Which sustainable transport innovations are moving forwards?

A few years ago I recognised that CO2 emissions from energy were falling while those from transport were standing still, and that transport would soon leapfrog energy to be Britain’s biggest source of climate emissions – something that was confirmed in 2018. I realised that I ought to be writing a lot more about transport, and challenged myself to feature a ‘transport innovation of the week‘ for every week of 2017. Which I did.

I recently noticed that one of the least significant of these ideas has been adopted by the government. It made me wonder how many of those other innovations are making progress, and whether any of them have fallen away. So here are a few that are moving forwards, and a couple that haven’t come to anything.

  1. Green number plates – this is the one that was in the press, because Britain is planning to introduce a non-mandatory green ‘flash’ to electric car number plates, following Norway, China, India and others. It raises awareness of EVs, and also has a number of practical advantages for policing cities and traffic.
  2. Overhead electric cables on highways – this seemed like one of the more outlandish, and was only being tested in Sweden when I wrote about it. A test site has since been installed in Germany and another in the States, proving that electrifying trucks with overhead pick-ups is technically viable. A costed proposal was recently presented to Parliament, from the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight. Might actually happen.
  3. Pay as you go car insurance – something I speculated about in 2017 that is now on the market in a couple of different forms, the most high profile being By Miles.
  4. Swappable electric car batteries – swapping in a fresh battery remains an obvious alternative to charging networks, and potentially faster. It’s failed a couple of times before, and there’s very little interest in it as a solution in the West. However, Chinese firm NIO deliver battery swaps on their high end electric cars, and India’s Sun Mobility provides very fast and easy battery swaps for three-wheelers and scooters. We may be missing a trick here, and I’ll come back to this another time.
  5. Working from home – the world has had a crash course in the advantages and disadvantages of working from home this year, and it’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out. Has there been a permanent re-setting of work culture and expectations? Or do bosses want to get their employees back in as soon as possible, with all the emissions from commuting that entails?
  6. Truck platooning – the trucking industry is still interesting in automated convoys, which would save energy and space on the roads. Truck manufacturers support it, and the bit that’s been lagging behind is the legislation to allow automated vehicles on public roads. They’re on their way, potentially in the US and Sweden first.
  7. Solar trains – one of the most striking ideas in the collection is Riding Sunbeam’s proposal to wire solar power into the railway system. After a successful feasibility study and demonstration, this summer the group won the funding to build the first direct renewable energy to rail connector. Still one to watch.

And a couple that didn’t work out:

Hybrid airships – unfortunately this local Bedfordshire solution is struggling after the prototype crashed, though it isn’t dead yet and the company is currently crowdfunding its next bid at bringing the ‘flying bum’ to commercial reality.

Solar roadways – I can see the benefits of robust ground-mounted solar, but putting them on roads was always thoroughly unnecessary. Nevertheless, French engineering firm Colas got furthest with this, installing a kilometre length as a trial. Two years later it was busted beyond repair, according to Le Monde. Come back with it as a footpath or a bike path, and there’s still a good idea here.


  1. Overhead power lines are installed along some city streets for trams already, so the technology is proven, tried and reliable. It should surely not be too difficult to install on motorways for trucks to use.

    1. Yes, as a technology it’s entirely proven, and I rode buses with pickups like this in the States. The question for me is whether anyone is prepared to stump up the massive investment it would be to install them on enough of the motorway network to make it work.

  2. Innovations that are working forward are interesting, especially working from home (pluses and minuses are there but we have to work from home in the coronavirus era). Thank you, Jeremy!

    1. Lots to do on making working from home more human-friendly and at the same time more productive for companies. I suspect we’ve barely begun to explore all the possibilities here – should be a very promising area for exploration.

  3. Thanks for the useful update. Are we missing a trick by not developing solar ROAD VERGES? Lots of open area, not exploitable for much else (except some biodiversity, which might actually benefit if Westmill Farm’s experience is anything to go by), easy access (with precautions) for maintenance, etc. Obviously thinking mainly of dual/M-way situations where pedestrian access is restricted anyway. Would make FAR more sense than driving on top of the things! Does anyone know of any work in this direction?

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