We’re in the middle of one revolution—and are soon to launch another. These upheavals, both leading to a more sustainable future, are the products not of human conflict but of human ingenuity. Simply put, we’re utterly reinventing how we get from here to there.
“Cars and trucks are undergoing their greatest makeover since the automobile’s inception more than a century ago,” writer Craig Welch notes in the first of this issue’s two stories on the future of transportation. Almost overnight, electric cars are proliferating, as carbon dioxide-belching internal combustion engines head for the endangered species list.
In air transportation, the other mode we examine, change is more gradual. There are promising developments in sustainable aviation fuel made from waste products, planes fueled by “green” hydrogen, and aircraft with zero-emission, battery-powered electric engines.
Most market-level change still is on the horizon. For example, says writer Sam Howe Verhovek, there’s no battery that can get a Boeing 747 from New York to London: “It would take the juice of 4.4 million laptop batteries just to generate liftoff. Except that the jumbo jet could never get off the ground: The batteries would weigh seven times as much as the plane.”
Concern about climate change is driving these economic and consumer shifts. But progress is taking too long: Our planet’s health depends on zeroing out carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 at the latest, climate change experts say.
That’s a sobering truth, but there’s reason for optimism in this issue’s coverage of what we’re achieving now (with autos) and what we’re poised to achieve (with planes). Global annual sales of electric vehicles are expected to soar from just over three million today to 14 million by 2025. By 2040, EVs likely will make up 70 percent of cars globally. As for planes, Verhovek says, “George Jetson’s flying car is indeed on the way, albeit with AI and not George at the controls.” We depict the plane of the future in a graphic: It looks like a flying boomerang with passenger seats in the wings.
As we planned this issue, I imagined using the headline “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” after the 1987 comedy film that’s nominally about transportation but mostly about the indomitable human spirit. However, as scrupulous editors noted, that would not meet our accuracy standards unless we mentioned rail transport in our coverage.
So, we shall. In the United States, railway electrification is practically nil. But in Europe, China, and India, trains are more than 55 percent electrified, and India’s aiming for nearly 100 percent by 2024. Though rail accounts for just one percent of transport emissions globally, every bit helps.
Thank you for reading National Geographic.
This story appears in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.