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May 25, 2023Episode 58. Charging Ahead: How the Electrified Mobility Collaborative envisions a radical shift.
FEATURING: Tara Ramani
Nearly 300 million vehicles are on American roads today. Nearly all of them run on gasoline or diesel, so a large-scale shift to electric power would be transformative. A new Texas A&M University System venture is working to figure out how that might work.
About Our Guest
Tara Ramani leads the Air Quality, Energy and Health Division at TTI. She also is the deputy director of the Center for Advancing Research in Transportation Emissions, Energy, and Health, a US Department of Transportation-funded University Transportation Center. Tara joined TTI in 2006 as a graduate student, and has been active in the transportation research field since, focusing on sustainable transportation and air quality topics.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Hello and welcome to Thinking Transportation. Conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Only a small fraction of cars on American roads today are powered by electricity, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1900, roughly a third of all vehicles were running on batteries. Gas-powered cars, however, quickly became the norm for some of the same reasons that bedevil electric cars today — mainly range and affordability. But with technology advancements and public policy incentives, alternative fuel vehicles are making a comeback. Electrified mobility holds the promise to radically change how we move people and products, but only after we find answers to a number of questions. Power generation, battery technology, affordability, charging infrastructure, and more. Not to mention the implications of shifting the focus of entire industries. Understanding it all can be overwhelming, but we have someone here who can help us understand. Tara Ramani is a research engineer at TTI and Deputy Director of the Center for Advancing Research in Transportation Emissions, Energy and Health. Thank you so much for being here, Tara.
Tara Ramani (guest) (01:45):
Thanks, Bernie. Great to be here.
Bernie Fette (01:48):
Okay. TTI is a partner agency in the Electrified Mobility Collaborative, which is a venture that the Texas A&M University system launched somewhat recently. So what’s the Collaborative hoping to accomplish?
Tara Ramani (02:06):
So, Bernie, as you said, this is something that the Texas A&M University system kicked off and we had a launch event last month and it was pretty successful. And we had a bunch of people from across the Texas A&M University System — folks from Kingsville and Prairie View and all the other institutions across the state as well. The overall intent was to establish something like a community of practice in this area, and we went with sort of the broad title of electrified mobility because it’s something that’s pretty all encompassing and seems to be everywhere, right? Wherever you go, people are talking about transportation, electrification, electric vehicles, and it was the intent of the system leadership to say that we need to establish some kind of a community of practice where we can share information, know what the others are doing. The end goal, of course, is for us to therefore be more impactful in the research work that we pursue.
Bernie Fette (03:08):
Right. And as you mentioned, this is a university system-wide initiative, and we should remember just for reference that the A&M System is 11 universities and eight state agencies. So there’s a pretty broad reach of areas of expertise beyond TTI. So why is this work important?
Tara Ramani (03:27):
So as I alluded to before, electrified mobility seems to be everywhere. And for those of you who’ve been tracking just the news coming out of federal funding programs and things like that, there is a push towards electrifying our transportation system that is moving from the existing internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles. The reason for this is primarily for greenhouse gas emissions reductions or decarbonization, right? So to reduce carbon emissions, the intent is that if you have an electric vehicle and it is powered by a clean grid, you could essentially decarbonize the transportation sector a lot easier than if you had internal combustion vehicles. Keeping in mind the sort of policy imperatives, right? Where the federal government, as well as several others are investing in infrastructure to charge these vehicles as well as incentivizing the manufacture and purchase of these vehicles. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, there are a lot of research opportunities that come up. So obviously for us, we are thinking of it from a research as well as a societal impact perspective, right? So the idea is that we should systematize what’s going on and understand the landscape because it is being viewed as one of the next big things.
Bernie Fette (04:44):
Right. Let’s try to put this in a historical context if we can. You mentioned the internal combustion engine. It was just a little more than a century ago that that engine started to replace the horse-drawn option for mobility. So with that as a reference point, how would you frame the pursuit of electrified mobility in American history? How big is this?
