29 May 2017

Sustainable Mobility - What's Next?

Regular readers of my blog or my Twitter feed (@UK_Richard) will know that I've been writing sustainability updates on mobility for several years.  These have included briefs on the global motor shows, reflections on emerging mobility business models, and the inevitable resurgence of cycling in city centres. It's been fascinating to document some of the changes which have happened, including:
  • Hybrid powertrains being an option in almost every model from each manufacturer
  • Disruptive EV-only start-ups providing a wake-up call to the incumbent OEMs caught napping
Tesla Model X, a pure-electric SUV

  • 'Dieselgate' and the accompanying toxic air pollution acting as a 'burning platform' for regulatory change, and even civil unrest
  • The pace of autonomous vehicle technology raising fundamental questions about the role of the driver (not to mention liabilities and the insurance industry) - but potentially providing step change improvements in safety
  • Hydrogen fuel cells refusing to disappear as a viable alternative to lithium-ion batteries, but with unanswered questions about the viability (and sustainability) of a distributed refuelling infrastructure
Hydrogen fuel-cell enabled Nikola One EV

  • The implication on the electricity grid with EVs acting as portable energy storage, whilst often needing to charge at the same time, during the evening peak
  • Cycle sharing schemes, including the introduction of dockless ones, and e-Bikes

  • Car sharing, evolving into 'Mobility as a Service' (MaaS) models, supporting multi-modal journeys with single payment gateways and routing, allowing train operators to extend their reach beyond the platform
  • Ride hailing business models like Uber, reinforcing the doubts the younger generation have about whether car ownership is even desirable anymore
  • Train electrification and growth of light-rail, including use of batteries, where line electrification isn't economical, or hydrogen fuel-cell powered trains
  • RailBaar static train battery charging
Time to gaze into the crystal ball to outline some of the changes we might expect to see in the next 5-10 years.  In sustainability, experience would suggest that for mass adoption, a few factors need to work together - personal aspiration, the right regulatory framework, cost parity, technology availability, social acceptance, etc.  But it's clear that in the mobility sector, the planets are aligning nicely to allow us to be very optimistic about the future.

Vehicle Design
  • To-date, the majority of EVs have replicated existing form factors (SUVs, saloons, etc.).  However, I expect we'll see three emerging form factors start to gain more traction:
    • Micro-delivery vehicles. Competing perhaps with air-borne drones and pedal-powered solutions, Small form-factor delivery EVs will start to gain market share in busy urban cities.  Deutsche Post's spin-off StreetScooter is a great example.

    • As on-demand ride-sharing grows in cities, I'm expecting something with more seats than a car, but less than a bus to be the perfect compromise, much like what CityMapper are trialling.  Efficiently and predictably getting people to their destinations, public transport will become desirable again!

CityMapper Minibus

Gogoro 2 (offroad version)
    • Finally, as cities become ever louder voices in supporting innovative mobility solutions to combat air pollution, I'd be surprised if we don't start to see a lot more tram systems being built in cities, and perhaps even the trolleybus will return?
  • Modularity of vehicle design seems likely, allowing a vehicle to be 'right-sized' for a particular time of day. However, this will take a few different forms:
    • Allow the physical joining or sensor-based 'platooning' of vehicles travelling on the same route to travel in a 'chain', 'disconnecting' as they branch-off to their final destination
    • An individual vehicle made of modular core components, allowing for example, an extra row of seats, or additional storage to be added
  • Autonomous vehicles are coming, with most manufacturers promising at least one model by 2020/21.  I am expecting a split though:
    • A.) the technology and user experience that allows passengers to avoid driving all together, perhaps exploiting super-fast internet access to watch entertainment, do work, or even keep fit on the move
    • B.) less intrusive autonomous driving capabilities, which do not detract from the enjoyment of driving, but enhance it, whilst providing the option to communicate with other autonomous vehicles and improve occupant safety
  • There's rightly a focus on exhaust emissions from vehicles, and of course EV powertrains will prevent that.  However, one of the 'elephants in the room' is that there's significant energy involved in manufacturing the vehicle in the first place.  As society moves from individual ownership to shared fleets, we should see increasing focus on extending the life, durability and maintenance of vehicles, with
    • Sensors to monitor all aspects of vehicle health remotely, to support preventative maintenance
    • Modularity / ease of disassembly to allow damaged components to be swapped-out
    • Simple battery swap-outs
    • Use of remanufactured parts, whilst retaining (or exceeding) existing warranties
    • Safety features meaning a step-change reduction in accidents
Mobility Ecosystem (including Vehicle to Infrastructure - V2I)

I expect to see a significant increase in the ways vehicles interact with the environment within which they are operating.  There are some barriers to this, including the need for common standards, data privacy and cyber-security, but some concepts are very likely to gain traction, as the 'Internet of Things' (IoT) starts to create the 'smart city' of the future:

  • Traffic signal integration. Essentially an evolution of existing sensors which can detect traffic queuing at red lights, interaction between the approaching vehicle and lights will help smooth traffic through an area, much like what Audi have trialled in the US. Prioritisation could be made to the emergency services, or perhaps even those that pay a premium?
Audi's V2I traffic-light integration
  • Street light integration.  Even with LED luminaries, street light costs are significant - yet often unused roads are being lit.  It's straightforward to detect upcoming traffic (or pedestrians) and turn on lights, only when required.
  • Street light EV charging. With the need for a significant rollout of public EV charging points, allowing vehicles to plug into street lights seems like a pragmatic approach to take.   

