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

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