Tara Ramani (05:10):
That’s an interesting question. And in some ways this is a fundamental shift in the boundaries of transportation and infrastructure. When you think of the electric component, whereas before the vehicles carry their fuel source in their gas tanks, and so the boundaries of the infrastructure ended with maybe the roads that they run on, and of course the fueling facilities and everything. However, now it’s a coupling of these two infrastructure systems, right? So the electric grid with the transportation system, so it becomes so-called like a system of systems or a coupled infrastructure, which has its own challenges. And in that sense it is different. However, from a systems perspective, most of the electric vehicles today are just replacing their equivalent internal combustion engine vehicles. So you know, a Tesla sedan is replacing some other kind of sedan that was running on the road. And the way they operate on the system is not fundamentally changing beyond the charging or refueling element. So while this is perhaps more aligned with our existing transportation system, the coupling with infrastructure I think creates a sort of different set of issues.
Bernie Fette (06:26):
I see. So when we’re talking about electrified mobility, and you talked about sedans mm-hmm. <affirmative>, what vehicle groups are we talking about? Is this just about electric cars or are we talking a more broad perspective than that?
Tara Ramani (06:39):
So I think we wanted to, as part of this collaborative start broader, initially when we were setting it up, there was quite a bit of discussion about should it be an electric vehicle collaborative versus a mobility collaborative, right? Because each of them have a slightly different connotation. And I think we went with mobility not just to encompass all vehicle types, right? And when it comes to all vehicle types, primarily it’s the on-road personal vehicles where mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we are seeing the transition to electrification happening the quickest. However, freight is also a very big issue. Freight is a sector that is electrifying, and if you follow some of the recent rules from the Environmental Protection Agency, they have greenhouse gas emission standards that they’re proposing, which would in effect ensure that even heavy duty vehicles are going to electrify. So all of that is within the bounds of this initiative, but we also framed it as mobility to add in exploration of some of the policy-type issues.
Bernie Fette (07:42):
Right, so it’s all inclusive.
Tara Ramani (07:43):
Correct. Yes. And some of the other things that were talked about as sort of niche sectors in electrified mobility, but we decided we’re still to the extent possible going to be addressed by our initiative are things like adaptive e-bikes, which are used more for access for certain sectors of the population. You know, mobility options that are more prevalent in certain areas like e-scooters and things like that. But the idea was to be able to address all of them, or at least put the information together on all these sectors.
Bernie Fette (08:17):
And one thing that we haven’t mentioned is vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, what some people refer to as air taxis, I think.
Tara Ramani (08:24):
Yeah, that’s a great point. I think that’s something that is definitely taking off <laugh>, no pun intended, but that’s definitely being addressed because it is a mobility option that in certain cases is being explored as an alternative to on-road vehicles.
Bernie Fette (08:41):
Okay. We have close to 300 million cars and trucks on the road in this country. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> right now, just in the United States. Only a small fraction of them are running on electricity. So how would a shift to electric power actually happen? Is there a particular sequence that could be simplified for the people listening to help everyone understand how would this actually unfold?
Tara Ramani (09:08):
So are you meaning more from a consumer sort of perspective or more from a system perspective?
Bernie Fette (09:15):
No, more from a system perspective, because you’ve got infrastructure issues, you’ve got vehicle issues, you’ve got power generation, Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and grid issues. Is there a particular sequence that things have to follow for such a transformational thing like this to actually happen?
Tara Ramani (09:33):
You know, that’s a very difficult topic, and I think it’s something that everyone is grappling with right now.
Bernie Fette (09:37):
Tara Ramani (09:38):
The way it’s happening in real time is obviously the vehicles are being more available and people who can are purchasing them, obviously at the penetration levels we have right now, and the fact that the average EV user is, you know, well off, living in their own house where they can charge at home, it has not been as much of a challenge, so to speak, to get the people who can afford and want them right now to buy them and charge them at home without also noticeably affecting the grid. However, in order for these vehicles to be able to operate more smoothly, to alleviate range anxiety and all of that, there is the need for that infrastructure. And this is an area, obviously we work with our partners over at electrical engineering and others.