Charging an EV via a street light in London, UK

  • Smart parking.  As a precursor to autonomous vehicles being able to park themselves to charge, we are going to see a proliferation of 'smart parking' solutions. These will help drivers find, reserve and pay for parking spaces, with costs determined by factors like day of week, time, and local traffic and weather conditions.  As around 30% of drivers in urban areas are actively looking for a parking space, this has a huge opportunity to reduce congestion and air pollution.  A virtuous circle could exist where redundant car parks could be converted to green spaces, helping improve air quality further.
  • Vehicle to Home (V2H) / Grid (V2G).  A charged Electric Vehicle is portable energy storage - potentially an important asset to the local electricity grid operator, especially when aggregated across a fleet.  We will start to see incumbent energy suppliers and new aggregators offering incentives for vehicles to be charged (or not charged) at certain locations and times.  And within the home too, a connected EV could act as battery storage to store excess generation from solar panels, and conversely used to power the home at night.
  • Dynamic Wireless EV Charging.  After a recent successful trial by Renault and Qualcomm, we may start to see charging of electric vehicles whilst they are travelling, eliminating the need for static EV charging points.  More generally, inductive charging will grow, removing the hassle of managing burdensome EV cables
  • Dynamic Road Pricing.  Road charging today is relatively crude, either tolls on stretches of road, or charging zones.  In the near future, we will start to see more innovative charging models, based on other factors, such as the number of occupants, which powertrain mode is used, local air quality, etc.
  • Smart-ready Roads.  Autonomous vehicle technology relies on clear road markings and signs.  We are starting to see trials of smarter roads, surely an important prerequisite to facilitate the safe transition to fully autonomous fleets.
  • Inter-modal Integration. With superfast connectivity and big-data solutions, there isn't an excuse now for better integration between different modes of transport. Expect to see boundaries continuing to blur between public and private transport, with incumbents and start-ups offering a seamless experience between rail, road and river, with integrated ticketing systems, timetables (or on-demand), and route optimisation. Deutshe Bahn are looking at providing on-demand last-mile autonomous vehicle pickups from train stations, for example.


Finally, it's worth noting the local, regional and national governments, law-enforcement agencies and standards bodies will have an important role to support this rapid change. The following areas will be of particular interest:

  • Managing the transition away from diesel (and perhaps petrol too), with changes required to support scrappage of vehicles, vehicle excise duty, support for dwindling fuel retail outlets, etc.
  • Ensuring compatibility and quality standards for EV charging points
  • 'Rules' for autonomous vehicles, e.g. how should they behave given the choice between crashing into another car, or hitting a pedestrian?
  • How best the insurance industry should evolve to support autonomous vehicles and sharing business models
  • Cyber-security and protection of personal data
  • Protecting the electricity distribution grid from additional supply and demand spikes caused by EV charging and V2G/V2H models
  • Supporting peer-to-peer EV chargepoint models, considering safety of vehicles and users
  • Competition rules, as incumbent vehicle manufacturers, and energy suppliers/distributors may exploit a potentially dominant position
  • EV battery re-use and ultimate disposal
  • Vehicle design and manufacturing standards to support the circular economy, including quality of remanufactured parts
  • Protecting customers if finance houses (e.g. from car manufacturers) have over-exposed themselves to risk with diesel depreciation (most private vehicles are bought on PCP in the UK)
  • Regulation and standards to support new 'smart city' solutions, like dynamic road pricing, smart parking and traffic light integration
  • The decarbonisation of public transport, and allowing new service entrants to challenge the incumbents with innovation business models (i.e. opening-up monopolistic routes to competition)
  • Support for hydrogen refuelling infrastructure
  • Further promotion of safer cycling
  • Standards for inter-modal ticketing solutions
  • Skills training for professional drivers, who may see their roles being taken-over by autonomous vehicles
  • Managing our skies (and underground?) - supporting drones for deliveries and movement of people

To summarise then, we're about to enter an unparalleled level of change in how people and goods move between places.  If we get this right, we'll be moving around in a much cleaner environment, more quickly arriving at our destination, and turning wasteful commute time into productive, creative, social experiences.  Exciting times indeed...