Walmart, food firm Pepisco have collectively pre-ordered more than 200 models.
4. Here comes the solar train
Australia’s Byron Bay Railroad Company unveiled the world’s first fully electric, solar-powered train in December. The 100-seater train, which plies a three-kilometre round route in the northern New South Wales district, has a 6.5 kilowatt (kW) solar panel array on the train roof, and is fitted with a 77 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery storage system. This is enough storage for between 12 and 15 trips, according to reports.
Brian Flannery, the multimillionaire businessman who funded the solar train, noted that a train plying a longer route would need recharging stations along the way, and added that the technology might be well suited for use in inner city trams.
Meanwhile India, home to Asia’s largest rail network, in July unveiled its first solar powered train. These trains still use diesel to move, but all air conditioning, lighting, and information displays on board are solar powered. Indian Railways estimates that using solar on board the 11,000 trains it operates daily could save the company US$6.31 billion over the next 10 years.
5. Plastic roads
Though not a new technology, the concept of building roads using plastic waste gained mainstream popularity this year. Indonesia, which is among the top five plastic polluting countries in the world, tested out the practice of mixing shredded, melted plastic waste with tar to make more durable, cheaper, and stronger roads this year. The initial test along a 700-metre stretch of road was carried out at a university in Bali, and officials plan to expand the solution to major cities such as Jakarta and Surabaya soon.
Analysts also urged India, where at least 15,000 deaths were caused by potholes in 2016, to make more roads using plastic. Though the Indian government made it mandatory to incorporate waste in highways in 2015, some states have been slow to adopt the practice.
The plastic road movement also caught on the United Kingdom this year, when engineer Toby McCartney and his start-up MacRebur persuaded two English councils to use waste to build their roads in April.
This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene over the last 12 months.