Autonomous vehicles, electric drives, and completely new mobility schemes. Journalist and mobility expert Don Dahlmann is thrilled by the future of driving – and its scope for personal mobility in the city. A guest contribution.
“The global demand for vehicles will never exceed one million – if only for the lack of available chauffeurs.” Surprisingly enough, this sentence was uttered by Gottlieb Daimler – the automobile’s original inventor.
By now, global vehicle numbers have reached an impressive 1.35 billion – even without those extra chauffeurs. In Daimler’s time, it seemed simply unfathomable that discerning gentlemen, who could afford the luxury of an automobile, would get behind the wheel themselves. Fast-forward a century or so, and the car has become a firm staple of civilization and one of the prerequisites for modern living.
Yet this is also a premise we need to abandon: The future of mobility differs markedly from today’s prevailing assumptions.
While we leave the question of who will be in the driving seat (human or computer?) for now, let’s start with innovations that are already on the road today.
One: the electric car
Whether personal car, taxi, or public transport: In future, vehicles will likely be powered by electric engines. The key question remains how the required power is sourced.
Right now, all major manufacturers favor a battery solution, ideally one powered by electricity from renewable energy sources. This tried-and-tested tech is well established and keeps getting cheaper: We can expect it to get very affordable.
At the same time, batteries still come with two major drawbacks – especially when you’re planning long highway drives: reach and charging behavior.
Although research keeps extending real and potential reach, it will take a while for production models to reliably reach 350 miles and more under any weather conditions. So, today’s e-mobility solutions tend to focus on urban traffic or predictable commuter routes.
More urban charging stations
Adding to the challenge, charging takes more than an hour. This is a major annoyance for anyone pressed for time and without access to a charging spot at home or work.
With this in mind, any mass introduction of electric cars needs to go hand in hand with the installation of a comprehensive charging infrastructure. Paradoxically enough, this tends to be easier in sparsely populated areas than in cities where people often share large apartment buildings.
After all, you can’t just lower a power cord from the third floor – and that’s supposing you even manage to snare a parking spot right outside your home. Several solutions to this issue are currently under discussion, including the integration of charging outlets in streetlights – the time for such ideas has come.
Battery or hydrogen fuel cell?
Hydrogen-powered fuel cells are an alternative to conventional batteries. They transform gaseous hydrogen into electricity and the process is completely emission-free. It takes just five minutes to fuel up for a reach of more than 350 miles.
Naturally, there is a catch. First of all, there are no facilities for the mass-production of hydrogen from regenerative energy sources. And fuel cells still use expensive platinum as a catalyst – one of the world’s most rare and precious metals.
Yet no matter which energy source wins the power race: In future, electric engines of some kind will drive the majority of our vehicles.
Two: carsharing schemes
Also, most urbanites will no longer care about the grand automotive questions of faith – gasoline, diesel, natural gas, hybrid, or electric – since they won’t even own a vehicle any more.
Instead, they will simply share a car with others. Carsharing is already a thriving business. In Germany alone, the national carsharing association has counted 1.8 million users – tendency rising rapidly, especially in metropolitan areas.
After all, carsharing is all about convenience. Users no longer have to deal with anything related to driving. No garage stops, no repairs, no maintenance.
Parking also tends to be free and most schemes offer a range of different models. For a furniture run, for example, I might get a station wagon, while a micro car is all I need for a quick hop around the corner.
30 percent less traffic and emissions through sharing
According to several different studies, carsharing alone could reduce urban traffic by up to 30 percent, translating to 30 percent less pollutants and fewer cars requiring a parking space.
Residents appreciate the general benefits – not even including long-term advantages resulting from less environmental and noise pollution.
Those who don’t want to ditch their own car might consider other sharing options: Whether signing up with a carsharing scheme or offering your own car for rent – both approaches have their advantages.
Joining an existing scheme means no running costs: You only pay for the time and distance you actually cover. On the other hand, by renting out your own car through a peer-to-peer platform, you can make extra money to cover your leasing fees.
Three: the connected car
To make the new world of mobility happen, cars need to be linked to their environment. This is already happening today: Real-time traffic jam warnings have become the standard. Some manufacturers’ cars also display continually updated gas station pricing.
In future, cars will communicate even more with their surroundings – including other road users and infrastructure features like traffic lights.
Lights, for example, could notify autonomous vehicles of an upcoming green phase to actively shape a faster, smoother traffic flow, markedly reducing potential congestion and accidents.
A further step involves the inclusion of driver data. Users could utilize their car to access and operate personal digital assistants like Amazon Alexa or Google Echo.
What’s more, networked services could help with the management of a so-called smart home or other services, making a car the hub and control center of our digital lives.
Four: autonomous driving
Autonomous driving is already a go – which still surprises many. The German car industry and its suppliers actually play a pioneering role: Vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or E-Class already incorporate autonomous driving features.
The level of vehicle automation is rated on a scale of 1 to 5. Current high-end production cars tend to reach 2.5 and 3 on this scale – drivers are still required to keep their eyes on the road and can’t just check their emails or watch a movie.
Things get serious at level 3; at least theoretically and technologically – not yet by law. The generation of vehicles that will hit the market in 2018, will possess these capabilities.
But the fun really starts at levels 4 and 5, where driver input is no longer necessary. While level 4 still requires at least a physical presence, the driver’s role – and with it the steering wheel, accelerator, and brake pedal – completely disappears once we’re at level 5.
While such cars are already being tested, they probably won’t enter complex urban traffic conditions before 2025.
Lower costs and more inclusion with autonomous “pods”
Once these autonomous pods arrive, they will revolutionize urban mobility. After ordering them by app, they will pick us up and transport us door-to-door.
Fees will be calculated and deducted automatically – and work out a lot cheaper than today’s taxi rates. Prices are expected to drop from around three dollars per mile to 70 cents, driving down costs for a 10-mile trip from 30 to approx. 7 dollars.
These are charges to rival public transport fees – with the added bonus of a private pod to work or relax. So, don’t expect the car, though frequently written off, to disappear anytime soon.
Instead, it will conquer new spaces and scenarios, even accessing a brand new audience: When cars become fully autonomous, this gives those previously excluded a new chance and scope of mobility.