Tara Ramani (10:29):
You know, I’m not a grid person, I’m more of a transportation person. But my understanding is that at higher levels there are some challenges for the grid, which are not insurmountable, but that need to be addressed and mm-hmm <affirmative>, those are both just grid capacity under ordinary conditions, right. For everyday use. If you start to electrify large levels of the vehicles on the road, as well as if you need concentrated demand, say for a particular fleet that’s operating out of a certain place, because it appears that the needs for those kind of specialized charging or high levels of charging might include um, the expansion of electric infrastructure, like adding a substation or something like that to provide that electricity. And my understanding from some stakeholder workshops that we have been to is that there is concern about how quickly those can happen, but there is an acknowledgement that that needs to happen. So the infrastructure piece is one aspect, and to some extent the market and regulations are driving the increased availability of these vehicles and affordability of these vehicles. So some people describe it as a chicken-and-egg problem.
Bernie Fette (11:41):
Right. And so the question that I think I was trying to ask about how does this look as it’s unfolding — It may be that if I understand correctly, that that’s precisely one of the things that the collaborative is trying to figure out.
Tara Ramani (11:54):
Definitely, especially when it comes to these questions of how to match up a grid powered by renewables with electric vehicles and their charging needs, something that would be applicable everywhere. It depends on your local grid, the source of the fuel for your grid. You know, whether you’re powered by wind or solar, et cetera. But overall it is seen as a shift that’s happening and that people are, you know, kind of addressing to the extent possible as they move forward.
Bernie Fette (12:24):
Okay. And I think that you touched very briefly a little while ago on the fact that there are also public policy-related considerations. We can see one example of that unfolding in the Texas Legislature just in the last couple of days. The legislature passed a law that would establish a registration fee level and a renewal fee for electric vehicles. The reason being, as you know, that electric vehicles don’t pay in the same way for using the roadways because they don’t buy gas and therefore they don’t pay the state gasoline tax or the state diesel tax. So what are some of the other policy considerations, if there’s a way to briefly touch on those?
Tara Ramani (13:13):
So I think there are many different policy issues that need to be addressed. And I think a lot of the discussion at this point is centered on equity and sustainability, right? So if you think of this analogy of if you have the existing transportation system as it is, and if you change all the vehicles operating to EVs, is that gonna solve our problems, right? Or is that gonna be a sustainable and equitable transportation system? And the answer is no, because while you might have reduced carbon emissions, at least on road emissions, there are still other impacts of vehicles as well as lack of access and equity considerations that would still remain. So in that context, I think there are a lot of gaps in terms of access to EVs for people as well as more fundamentally thinking about whether in this transition to EVs, we should also rethink some aspects of transportation instead of electrifying certain sectors, maybe we provide other modes of transportation instead. So there are some of these broader policy issues that need consideration as well.
Bernie Fette (14:23):
Okay. And you seem to be talking about some of the challenges that are inherent in a pursuit like this. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> Something this transformative is going to be a pretty heavy lift. And I hope maybe we could talk just a little bit about some of those challenges. I read just in the last couple of days in the Washington Post about a facility in Indonesia that mines and refines nickel, which is an important element in producing electric vehicle batteries. The processing of that ingredient also produces about 4 million tons of toxic waste, which is, according to what I read, enough to fill 1,667 Olympic swimming pools. So when many of us consider how clean electric vehicles are, we don’t necessarily think about the unintended consequences of their increased presence on the roads. So can you help us piece that together just a little bit, if there’s a simple way to do it about how the Electrified Mobility Collaborative is looking into those issues?
