Electrified infrastructure provides a bright future for transportation

Electrification of the transportation infrastructure is one of the most promising solutions to reducing carbon emissions.

Note: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and/or interview subject and do not represent positions of IEEE.

EV Truck and charger imagery.

As the world shifts toward more sustainable forms of energy, one sector that has garnered significant attention is transportation, which contributes approximately 25% of global carbon emissions. Road travel accounts for three-quarters of transport emissions. Most of this comes from passenger vehicles—cars and buses—which contribute 45.1%. Another 29.4% comes from trucks carrying freight1. Electrification of transportation and its infrastructure is one of the most promising solutions to reducing carbon emissions.

Global C02 emissions from transport infographic.

Transportation infrastructure electrification refers to the process of transitioning from fossil-fuel-powered to electric-powered transportation systems. This involves not only the vehicles themselves but also the infrastructure needed to support them, such as charging stations, power grids, and battery technology.

There are many benefits to the electrification of the transportation infrastructure, including reducing the carbon footprint. Electrification can also provide economic benefits as electric vehicles (EVs) become more mainstream, leading to job creation and economic growth in areas such as battery technology and production, charging infrastructure, and renewable energy development.

Many policymakers around the world have declared moves to an all-electric transportation future. They are providing financial and investment incentives2 to encourage businesses and the public to accelerate their transition to EVs, resulting in greater demand for charging-station infrastructure. 

As electrification of the transportation infrastructure expands, some challenges remain. One of the biggest challenges is the limited range of EVs compared to conventional internal combustion engine (ICE)-powered vehicles. Although range has improved significantly over the past few years, EVs still have a shorter range than conventional vehicles, complicating long-distance travel. This limitation has led to the development of charging infrastructure, with charging stations now becoming more common along major highways and in cities. As noted in the figure below, the availability of both fast and slow public charging stations has increased around the world. 

Bar chart on fast and slow publicly available chargers, from the years 2015 to 2021, in China, Europe, United States, and other countries. Each country's number grows each year, with China's growing the fastest.

Source: IEA (2022), Global EV Outlook 2022, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/reports/global-ev-outlook-2022, License: CC BY 4.0

Don Tan, chief engineer for power products with Northrop Grumman and chair of the IEEE Transportation Electrification Council, states that developing a transportation infrastructure to support the electrification of vehicles is exciting to see and offers a bright future for young engineers. 

Tan says, “To expand the growth of EVs beyond the current state, infrastructure must address four key areas. First, charging stations must become ubiquitous to enable drivers to reliably support daily driving, long journeys, and needs of rural locales. Next, charging infrastructure interfaces with the power grid will need to evolve. Third, battery technology must advance to ensure better efficiency. Fourth, recycling challenges must be overcome. These are all interesting problems that the next generation of engineers will have to solve.” 

Research is ongoing in all these areas and others to solve these issues. For example, understanding the best placement of charging stations for optimum usage3, or studying people’s driving habits to understand the charging impact on the power grid4, or developing better battery technology for EV use5

Norway is often presented as a leader in what it looks like to move a nation to an all-electric-vehicle environment. Built over the past 30 years, policymakers have used subsidies, investments, and regulations to encourage the public toward electric vehicles. Norway built a massive infrastructure of charging stations across the country; it has the highest ratio of EVs per charger, meaning owners have no problem finding available charging stations. Finland may emerge even better, as more than a million block heater electric receptacles are adapted for EV charging6

Transportation infrastructure electrification is a crucial step in reducing global carbon emissions to mitigate climate change. The April 2023 issue of IEEE Spectrum includes an important article by contributing editor Robert N. Charette, on the dynamic between industry, policymakers, and consumers7 who all must work together to accelerate the transition to electric-powered transportation. This includes investing in research and development, providing incentives for the purchase of EVs, and building out the necessary infrastructure to support them.

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[1] Ritchie, H. (2020). Cars, planes, trains: Where Do CO2 Emissions from Transport Come from? [online] Our World in Data. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions-from-transport

[2] Wikipedia Contributors (2019). Government incentives for plug-in electric vehicles. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_incentives_for_plug-in_electric_vehicles

[3] Ahmad, F., Iqbal, A., Ashraf, I., Marzband, M. and Khan, I. (2021). Optimal location of Electric Vehicle Rapid Charging Stations in Power Distribution Network and Transportation Network with V2G Strategies. [online] IEEE Xplore®. doi: https://doi.org/10.1109/ITEC-India53713.2021.9932488

[4] Krein, P.T. (2022). Solving the 90% Infrastructure Energy Challenge for Passenger Electric Vehicles. 2022 IEEE Transportation Electrification Conference and Expo, Asia-Pacific (ITEC Asia-Pacific). doi: https://doi.org/10.1109/itecasia-pacific56316.2022.9941804

[5] ieeexplore.ieee.org. (n.d.). IEEE Xplore Search Results. [online] Available at: https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/search/searchresult.jsp?queryText=battery%20technology…

[6] M. Kane, “Finland Has a Genius Charging Solution For EVs – Use Existing Block Heater Poles,” Inside EVs, June 28, 2017. Available: http://insideevs.com/news/332283/finland-has-a-genius-charging-solution-for-evs-use-existing-block-heater-poles-video/.

[7] R. N. Charette, “The EV Transition is Harder Than Anyone Thinks: Clueless Policymakers, Skeptical Consumers, Greedy Automakers — and the Tech isn’t Ready Either, “ in IEEE Spectrum, vol. 60, no. 4, pp. 40-45, April 2023, DOI: 10.1109/MSPEC.2023.100929390.