Among the Academies: Fully Charged Trips Ahead

Dan Sperling on Connecting Transportation with Sustainability

Inside an office sits a man in a straw fedora and beige jacket, smiling at the camera from a swivel chair in front of his desk, which has several different toy cars and other trinkets related to transportation.
Dan Sperling at his offices at the Institute for Transportation Studies in West Village. (UC Davis/Gregory Urquiaga)

Some envision flying cars, but for Dan Sperling, the future is electric.

“I think there's a global acceptance that electric vehicles are the future,” Sperling said. “It's really just a question of exactly how and how fast.”

For the United States, the conversion is growing, but mainly in California, where the state is an outlier.

“In China now, over a third of new car sales are electric vehicles. In Europe, it's about a quarter,” Sperling said. “In the United States, it's less than 10%.”


UC Davis has more than 50 faculty members who belong to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, a recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in research. The academies are among the most prestigious membership organizations in the world.

Each month, Dateline UC Davis will profile one of these faculty members in honor of their contributions to scientific research and knowledge.

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Sperling is a Distinguished Professor of civil engineering and environmental science and policy. He is founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies, or ITS, and of the Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and Economy. The Institute is staffed by over 150 faculty, staff, and students.

“We have everything from pavement research to automated vehicles and everything in between,” Sperling said, describing ITS as “the leading university center on sustainable transportation in the world.” 

Sperling was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 2022 for his leadership and outstanding entrepreneurial contributions in transportation energy, advancing alternative energy policies and promoting government-industry-university collaborations.

The institute’s international footprint is growing, with centers currently in China and Europe, plus a forthcoming center in India and ongoing initiatives in Mexico. ITS is also part of the ARCHES program, a public-private partnership to create a sustainable statewide clean hydrogen hub in California as a global example of alternatives to fossil fuels.

“We're very committed to being seen as an independent, balanced source of knowledge,” Sperling explained. 

The institute’s key mission is connecting science with policy. The National Center for Sustainable Transportation, housed within ITS, recently received $20 million to lead a group of universities studying transportation effects on the environment. Funding recipients identify a government collaborator, Sperling said, “to assure that the research really is going to be useful and relevant.”

Outside a university building underneath a sign that reads "Institute for Transportation Studies" stands a man in a beige fedora hat and jacket, calmly looking to their right, with their arms folded across their chest.
Dan Sperling was elected into the The National Academy of Engineering in 2022 ((UC Davis/Gregory Urquiaga)

Sperling earned his undergraduate degree in engineering and urban planning from Cornell University and his Ph.D. in transportation engineering from UC Berkeley. He has authored or co-authored more than 250 technical papers and 13 books.

Later, Sperling would help popularize the term “sustainability” and co-direct the 2007 study that designed California’s landmark low-carbon fuel standard. He also contributed to additional policies like the zero-emission vehicle mandate of 2012. 

“California clearly has the most comprehensive set of policies to address climate change of any major governmental entity in the world,” Sperling said.


Through ITS, Sperling and his peers led government delegations to China, India and Australia to study in real-time the need to address transportation’s contributions to climate change.

“Australia is one of the few major countries in the world that doesn’t have fuel economy or greenhouse gas standards for vehicles,” Sperling noted. “And that's about to change.”

In addition to science-backed government policies, Sperling is proud of helping to change the perception within the transportation from hostile to welcoming tones around the idea of sustainability. He’s also proud of the large cohorts of students that, according to Sperling, “have become leaders and experts in this area of sustainable transportation around California and the world,” including positions held at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and ClimateWorks Foundation.

“I grew up on a chicken farm with no aspirations. I had no idea what graduate school was,” Sperling said, describing his career as “way more than I ever expected.”

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José Vadi is a writer for Dateline UC Davis, and can be reached by email.

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