Innovation gaps in transport


Transitioning towards sustainable transport will require improving vehicle efficiency and adopting low carbon vehicle and fuel technologies. Innovation can accelerate the transition by cutting costs, promoting technology learning, and improving performance of both conventional and zero-emission vehicles (electric or fuel cell electric).

Innovation on efficiency technologies and low-carbon vehicles and fuels is particularly important in harder-to-abate modes like heavy-duty vehicles, maritime and aviation, where technologies that are currently commercially available alone cannot deliver the emission reductions seen in the SDS.

Innovation can also play an important role in improving systems-level efficiency. For instance, innovation in digital technologies -- from communications to deep learning algorithms -- can help match and optimise transport supply and demand.

Advancing technologies and reducing battery costs

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Advanced NMC cathodes Readiness level:

Solid-state batteries Readiness level:

Lithium-air Readiness level:

Commercialisation of cellulosic ethanol

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Cellulosic ethanol production Readiness level:

Cost-competitive hydrogen fuel cell systems for FCEVs

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Fuel cells for FCEVs Readiness level:

Deploying Electric Road System (ERS) corridors

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Catenary systems Readiness level:

In-road conductive systems Readiness level:

Inductive charging Readiness level:

Development of Biomass-to-Liquids fuel production from thermochemical processes

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Gasification with syngas fermentation to produce methanol/ethanol Readiness level:

Gasification with fischer–tropsch (FT) process to produce liquid hydrocarbon fuels Readiness level:

Pyrolysis with upgrading of bio-oil to liquid hydrocarbon fuels Readiness level:

Digitalization of rail: automation, management and control systems

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Advanced traffic management and control systems Readiness level:

GoA-4 automated trains Readiness level:

Big data analytics for rail Readiness level:

Artificial intelligence for rail Readiness level:

Improving the cost and performance of lithium-ion batteries

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Advanced cell chemistries Readiness level:

Advanced battery materials Readiness level:

Lightweighting of light duty vehicles (LDVs)

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Lighter, stronger and more durable composites Readiness level:

Shortening flight distances through better routing

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Enhanced aircraft routing Readiness level:


Expanding high-quality urban rail transport depends on political champions, thorough project viability and costs assessments and effective funding, as much as it does on technical issues. Equally important are sound construction, installation of the necessary equipment and hardware, and well-managed operations.

Digital technologies can be used to help integrate rail with other transport modes, provide superior service and increase utilisation to raise revenues and reduce costs.

Innovation gaps

Electric vehicles

Innovation in EVs fundamentally needs to focus on continued improvements of the battery technology itself, including advancing alternative chemistries, to reach the cost, density and efficiency needed to reach the levels of deployment in the SDS.

These innovation efforts can also support more sustainable manufacturing and value chains for the large volumes of batteries produced under the SDS.

As the share of EVs increases, their impact on electricity networks, particularly on distribution grids, will become larger. If EV charging is deployed and managed smartly however, EVs can become a flexibility resource able to aid in their own integration and that of higher shares of variable renewables or other distributed energy resources into the grid.

Innovation gaps

International shipping

To put international shipping on the SDS trajectory, it is essential to switch to low- and zero-carbon fuels, as they barely figure in the maritime fuel mix.

Interest in using alternative fuels such as ammonia, hydrogen or advanced biodiesel and ammonia mounted significantly after the IMO adopted its initial strategy to reduce GHG emissions from ships by 2050. This agreement happened shortly before the implementation of Emission Control Areas (which limit sulphur oxide [SOx] and particulate matter [PM] emissions near ports) and tighter sulphur emission regulations, which will come into force in 2020.

Although advanced biofuels, hydrogen and ammonia are potential low-carbon options to replace conventional fuels, an important uptake barrier is their high cost compared with conventional fuels. In the cases of ammonia and hydrogen, another barrier is the lack of infrastructure.

Innovation gaps


Aviation is likely to be the most difficult transport sector to decarbonise.

The largest potential efficiency gains can be obtained by completely redesigning aircraft. Considering the long lead times and investment required, such measures are unlikely to be commercialised by 2030. However, “clean sheet” wing and tube aircraft have the potential to reduce fuel burn by 40% (Kharina, 2017).

In addition to research and trials of new, more efficient aircraft designs, adoption of alternative, low-carbon jet fuels will be needed to reduce CO2 emissions. Technology and scale-up barriers in producing such fuels can be best addressed through direct support from governments, incentives and standards.

Nearer term solutions, such as improving flight routing systems and switching to hydrogen and/or electricity during taxiing, can also improve the overall efficiency of the sector. 

Innovation gaps

Transport biofuels

Advanced biofuels need to command a more significant share of transport biofuel consumption by 2030 in the SDS. However, currently only biodiesel and HVO production from fat, waste oil and grease feedstocks is commercialised, and there are limits on the availability of these feedstocks.

Therefore, scaling up advanced biofuel production volumes significantly needs innovation so other less mature advanced biofuel technologies reach commercial production. Cellulosic ethanol and biomass-to-liquid (BtL) synthetic fuels are important in this respect. This is because they can be produced from feedstocks with higher availability and potentially lower cost, such as municipal solid waste, forestry and agricultural residues. 

Innovation gaps

Trucks & buses

With the exception of the long-range Tesla semi variant and the prototype Nikola trucks, the range of zero-emission trucks is limited to below 600 kilometres. Together with the time required to recharge depleted batteries (or the high amperage, voltage, and power draw requirements of very fast charging), this points to the need for alternative infrastructure and operational models for long-haul trucking.

To date, three competitors seem most promising: dynamic charging on Electric Road System (ERS) corridors; continuing improvements in the performance, capacity, and costs of advanced lithium batteries; and hydrogen.

Innovation gaps

Fuel economy of cars & vans

The car industry is one of the highest spenders on research and development, representing nearly 25% of global R&D spending in 2018 (Auto Alliance, 2018).

Numerous technologies can lead to fuel economy improvements, including:

  • energy efficient tires
  • improved aerodynamics
  • fuel efficient combustion technologies and engine downsizing
  • powertrain electrification

Reducing vehicle weight is a key means to improve fuel efficiency. Lightweighting techniques such as using high-strength steel and aluminium in the chassis can reduce the mass of the vehicle while cutting both fuel consumption and total life-cycle CO2 emissions (Serrenho, 2017).

So far, however, most of the fuel economy benefits of lightweighting have been offset by the increased weight of upscale features, safety enhancements and increased vehicle size in many markets.

Innovation gaps