Yesterday’s transportation revolution never got off the ground. The 1950s were a launchpad for travel by nuclear jetpacks and personal solar helicopters. In the 1960s, George Jetson was commuting in a fab flying saucer. By the 1970s, however, transportation came crashing back to Earth in the context of concerns about finite oil supplies and ongoing skirmishes to claim them.

Both visions — one fueled by post-war optimism and the other by geopolitics that seemed more suited to the pre-war era — appeared to lead to a way forward beyond oil. Reality, however, is shaping up differently than was ever imagined.

Deborah Gordon
Gordon was director of Carnegie’s Energy and Climate Program, where her research focuses on oil and climate change issues in North America and globally.
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It turns out that hydrocarbons are abundant, diverse and buried just about everywhere. The higher the market price, the more rapid the technological breakthroughs and the more accessible resources will become. This in turn will lead to oil, gas and coal more readily being converted into transport fuels and other petroleum products. Envisioning 2050 transportation running on alternatives to oil — conventional wisdom just five years ago — is suddenly far from guaranteed. This is the case even with global transport demand expected to grow by 50 percent and the number of motor vehicles on the road to more than double.

Oil 2.0 has arrived as if by secret drone. What this means for transportation is “business as usual,” unless radical policy shifts meet new market conditions head on.

It is the case, however, that volatile oil prices might just spur vehicle electrification in the future. Today’s cars increasingly resemble computers on wheels, making their transition from oil to electricity much more viable. This wholesale shift to electric vehicles could be transformational, bringing transport into the renewable realm. Quebec, for example, generating electricity with hydropower and without hydrocarbons, could lead the way to a new normal.

Transport is widely expected to be the last sector to wean itself off oil. But as oils get more difficult, dangerous and damaging, the world must be compelled not to repeat the same mistakes.

Circa 2050: It will be time for a real transport revolution.

This article was originally published in Ensia.