Tara Ramani (15:37):
Sure. And I will take a stab at it. And I think that’s a great question. It’s a question that has come up a lot when it comes to electric vehicles and the fact that we are currently just setting that boundary around to some extent just what happens when the vehicles run, where they are zero emissions, right? And to some extent when they’re charged, where also they are lower carbon than your internal combustion engine vehicles. But I think the one thing that has come up a lot, and even at TTI, we are starting to do, and we’ll be kicking off a project soon, is to look at a more lifecycle perspective, right? So looking at a lifecycle based assessment of EVs and taking into account the entire supply chain and the emissions associated with different steps in the process, and not just emissions, right, but environmental impacts that need to be costed on some kind of a comparable scale so that we can truly understand what the environmental impacts of these are.
Tara Ramani (16:39):
And I do think the battery issue especially has come up a lot. It’s in the news a lot. There are concerns with global equity, right? There are places in the global south that are not going to necessarily see the benefits of EVs that are often the source of these materials needed for their manufacturer. So these are real problems, but they’re being tackled in a couple of ways. So firstly, there is a lot of research ongoing. Again, this is not an area I’m an expert in, but even at the collaborative and within the system, we’ve seen, you know, alternatives to lithium, alternatives to some of the heavy metals that are needed, ways to recycle some of these materials and use them as opposed to mining them, et cetera, which could potentially allow for lesser impacts in producing what’s needed for these vehicles as well as reducing their impact.
Tara Ramani (17:29):
So that’s one aspect. And the other aspect also is of course, comparing these vehicles across the lifecycle with their internal combustion engine counterparts. I have seen a few studies in this area, and I think overall, if we consider the life cycle of what it takes to produce a gasoline vehicle, as well as what it takes to produce the fuel versus EVs, you know, to my understanding, I don’t recall if there is, you know, any concrete answer of what wins, but I don’t believe there is a huge disparity as well though another issue with EVs is just concerns about the quantity of materials needed if we are to shift huge amounts of our fleet. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So I think again, this is where there is a lot of ongoing research and it’s happening, and I suppose there will be technological advancements that allow this without necessarily using the materials that typically have been until now.
Bernie Fette (18:27):
Right, right. You’ve touched a couple of times on the environmental and emissions mm-hmm. <affirmative> piece of this topic. Maybe this would be a good time for you to talk just a little about the environmental and emissions research facility at TT and what kind of work is being done there. Can you share what you know about what’s going on there?
Tara Ramani (18:48):
Sure. I’m, I’m happy to. So the Environmental and Emissions Research Facility, for those of you who may not be aware, was originally built by TTI as part of a funded project with the United States Environmental Protection Agency or EPA. So at the time, we had built that facility to study the idling of heavy duty trucks to understand how different technologies to reduce idling emissions could have impact in terms of fuel, emissions reduction, the exposure that truck drivers might have when they are sitting in these trucks during their rest periods and idling their engines. So this was of course, nothing to do with electrification when we first built this facility. And over the years we have used the facility to test emissions of vehicles under different operational conditions. So it’s a climate controlled facility, which allows us to see what happens to vehicles when it’s very cold or when it’s very hot, does that change their performance and their fuel efficiency?
Tara Ramani (19:49):
And we had also done some testing on battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles when they started to come into the market many years ago. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So we already had an interest in understanding these vehicles and getting real-world data from them. Currently this facility is being expanded and we are working closely with Texas A&M University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in this expansion of this facility. And what we are actually doing is establishing sort of a joint lab. The research facility is now going to be called the Clean Transportation Research Complex. Within that we have a grid interaction facility that’s going to be managed by electrical engineering, and then our environmental and emissions research facility is being upgraded to allow for the testing of heavy duty vehicles as well. And one of our kickoff projects is going to be testing of electric buses versus their diesel counterparts under different temperature conditions and different operational conditions to do some of this work that I talked about previously. You know, taking a life cycle perspective on um, their emissions and performance. So this partnership is allowing us to bring the grid elements closer to the vehicle elements, and we are also going to have, through the engineering college, some solar fuel sources of renewable energy and things like that to really create a test bed that integrates the electric and transportation side.
