Predicting the future of our roads

  • Predicting the future of our roads

What kind of car will you be driving in 2050? According to Civil Engineering Associate Professor Jonathan Leaver, there’s a high chance it will be a hybrid car like the current Toyota Prius, and a smaller chance it will be an electric battery-operated vehicle like the Nissan Leaf or even a hydrogen fuel cell powered car like the recently released Hyundai iX35.

How does he know all this? Leaver, with assistance from three Stanford University interns, has designed a complex model called UniSyD that takes the whole of New Zealand’s energy economy into account – what it looks like now, and what it will look like in the future. “What we have done is create what other experts believe to be a very robust model to look at our energy economy and assess what alternative technologies might be on the road in 2050,” he says.

It uses a range of variables to assess the situation, says Leaver. “For instance, it includes water and air pollution costs, the New Zealand vehicle market, and the electricity market. It looks at all New Zealand’s primary energy resources − including renewables such as hydro, wind, solar, biomass and geothermal, as well as non-renewables like coal and natural gas. It assesses how much energy is available, at what cost, to a nominal horizon of 2050. Every single variable has a formula or algorithm attached to it.” 

The model even includes less tangible variables. “It has a strong focus on modelling human behaviour, because that has such a strong influence on the composition of the vehicle fleet,” says Leaver. “There have been studies done on how people react when they go into a car yard to buy a car. They don’t think like economists; they don’t look at the life of a vehicle and say ‘What’s the least net present value for me and my family?’ People tend to think in quite short time frames; three to five years. So if the car is more expensive but has savings in fuel costs, people want savings within three to five years.” 

Incorporating this data on behaviour enables UniSyD to make assessments on what vehicles people will purchase in the future. “For example, the short-term three-to-five-year thinking is a big disadvantage for electric vehicles,” says Leaver. “That’s been reflected in the prices for early second-hand electric vehicles. The Nissan Leaf purchased brand new is around NZD$69,000. But recently a one-year-old Nissan Leaf was auctioned and sold for around NZD$36,000. So there’s a big difference between what the market is offering and what the average New Zealander is prepared to pay.” 

UniSyD is not a simple model by any stretch of the imagination. It includes around 5,500 lines of computer code and around 1200 variables, each of which has an algorithm or a formula assigned to it. The team of researchers has worked hard to make sure the data they have used in the model is highly accurate. “We’ve searched global literature; we’ve gone to government agencies such as the US Department of Energy, the US National Energy Laboratories, and the Department of Trade and Industry in the UK; and we’ve used refereed journal papers,” says Leaver. 

The UniSyD model recently came to the attention of Nordstar, a consortium of nine research institutes in Scandinavia. “They came to us out of the blue, and said ‘We’ve searched around the world, and we think your model is what we’re looking for.’ We signed an agreement, and they sent a post-doctoral researcher from the University of Iceland to work with me for two and a half months to learn about the model.” 

Other collaborations are on the horizon as well, including an agreement with Kanagawa University in Japan. “The model is going to be trialled on one of the 47 prefectures in Japan. There is also some interest from organisations within New Zealand who want more information on the potential of hydrogen fuel cell technology. We would definitely like to collaborate with more partners to see the model develop. But at the moment, it’s very exciting to be working with the University of Iceland and Kanagawa University, we’ll be able to take the model to the next level.” 

Did you know?

» The average life of a New Zealand vehicle is about 12-13 years. In other countries it is shorter − New Zealanders tend to hold onto their cars.

» Currently, the light vehicle fleet in New Zealand is around three million cars. Leaver’s model indicates this may increase to approximately 3.8 million by 2050.

» Currently in New Zealand vehicle ownership per head of population is falling, at trend that is also occurring in other cities in the developed world.

» There is typically a 20 per cent drop in the price of a brand new car when it’s driven home from the point of purchase.