01 January 2018

Modular vehicles - has their time come?

In the world of mobility, we have firmly entered a new era:
  • New business models allow the convenience of journey access via smartphone to trump car ownership
  • By the end of the decade, electrified powertrains are going to be on the shortlist for most new vehicle purchases going forwards
  • Increasing levels of autonomy will transform our relationship with vehicles
One thing that hasn't been really challenged yet is the physical design of the vehicles we move around in - a car still looks like a car, and a bus still looks like a bus. But perhaps the benefits of modularity can bring two distinct advantages - improved utilisation, and better consumer choice. The concept has been tried before in concept form, but perhaps now, the planets are aligning in a way which makes it a real opportunity to pursue.

Staying on the road...
With some vehicles moving from infrequent personal usage to near-continuous shared use (e.g. as a taxi, car sharing, ride sharing, courier companies, etc.), any 'downtime' for a vehicle is a potential loss of revenue to its operator. It's therefore critical that servicing, maintenance and repairs can happen swiftly. So, alongside a vehicle proactively monitoring its health and alerting when there are problems, the physical design must allow the easy repair of vehicles.
I'm yet to come across a volume manufacturer which differentiates itself by advocating easy repairs (franchised dealerships making significant revenues from labour time during repairs may be a factor). By way of inspiration though, Gordon Murray Design has developed The Ox, a flat-pack vehicle, where the ability to service and repair it in unforgiving environments is part of its design.

Gordon Murray Design Ox
Features include:
  • Consumables such as the air filter are located within a locker door, behind the cabin, whilst the engine bay can be accessed from under the seat bench
  • Good ground clearance means many repairs can be made without putting the vehicle up on a ramp
  • Many body parts are interchangeable
  • The windscreen comprises three identical and flat panes of glass, preventing costly bespoke replacements which most windscreens suffer from
Could a similar 'circular economy' principle of repairability / modularity be applied to vehicles used in cities too? In fact, as autonomous fleets of vehicles are introduced, will it be the key differentiator which can make such operations a success - surely more so than the 0-60mph time at least!?
I expect battery densities and charging infrastructure (including inductive charging) to improve markedly in the coming years, but swift 'battery swap stations' could still offer value. The model was tried by 'better place' with electric cars, but they filed for bankruptcy in 2013. However, Gogoro has introduced a similar model to support electric scooter hire in cities, allowing batteries to be swapped-out in as little as 6 seconds.
Gogoro electric scooter battery swap station
Horses for Courses
Traditionally, when buying a car, a compromise has been inevitable, as one vehicle cannot meet every requirement over its useful life. For example, a sporty two-door coupe for a weekend getaway is great, but at other times, a load-lugging estate is better; and perhaps a 4WD vehicle with ground clearance is required for an off-road adventure, yet for the daily commute into work, a moped would suffice.
This was recognised back in 2010 with Peugeot's innovative rental scheme, Mu, where by subscription, users could access anything from a moped to a boxer van. More recently, other OEMs have started exploring similar business models, e.g. Porsche Passport and Volvo Group's stunning EV, the Polestar 1. Subscription-based vehicle access is a natural extension of today's PCP finance deals, so I'd expect to see a lot more brands introduce these in the next 12-18 months, keen to reinforce their brand with their increasingly fickle customer base.
Volvo Polestar 1
So, although a business model can introduce some flexibility in providing the most appropriate vehicle for ones needs, it doesn't necessarily challenge the vehicle design itself... but potentially this can offer even more opportunity.
A modular design could help in the following use-cases:
  • An autonomous ride-sharing shuttle that can autonomously add passenger modules, to support more passengers during peak times
  • A vehicle which knows it's been booked for a long-distance trip, so it adds another battery module
  • A consumer who wants to rent a vehicle for a house-move, so books one with extra load-space available
  • The ability to 'swap-out' any damaged components for a spare part, allowing the vehicle to continue being used (much like in Formula 1, where a damaged nose cone can be swapped in seconds)
  • Banks of battery modules can be autonomously moved to 'pinch points' in the smart-grid, where additional capacity is required (or where excess generation can be stored)
Elements of this modular world have been envisaged by Vincent Chan in his Citi.Transmitter

