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Mon, April 10, 2023
Engineering and industry leaders and students across the country came together April 4-5 to discuss “The Mobility Electrification Revolution” at the 2023 NAE Regional Conference. This revolution is a massive twenty-first-century economic shift that supports the idea that almost all of the global energy used to power transportation will shift to electricity production and delivery.
Held at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the event explored the diverse challenges and opportunities in shifting to electric transportation systems. Presentations and panel discussions covered a vast assortment of topics including policy, infrastructure, security, innovations, and resources.
The event kicked off with a tour of the UIUC campus, including the Institute for Genomic Biology, the Electrical & Computer Engineering building (zero-net tour), and the Newmark Civil Engineering Laboratory, each of which plays a role in preparing future engineers to tackle the challenges of today and tomorrow.
John Anderson, NAE President, shared in the opportunity to engage with colleagues and learn about electrification across the spectrum. “There was a cross fertilization of knowledge from people in different fields, which will lead to more innovation,” he said. The meeting placed a spotlight on the connection between technological advancements and public acceptance, the importance of which cannot be understated, according to Anderson. “Engineers must address the needs, wants and/or desires of the public, and clearly demonstrate the benefits of the innovation in making our lives safer, easier, more productive,” he said. “Whenever a new product, process or system is available, the public has to be aware of it and accepting of it for it to be a success.”
To make his point, Anderson pointed to the cell phone. “When Marty Cooper made the very first cell phone call 50 years ago—on April 3, 1973—no one ‘needed’ it at the time, but who could live without it now? The cell phone and its descendant, the smart phone, have changed the way we live.”
Redesigning EVS to Attract Consumers
Companies like Tesla heavily considered public input when revitalizing the electric vehicle (EV) industry. In his presentation, Tesla co-founder Martin Eberhard pointed out that, “EV’s were not sexy. The number one radical idea behind the start of Tesla was to revive the EV by making an actually sexy electric car.” But aesthetics were not the only goal for Tesla; technological advancements and environmental sustainability were also at the forefront. The rising threat of global warming and dependence on international oil supplies became increasingly obvious reasons “to break our fossil fuels addiction.”
Powering Electrification Movement
Shifting to EVs will reduce carbon emissions and provide sustainability to the environment, according to Dr. Imad L. Al-Qadi, Grainger Distinguished Chair in Engineering, UIUC. He pointed to grid electrification as a means to reach that goal; however, he acknowledged that current barriers for EV adoption exist including inadequate infrastructures, range limitations, charging times and lack of regulations. These problems affect personal and commercial vehicles alike, and addressing these needs would aid electrification, he noted. “This is a very complex problem,” Al-Qadi said, pointing to the need for a systems engineering approach to creating solutions. “This complex problem needs to have different integrations of different talents and different brains in order to make this happen.”
Building on solutions to range anxiety, Dr. Eleftheria Kontou, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UIUC, proposed the creation of a network of public charging stations that would boost consumer confidence and increase the purchase of EVs. “Public chargers can also have spillover effects,” she said. “Increasing and building the confidence in the future of the plug-in electric vehicle market, as well as exposing travelers to this new and emerging technology, could increase consumers' willingness to use this emerging technology.” Kontou also noted that in cases of emergency situations such as evacuations, portable EV charging stations could be placed strategically in areas of most need—a feat not possible for traditional gas stations. “Emergency and portable charging stations can be a solution to this emerging challenge,” she added.
Meeting Climate Change Goals
Globally, governments are calling for a reduction in greenhouse gas. But EV adoption needs to explode to meet climate goals, according to Giorgio Rizzoni, Ford Motor Company Chair in ElectroMechanical Systems, The Ohio State University (OSU). Stalling progress are the numerous challenges that need to be addressed. To spur momentum forward, Rizzoni has collaborated with leaders from five colleges at the University to “create an ‘Electrified Mobility Innovation Engine’ (EMIE) that has the structure of being an independent, non-profit organization that links business, universities and government.” EMIE’s goal goes beyond addressing EV expansion alone and includes being a resource that links different agencies to research and innovation in the electric travel world.
In the aviation world, it is projected that air travel could emit nearly 21 gigatons of carbon waste in the next few decades. Yet a major step in decreasing carbon admission would be electrified propulsion, according to Dr. Kiruba Haran, Grainger Endowed Director’s Chair in Electric Machinery and Electromechanics, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, UIUC. “Electrification complemented with sustainable aviation fuel can help decarbonize aviation,” he explained, noting that universities and organizations across the world are working to standardize large electric aircrafts. Haran described electrification as a disruptor to the aviation community, believing that the creativity of the next generation of engineers will lead us to complete electrification.
Planning the Way Forward
As excitement grows for the potential of an all-electric future, concerns were also expressed. EVs will rely on cyber systems to operate, yet these systems are vulnerable to attacks. “What’s unique or different about electric vehicle infrastructure is the exposure but also the physicality of the exposure,” said Professor David M. Nicol, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, UIUC. He iterated that electrification increases society’s dependence on complex cybersystems and generates considerable personal data that legal frameworks may classify as requiring protection. This data can come from systems like purchasing, charging or authentication. As electrification increases, Professor Nicol believes that breaches in cybersystems will be decided in the legal system through setting precedents.
The atmosphere of the conference was hopeful, with engineers and industry experts alike pleased with the progress in electrification and optimistic about future endeavors. While each sector will see its share of challenges, the excitement for a greener tomorrow is fueling the transportation industry.
The 2023 NAE Regional Conference, “The Mobility Electrification Revolution,” was presented in partnership with the National Science Foundation Power Optimization of Electro-Thermal Systems (POETS) Engineering Research Center, Illinois Center for Transportation (ICT), the Grainger College of Engineering, the Grainger Lecture Series, the Tykociner Lecture Series, the Kent Seminar Series in Transportation, and the MRL Distinguished Lecture Series.
Images courtesy of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign