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Q&A: UCD prof looks at transportation’s future

As an undergraduate, UC Davis professor Daniel Sperling believed the solution to the nation’s energy problem was mass transit. He was sorely disappointed to realize a harsh statistical reality.

“Mass transit accounts for only 2.5 percent of the miles that people travel in the U.S.,” he says. “Planes account for 10 percent. Almost all the rest are cars.

“There are many reasons to promote mass transit, but energy reduction and greenhouse gas emission reduction are not at the top of the list.”

A professor of civil engineering and environmental science and policy, Sperling is the founding director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. He has been on the California Air Resources Board since 2007.

Last week, Sperling was named as one of the two recipients of the 2013 Blue Planet Prize, awarded by the Asahi Glass Foundation of Tokyo.

The prize, which comes with a $527,000 award, recognizes Sperling for his ability to bring together top thinkers in academia, government and industry to develop vehicle and fuel policy.

On Thursday, Sperling will give an address at UC Davis on the history of America’s car culture and explore the future of sustainable transportation.

Your book “Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability” was published three years ago. What’s changed?

When I started that book, I was motivated by the fact that the automotive industry was resisting new, efficient technology. That has changed dramatically. It happened while I was writing the book. The automotive industry is now investing billions of dollars in energy-efficient technology. They are also investing billions in electric cars, hybrids and fuel cell vehicles.

What was your reaction to the federal mandate that cars and light trucks must average better than 54 mpg in the next 12 years?

I was somewhat involved in that because California was involved through the Air Resources Board. A lot of my former students were involved in making that happen. I was delighted not only that it was proposed, but that the auto industry embraced it – in policy and technology investment.

Why do you not support corn ethanol?

There is no reason to use food for energy. There are many ways that are more low-carbon, sustainable and don’t compete with food supplies.

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