Engaging the Public in the Mobility Electrification Revolution

The electrification of the transportation industry will take more than one person buying one electric vehicle (EV), or 10,000 people buying 10,000 EVs. True change requires a holistic approach that includes the collaboration of leaders developing the products, policies and infrastructure needed to ensure the success and safety of our transportation systems. And it will require the “buy-in” of the public to lead, adopt, or adapt to, change.

Information sharing and collaboration were the goals of the 2023 NAE 2023 Regional Meeting and Symposium focused on “The Mobility Electrification Revolution” symposium. I had the distinct pleasure of participating in the two-day event, April 4-5. Hosted by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the symposium brought together researchers, state and national policymakers, and industry leaders, with the goal of sharing information and insights on current progress and next steps toward electrification of the transportation systems.

As the nation moves toward net-zero carbon emissions, every facet of transportation will be affected—from the products (cars, planes, trains, farming equipment) to the infrastructure (roads, ports, electric grid, power generation) to state and national policies. While enthusiasm builds around the potential, we must remain aware of the challenges that engineers and others must overcome. We also need to be open to new opportunities and flexible enough to seize them.

The need for public acceptance was an underlying theme throughout all presentations, illustrating the vital importance it plays in ensuring the success of innovation. The foundation for public acceptance should be laid early-on through public awareness and engagement in planning processes, and continually made stronger throughout the development process.

For example, in his presentation, Tesla Co-founder Martin Eberhard recounted how Tesla revamped the electric vehicle (EV) to meet consumer desires. These revamps were not purely cosmetic; they reflected upgrading features to make the cars more appealing to an everyday driver. In short, Tesla listened to the public and responded in-kind, resulting in a positive growth in the sales of EVs.

UIUC’s Dr. Imad L. Al-Qadi, Grainger Distinguished Chair in Engineering, and Dr. Eleftheria Kontou, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, cited a main barrier for EV integration as “range anxiety,” or fear that an EV will not have enough battery charge to reach its destination, leaving occupants stranded. Both agreed that increased charging opportunities would alleviate anxieties, and each offered comprehensive solutions.

To address consumer anxiety, Kontou cited emergency situations such as evacuations as instances where EVs might have an advantage over traditional fossil fuel vehicles. Specifically, portable EV charging stations, placed strategically along evacuation routes, could help reduce transportation disruptions. In fact, portable charging stations can be strategically placed nearly anywhere in times of need, allowing for more flexibility in movement. Equally important, portable charging stations and their placement can be incorporated into overall emergency planning and preparedness, enabling responders to have solutions in place before disaster strikes.

As the Mobility Electrification Revolution takes hold with greater force, engineers must take the time to listen to the public, inform them of changes and opportunities, and engage them in solutions. The cross-fertilization of knowledge from individuals representing different fields, in tandem with public engagement, will lead to more, and better, innovation.

Click here for highlights of The Mobility Electrification Revolution Symposium.