LOS ANGELES — Transportation is one of the largest contributors to human-caused climate change.

What You Need To Know

  • The transportation sector accounts for about a third of greenhouse gasses

  • California is leading the way with ZEV sales, hitting a milestone in 2023 where a quarter of all new cars sold were zero-emissions

  • The Aptera solar car is a battery-electric vehicle that’s equipped with 192 solar panels throughout its surface. Aptera’s ability to self-charge from the sun gives this car 40 miles a day of power completely off-grid

  • By 2035, all new vehicles sold in California must be zero emissions

In the United States alone, the transportation sector accounts for about a third of greenhouse gasses.

So to reverse this trend, the automotive industry is in a race to innovate their vehicles to 100% zero-emissions, and progress is being made.

California is leading the way, hitting a milestone in 2023 where a quarter of all new cars sold were zero-emissions. 

But the future of transportation is intricately linked to clean energy, and that’s where we meet Jackie Birdsall, senior engineering manager at Toyota North America, who spoke at the University of Southern California’s Solutions for a Sustainable Future Conference about hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.

“When the public hears electric, they only think battery electric,” Birdsall said when asked why hydrogen is also a good option to help transition our transportation industry. “Very few people actually know fuel cell electric vehicles exist. But Toyota does make one, it’s called the Toyota Mirai, which actually in Japanese means the future. Oh, and it is an electric vehicle, but instead of plugging it in and recharging it, you refill it with hydrogen, which takes about five minutes. You can get 300 to 400 miles on a fill.”

Toyota launched the Mirai in 2015.

Birdsall was an early adopter, and Spectrum News visited her at Toyota’s fuel cell garage in Torrance, California, to see where much of the technology for the vehicle was developed.

“What this is, is it’s called a hydrogen fuel cell. It combines hydrogen and oxygen to create water. And a byproduct of that water is electricity. And we use that electricity to power pretty much anything. In the case of the Toyota Mirai, it powers an electric motor,” Birdsall said.

Fuel cells are more energy efficient than combustion engines, and they only emit heat and water, eliminating any concerns about air pollution or greenhouse gases.

But mass adoption of this technology is hindered by major infrastructure problems.

There’s just not enough hydrogen being produced for vehicles, and not enough refueling stations.

“Hydrogen production’s gonna have to get leveled up. It’s gonna be a huge nationwide collaboration to make sure that both the infrastructure and the technology are being deployed at a time where our customers can use them in the way that they need to, to, to get around their lives,” Birdsall said.

Down in Carlsbad, California, the co-founder of Aptera Motors, Chris Anthony, is banking on a free resource — the sun — to power a vehicle for future customers to get around.

“In Southern California, you get about 11,000 miles a year of free driving,” Anthony said.

The Aptera solar car is a battery-electric vehicle that’s equipped with 192 solar panels throughout its surface and the solar panels are manufactured right in the facility.

Aptera’s ability to self-charge from the sun gives this car 40 miles a day of power completely off-grid, taking the future of EV’s to the next level.

“98% of the time your car is sitting, it’s not doing anything. You’re in a store. You’re at work. You’re at home. So wouldn’t it be great if your vehicle could actually produce power while it was sitting? And that’s what the Aptera does,” Anthony said.

In addition to Aptera’s sustainability as a solar EV, it was designed to maximize efficiency.

Its shape minimizes air resistance, it’s made of lightweight composite materials, and the powertrain is in it’s three wheels.

“The less frontal area you have, the more aerodynamically efficient you are,” Anthony said about the vehicle’s wheels. “So if you throw two wheels in the back, you’re catching a lot more air, so you’re less aerodynamically efficient.”

Better efficiency means they can spend less on drivetrain and battery packs to have a lower price point starting at $26,000 for the base model and up to $44,000 for their fully equipped version with 1,000 miles of range per charge.

“Transportation today is having a disastrous impact on our environment. We feel it uses too many resources, it’s too expensive. You know, so how would you rethink reinvent transportation? Man, we think if you reinvent transportation, you should do it with a focus on efficiency,” Anthony said about Aptera’s overall vision for sustainability.

The Aptera is one answer for the future of transportation, but understandably, not everyone will want a two-seater, or have solar in gloomier climates.

But hydrogen fuel cell may not work for everyone either.

So far, California is the only state with a long-distance hydrogen network with less than 60 refueling stations.

While there’s still a lot of growing pains in the transformation to green transportation, companies such as Toyota recognize the need to decarbonize rapidly.

I asked, “What do you think is really the major challenge or challenges for this industry to be able to decarbonize quickly enough?”

“You need to make sure that you’re also making money, that you’re keeping your company whole as you’re releasing these new technologies, which are inherently more expensive, into the marketplace. So I think that really is, where a lot of companies are grappling right now,” Birdsall said about the challenges this industry faces.

It’s a sustainability balancing act for both the environment and for companies to stay afloat while releasing cutting-edge technology.

There’s no silver bullet for the future of transportation, but rather it’s going to take many innovative solutions, such as batteries, solar and hydrogen fuel cell, to get us to the zero-emissions finish line.