Bernie Fette (21:26):
And that helps to explain, it seems, why you’re calling this a collaborative because there are multiple partners who each bring their own distinct contributions to the research and development effort.
Tara Ramani (21:38):
Absolutely. And the idea really is to treat this as you know what it is, which is a very multidisciplinary problem. And what’s interesting to me is that everyone is talking about it in their own fields and grappling about it in their own ways. So my point is there is such a wide range of stakeholders in this topic, and when it comes to research areas as well, you can’t just silo it as a transportation research problem or an electrical research problem. And so that’s kind of why this collaborative was started in the first place, was for us to map out what’s going on, understand who the players might be, and make sure that we are well positioned to address some of these grand challenges in a way that makes the best use of everyone’s expertise.
Bernie Fette (22:26):
So much for us to learn and understand about this topic. So many different layers. If you had to pick just one or two takeaways from our conversation today about what you’d hope that our listeners might remember, what would those things be? Maybe this is your elevator speech.
Tara Ramani (22:46):
Okay. So I think the big thing is electrification is here. It’s happening already and it’s going to continue to happen. It definitely is an opportunity for us to decarbonize transportation. Electrification coupled with a renewable power grid is definitely the way forward from a macro sort of benefits perspective. But there are definitely things that we still need to address to make sure that this transition is, you know, first of all functional and it is sustainable and equitable. So making sure that everyone has access to these vehicles across all sectors of society. And so I think it’s just a fundamental shift in the boundaries of transportation. And it’s a true, I think, multidisciplinary challenge. And there was a lot of talk as we started off this collaborative about framing this as a wicked problem, right? And a wicked problem is one that’s typically defined as a problem that has no solution. And so their point was this thing of transportation electrification is so all encompassing with so many issues that it should be framed as a wicked problem. But then as we thought about it, we said, that’s not the right framing. We need to frame it as a real opportunity for transformational change. And it’s just a question of making sure we can do it right.
Bernie Fette (24:10):
And you and your colleagues have plenty of work to do.
Tara Ramani (24:14):
For sure. So we’ve done a lot, but a lot of work remains.
Bernie Fette (24:17):
Last question, what is it that motivates you to get up and come to work every day?
Tara Ramani (24:24):
Okay, so I mean, honestly, I really love my job. I started out at TTI as a graduate student in 2006. I’ve stayed here ever since. I’ve really enjoyed this job. And what I really like is the exposure I have working on this broad area of sustainable transportation and studying more in-depth like transportation emissions and things like that is, it involves knowing about so many things. And this has expanded to, you know, as we talk about electrification, but even before that, transportation is so integrated with everything we do. It is a part of our lives. And in some ways it’s nice to see the technical aspects of real-world things and study them and things that I can talk about, you know, with my family or get excited about when I talk about different vehicle types or their emissions or drive cycles and things like that. So for me, it’s just seeing the real-world impacts of what I do and just a great work environment. And I get to work with some really smart and wonderful people, and I’m learning every day. I would say that’s what I really love about my job.
Bernie Fette (25:31):
Tara Ramani, research engineer at TTI and deputy director of the Center for Advancing Research in Transportation Emissions, Energy and Health. Thank you for your time, Tara. Thank you for helping us understand this topic a bit more clearly. We do appreciate it.
Tara Ramani (25:51):
Thanks, Bernie. Great to be here.
Bernie Fette (25:54):
The internal combustion engine radically changed how people got around more than a century ago. With ongoing improvements in performance and ample reserves of cheap gasoline, Henry Ford’s Model T and its many successors ruled American roadways for decades. More recently, technology advancements and consumer interests have opened the door to a new beginning for electrified mobility and the promise that it once enjoyed. Thanks for listening. Please take just a minute to give us a review, subscribe and share this episode, and please join us again next time for a conversation with Cathy Brooks and Michael Strawn. We’ll be talking with Cathy and Michael about the severe shortage of motorcycle safety instructors and how that problem may be tied to a rising number of motorcycle crashes. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.