Modular vehicles aren't a new idea, but until now, there hasn't really been a scalable rationale for pursuing them. With fleets of autonomous and electrified vehicles only a few years away, isn't it time for modular vehicles to have their time?
All images © of respective owners, unless otherwise stated

05 November 2017

45th Tokyo Motor Show - Highlights

The Tokyo Motor Show is back again, allowing mainly the Japanese manufacturers to showcase their latest design thinking in new concepts.  Technical details seem a little hard to come-by, so this post is simply a run-down of some of the more interesting visual concepts - giving us hope perhaps, that we may not all be driving (or being driven in) bland homologous shapes.

Honda Sports EV Concept

Hot on the heels of the Urban EV Concept revealed recently at the Frankfurt Motor Show, and teased a few weeks ago, Honda have now revealed their gorgeous Sports EV Concept.
Honda Sports EV Concept

Honda Sports EV Concept

Mitsubishi e-Evolution Concept

In the UK, Mitsubishi had a surprise hit with its Outlander PHEV, helped considerably by tax incentives (now significantly reduced for private buyers, as it's not a pure EV).  At Tokyo, a new e-Evolution Concept has been revealed, under the design philosophy of "Robust and Ingenious".

Mitsubishi e-Evolution Concept

Mitsubishi Electric EMIRAI 4 Concept

Mitsubishi Electric (not to be confused with the automotive brand above which is part of the Renault/Nissan Alliance), revealed a concept called the EMIRAI 4, exploring how connectivity and autonomous features can improve safety, convenience and the environment.
Mitsubishi Electric

Nissan IMx

Nissan has a worldwide hit with the Nissan Leaf, and with a new model recently launched, no doubt will continue to drive higher sales.  They also have innovation coming with some of their vehicle to grid (V2G) initiatives.

At Tokyo, Nissan revealed the IMx EV, which has a planned range of 600km, and can drive fully autonomously, with the steering wheel disappearing into the dashboard. Is this the car which will bring sustainable motoring to the masses?  

Nissan IMx


Back in the 1980's, Suzuki had a near monopoly for small 4WD cars, with the Jimny/SJ413 and Vitara models.  The market evolved though, and with SUVs and crossovers the form factors of choice, and 4WD powertrains available from most manufacturers, Suzuki have lost market share.  So, as they approach their centenary in 2020, how are they embracing the market for four wheel drive EVs?  Well, take a look at this, the e-SURVIVOR:

Yes, it's a slight contrast to the rest of the bunch... but actually could carve out a useful niche for certain applications.

Toyota Concept-i Series

Toyota have been one of the vanguards of powertrain innovation for many years, and if rumours are true from the motor show, their developments in solid-state battery technology and cost-effective hydrogen power, could give them the edge in coming years too.

Alongside some innovative new hybrid-powered designs, Toyota added to its Concept-i Series, with the RIDE and WALK.
Toyota Concept-i Series

Toyota Fine-Comfort Ride

Fuel-celled powered comfort has been provided with Toyota's slightly peculiarly named Fine-Comfort Ride.

Toyota Fine-Comfort Ride

Toyota Sora

Another reveal of note was their concept fuel-cell bus, called Sora.  We should expect to see an evolution of this concept on the streets of Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics, with an additional application of being an emergency power source in case of natural disaster.
Toyota Sora Concept Bus

13 September 2017

Frankfurt Motor Show - Sustainability Highlights

When I first started writing about the sustainability highlights of the global motor shows in 2015 (which of course wasn't that long ago), things were very different. 'Dieselgate' hadn't happened, and for the majority of manufacturers, introducing a mild-hybrid into one model felt like a sensible 'toe-dip into the water' around future powertrains.  Fast forward to today, and Frankfurt 2017 was always going to be a milestone, with the German automotive industry using it as a showcase of their future strategies.  Rather than outline all of the new models and concepts, I've picked-out a few of the significant updates, with each title providing a link to further information from the manufacturer.

