Insights · July 11th, 2008

Everyone has seen on film or TV, and a few have personally experienced the following: an emergency begins – a fire, an air raid, a ship collision. For a while there is confusion, and people mill around, not sure what is happening. Then, a voice comes over a PA system: “THIS IS NOT A DRILL, REPEAT, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

That was the simple point I attempted to make this week in a keynote speech to the Mississippi Valley Conference of state highway and transportation officials meeting in Kansas City.

You can view a copy of the PowerPoint slides that I used, here.

The topic assigned was what lessons might we learn from the future about transportation, circa 2025? In order to understand transportation in that time frame, it is important to grasp what is happening today.

For a least a couple of decades, experts have been warning that a time would come when oil production would peak, prices would increase, climate change would challenge us, and putting all of that together we would come to end of the first automobile era. In fact, I predicted just that in a keynote speech in 1987, in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Now, it appears that we have arrived at the confluence of these forces. Many people in this audience, and any audience for that matter, hold out hope that the current situation is temporary, a mere blip in normal business and oil price cycles, and that before long we’ll be back, perhaps all the way to 1999 when the price of oil was $10 a barrel.

But, this is not a drill. China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world are using more and more oil products, and buying more cars. Here in the U.S. we are our own worst enemies when it comes to consumption. Seemingly without much thought we’ve grown typical houses from an average of 980 square feet for 3.4 people, to 5000-8000 square feet for 2.6 people. Our vehicles have ballooned in size until bus-sized SUV’s and Hummers lumber down the road.

Now, not just oil prices but a variety of factors will push us to re-think transportation and energy policies:
• The millennial generation will not stand for an approach which merely attempts to repeat the past.
• Climate change impacts are hitting us sooner than previously expected, including a rapid increase in the number of major floods, and fires, world wide.
• The economy in the near term is staggering under the weight of the financial crisis. (Note: the week of July 7-11, 2008 really brought this fact home, as the stock market went from the worst month of June since the great depression, to its lowest level in years, while oil reached another all-time high price.)

Then, there is the situation with oil. Prices are high now primarily because there is no slack in the system. The world produces, and uses, about 85-86 million barrels a day, while a cushion of 8-10% would be required to reduce supply & demand pressures. Oil exports are flat as producing nations use more of their own product.

So, we must search for answers. Is the answer drill, drill drill, as we hear from certain commentators, presidential candidates, and presidents? Consider the possibilities, keeping in mind that the U.S. uses about 20-21 million barrels of oil a day:
• The Bakken shale area of the Dakotas and Montana: 23 days of oil for U.S.
Arctic Wildlife Refuge – 1.5 years of U.S. demand
Alberta tar sands – anticipated maximum production yields 3 hours a day of U.S. needs, a few minutes of global demand.
Opening the off-shore Continental shelf – 2.5 years of U.S. demand, but not beginning until 7-10 years from now.

In other words, drill drill drill is not a solution, it is an election strategy. We need breakthrough thinking – and it is happening! Nanotech batteries and solar cells. Electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. We need only 17% more electricity a year in the national grid to re-charge the national fleet. Currently Amtrak has only 632 usable passenger cars in the entire country, but high speed trains may get a boost when California votes on Prop.1 this November. Mercedes plans to phase out fossil fuel vehicles by 2015.

Other nations are showing the way: Israel is going all electric, with service stations at which you will drive in, swap out batteries, and drive out. Brazil and China are investing in ethanol and methanol, respectively. Iran is converting private vehicles to natural gas. Masdar City in Abu Dubai will be a center for alternative energy and transportation research (too bad it is not in the New Mexico desert).

Here at home, T. Boone Pickens is outlining a plan to shift natural gas from electricity generation to a vehicle fuel, and using wind and solar to generate the electricity, in 10 years.

The bottom line is this:
• The next 15 years will see a transition from one energy & transportation system to another, a transformation which is necessary and inevitable.
• It is going to take a whole systems view of community form, energy, communications, and transportation to make this transition.
• It will require technology, and a deep reconsideration of values to get there.

We can to this, if we choose the right problems and apply the right solutions – the best definition of optimism that you can have.

Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, consultant, blogger, internet TV show host and founder of Futurist.com. To arrange for a speech contact Futurist.com.

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Nikolas Badminton

Nikolas is the Chief Futurist of the Futurist Think Tank. He is world-renowned futurist speaker, a Fellow of The RSA, and has worked with over 300 of the world’s most impactful companies to establish strategic foresight capabilities, identify trends shaping our world, help anticipate unforeseen risks, and design equitable futures for all. In his new book – ‘Facing Our Futures’ – he challenges short-term thinking and provides executives and organizations with the foundations for futures design and the tools to ignite curiosity, create a framework for futures exploration, and shift their mindset from what is to WHAT IF…

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