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How the automotive industry is gearing itself for the next step in transport options based on sustainability, safety, low pollution levels and congestion-free roads. Siegfried Mortkowitz reports
The question of whether autonomous cars will ever become reality appears to have been resolved – almost all of the 850 mobility experts who attended last month’s TU-Automotive Europe conference in Munich, Germany, believe that it will.
The message from the conference was clear: Companies which operate in the broad and expanding automobile ecosystem are now focusing on how rapidly evolving digital technology will change how individuals journey from one place to another.
The phrase heard almost everywhere at the conference was “mobility as a service,” a vision of a future world in which vehicles will be just one link in a broad network of transport options based on sustainability, safety, low pollution and congestion-free roads.
In a sense, it seems as if recent technological innovations in mobility have been created in direct response to an on-going demographic shift that is altering the way we live.
According to a forecast by the UN’s Population Division cited by several presenters at the conference, 66% of the world’s population will be living in urban centres by the year 2050, compared to 30% in 1950 and 54% in 2014.
Unless there is a radical transformation of how people move around, this means that in future, cities will be far more congested and polluted than they are today. The development was put into sharp focus during a presentation entitled Changing the Face of the Modern City, by Michael Hurwitz, director of Transport Innovation at Transport for London (TFL).
He said London’s population was currently the highest it had ever been – 8,8-million people – which was expected to grow to 10-million by 2030. “To put that in a transport context, every week the population of London grows by the passenger capacity of two double-decker buses,” he said.
“However, we have constrained road space. Cars, trucks and buses currently make 31 million journeys on our road networks every day – but there is less and less space available to them.”
Hurwitz said 55% of all of motorised trips was by private car, of which about 60% involved one occupant. “We want to know how we can make that more efficient,” he said.
In an earlier presentation, Michael Knudsen, a strategist at BMW iVentures, offered additional data on how private car ownership affected urban congestion and pollution. “In high-density areas of a city, at peak time about 30% of traffic comprises motorists looking for a parking space.”
In addition, he said a great deal of urban parking was “wasted” because, on average, people in cities used their cars for little more than an hour a day, “so the car is parked for 23 hours a day.”
Or, as Christoph Weigler, general manager of Uber Germany, put it: “In many cities around the world, 30% of the landmass is dedicated to storing hunks of steel that are not in use.”
According to Hurwitz, one way the city of London was attempting to reduce the number of cars on its roads was “to bear down on car ownership” by creating a mobility hierarchy that put private car use at the bottom of the list and walking and cycling at the top.
He noted, however, that the rise of ride-sharing services such as Uber had not reduced the number of cars in the city centre. “If you look at central London, the number of private cars is stable. Though we’ve seen a reduction in individually driven cars, that’s been replaced by the rise of minicabs, Uber and private-hire vehicles. The fact is we don’t have less traffic.”
Weigler suggested that carpooling could be a solution to reducing inner-city traffic congestion. Uber launched its Uber Pool service more than a year ago and it is now active in 35 cities around the globe.
“Already, 20% of global Uber trips are pool trips and, in some West Coast cities in the US, about half of the trips are pool trips, the attraction being the low cost of sharing a ride,” he said. Other positive consequences included a reduction in congestion and lower pollution levels.
Hurwitz said autonomous cars would be an important part of London’s future mobility scheme – but he did not regard the advent of shared, self-drive vehicles as a cure-all.
“If it will take people out of private cars but not out of buses, if it will make people travel in a more efficient way, in a lower-emission way, those are positive opportunities. However, we need to shape regulations and policy to make sure it happens in that way.”
Hurwitz noted that Volvo Group would be testing its autonomous prototypes in London next year and that the city was open to other carmakers to test their technology on its roads. “What we’re doing at the moment is engaging constructively with anyone who wants to work on our streets.
“If they’re going through our junctions, we need to know. We want to have an honest discussion about what’s safe operation, what useful data can be exchanged and how we can utilise services to complement our objectives. In the next two or three years you’re going to see lots of trials.”
Knudsen said it was BMW’s view that transport solutions brought by private enterprise would have to be deployed in partnership with public authorities. He pointed out that the carmaker’s Centre of Urban Mobility Competence in Munich was aimed at encouraging dialogue with municipal authorities about transportation issues.
“Our services and partners are involved, other car-sharing providers are involved, public transportation is involved, all necessary stakeholders are involved. The aim is find best possible solutions for cities, to create ideas to make the urban environment much more liveable for residents.”
A first pilot based on these discussions, to convince people to rely more on public transport and car-sharing, was run for two weeks in the German capital Berlin and proved successful. Another successful project, rolled out in Copenhagen, Denmark, involved the integration of BMW’s car-sharing DriveNow concept within Arriva, the city’s public transport system, making use of 400 electrically driven i3s.
“BMW’s solutions for the city,” said Knudsen, “is all about electric mobility, electric cars.” However, while their introduction had helped to solve problems of noise and emission pollution, “it does not solve the problem of congestion, parking pressure and all the other problems we are faced with in daily mobility.”
To help ease those pressures, Knudsen said, “the main focus for BMW is on car-related services, such as ride-sharing solutions like DriveNow or ReachNow, as well as parking solutions such as Park Now.”
In the view of Thomas Beermann, CEO of car-sharing company Car2Go Europe, cities would need a system of free-floating, autonomous-drive shared car pools to help solve their transportation problems. “Autonomous drive, shared cars will reduce the number of vehicles required in cities,” he said. “In Berlin, we could fulfil the same demand with half the vehicles.”
He said another enabler of car-sharing would be the changing attitudes of people regarding car ownership. “People still like cars, people still like to drive cars – but not all people still want to have the asset with all the obligations linked to it,” he said.
That was one of the reasons, he said, that car-sharing would continue to grow massively. “The growth will come not only from adding city by city by city, but the change will also come from the changing mobility patterns within a city.”
Beermann cited forecasts from several well-known consultancies which predicted that car-sharing users and vehicle growth would result in a seven-fold increase in revenues in the sector by 2021. “We are at the beginning,” he said. “The growth is still to come.”
Whatever future mobility will look like, a fundamental aspect of the automobile will not change – the importance of the customer experience. It’s a definite plus if the mobility solution helps to make life safer, healthier and less stressful – but if it isn’t easy or pleasurable to use no one will buy it.
This is why a number of conference presentations also focused on the present, such as the panel discussion on Winning the Hearts and Minds of the Connected Consumer.
As one of the panel members, George Parthimos, CEO of Connexion, pointed out: “The HMI of a lot of the delivery and usage of infotainment features remains cumbersome. Then you transition that to the sharing economy. How does that work when you need three hours to learn how to use a vehicle?”
His solution to this lack of seamlessness is the use of artificial intelligence, voice recognition and pre-emptive decision-making for the driver.
Reimund Schmald, a business development manager at EMEA, suggested that infotainment products would become more attractive as cars become increasingly autonomous.
“Infotainment features will make a greater difference in the future than today as we shift to autonomous driving and to a shared economy,” he said. “The task we all have is to educate users about the advantages of those services and to make them accessible. Today, there are a lot of services in the car that are difficult to access.”
According to Dieter May, Senior Vice-President, Digital Business Models at BMW, benchmarks were evolving in terms of digital experiences within the car. “The race is on and there is a new phase coming where digital needs to become mainstream and on par with what we are used to from our consumer experiences,” he said.