Audi Aicon

Audi have revealed their Audi Aircon design concept, with advanced autonomous controls meaning the inside space is a luxurious place to relax.

Audi Aicon Design Concept
BMW i3s

Announced towards the end of August, the BMW i3S is a sporty take on their highly successful i3 (which has also had some revisions). Coming with a 135kW electric motor, and sports suspension, the i3s should appeal to the more enthusiastic driver. A 2 cylinder petrol engine is available to provide range extension too, as an option.

BMW i3s

BMW i Vision Dynamics (i5)

Still at BMW, their much anticipated EV to sit between the i3 and i8 has been revealed in concept form.  It is likely to be called the i5, with four doors, and an anticipated range of 373 miles.

It's due to be launched in 2021, perhaps giving the chance for Tesla, Jaguar and even Mercedes to build significant market share with their respective models.  I'd also assume that with improved battery densities, they might revise the range upwards before then?

Worth also mentioning that BMW have announced their intention to offer 25 models with an electrification option by 2025, with 12 of them being pure electric.

BMW i Vision Dynamics (i5)

Honda CRV

With the number of SUVs being sold in Europe, and the vast majority being diesels (Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and stablemate Lexus NX300h/RX450h being exceptions), it's great to see the popular Honda CRV getting a Hybrid option.  But perhaps what's more interesting is that the only other option in Europe will be a 1.5 litre turbocharged petrol engine - a very clear sign that they don't see the market for diesels in the very near future.

Honda CRV Hybrid

Honda Urban EV Concept

Honda have stolen a lot of headlines, and perhaps some hearts, with its cute and gorgeous Urban EV Concept.  With a more than a whiff of Mk1 Golf, I expect VW are fuming at such a vehicle being released in Frankfurt!  Although it's just a concept, Honda have confirmed a 2019 production release for something very similar, so I'd be surprised if it isn't a strong seller.

Honda Urban EV Concept

Honda Urban EV Concept

Honda have also committed that every new European model will have an electrification powertrain option.

Finally, Honda also released more information about their Power Manager proposition. Similar to solutions from Nissan, it's some clever hardware and software which will allow a user to optimise the energy consumed, stored and sold through a 'Vehicle to Grid/Home' (V2G/H) solution.

Honda Power Manager


We've already seen the launch of the iPace, due to hit showrooms next year.  But Jaguar didn't disappoint us - outlining the introduction of a new racing series to run alongside the Formula E races.  Much like the existing Touring Car Championship in the UK, let's hope it delivers a really exciting and engaging showcase for EVs. Jaguar Land Rover will offer an electric option (inc. hybrid) in all its model lineup from 2020, with rumours of a plug-in Range Rover Sport to be released this year


Mercedes EQA Concept

By 2022, Mercedes-Benz Cars is planning to have more than ten all-electric vehciles on the market - and their EQA concept shows how they might tackle the compact segment.  It will have twin electric motors (one per axle), and a range up to 400km.

Mercedes EQA Concept

MINI Electric Concept

Not wanting Honda to take all the cuteness points, MINI (part of the BMW Group) have revealed their MINI Electric Concept, planned to be built in Oxford (but powertrain built in Germany)

MINI Electric Concept

Smart Vision EQ ForTwo Concept

With traditional car ownership dwindling, and car/ride-sharing models growing in significance, I was surprised not to see more models explicitly designed to support these new business models.  Daimler-owned Smart have done so though, with a neat concept, the Smart Vision EQ ForTwo Concept.

Smart Vision EQ ForTwo Concept

Samsung SDI

Finally, Samsung revealed some battery innovation, with a modular system, allowing additional modules to be added to deliver additional range. They've also introduced a reduced height form-factor, inevitably of interest to car manufacturers wanting to maximise internal space. 

Samsung SDI