The future of mobility: the drivers behind the steering wheel

The classic 1980s movie “Back to the Future” predicted a society with flying vehicles starting in 2015. Remember those immortal phrases “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”. Looking back in 2021, that vision of the future seemed far too optimistic.

‘Minority Report’, on the other hand, set in 2054, envisions urban architecture with full 3D mobility and electric vehicles produced in fully automated production facilities. Looking at current evolutions and emerging disruptive technologies, that vision seems a lot more accurate.

What makes the future imagined in Minority Report even more likely is the fact that the formerly conservative and stagnant mobility industry (and more specifically, the automotive industry) is rapidly changing, innovating, and evolving into a radically new model right in front of our eyes. There are several reasons for this acceleration. The first is a broader and more social reason: the challenges and problems within our current lifestyle. Car density, traffic congestion and parking problems are already huge problems, but with 80% of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050, these will become unprecedented challenges that must be solved starting today.

Closely linked to congestion is the problem of mobility-induced pollution: urban mobility is responsible for 40% of all CO2 emissions from road transport and up to 70% of other transport pollutants.

Another social driver is the change in consumption behavior and increasing consumer demand. By 2025, 25 percent of customers will expect same-day parcel delivery. If e-commerce players want to meet this demand, they will have to look for new and disruptive ways of good shipments and deliveries. In other words, finding new forms of transportation is not just an aspiration, it is an absolute necessity.

The technology drivers

The playing field has already changed drastically. A lot of new players have entered, but some established players like Volvo, VW and Ford are also stepping up as front-runners in the industry. These companies even announced to stop selling combustion engine cars within ten years. However, this is not possible without three distinct but closely related technological drivers that will radically reshape the mobility landscape.

1. Electrification

Electrically powered mobility solutions are considered the ones that will impact our daily lives the most. The electrification is heavily induced by some key technological advancements. As lithium-ion-batteries are constantly evolving, new technologies like solid-state batteries have some great expectations. This new type of battery-technology gains a lot of traction and attention, and rightly so: solid state batteries have greater energy density, allow faster charging and promise safer operating resulting in less complex setups. Toyota and Volkswagen are already planning to incorporate these types of batteries in their 2023 EV models. If the industry finds a way to scale the technology behind solid state batteries then it can be the most attractive, cheap, and safe alternative to current EV battery within the next decade.

The automotive sector is still driven by customers. Performance, availability and ecology are important motivators to buy an electric car, but surely price is the number one enabler. According to most studies, by 2025 (some say 2023) the purchase cost of an electric vehicles will be lower than an ICE car (Internal Combustion Engine) but today, the total cost of ownership is already lower than a traditional ICE car. Currently there are 200 electric car models available on the market, of which a new category of price-fighters that encourage customers to drive electric. An important factor that makes this possible is the declining battery manufacturing cost. Finally, maintenance costs of EVs are also much lower due to the lower number of moving parts. Perhaps a bit oversimplified, but changing tires, windshield wipers and refilling windshield washer fluid, that’s about it.

In contrast to car fuels, electricity is a common energy source used in everyday applications. And this opens up interesting perspectives. Electric car batteries, thanks to their long lifetime, are amenable to upcycling and reuse in other applications. Several initiatives have already been taken to re-integrate batteries that no longer satisfy for cars into so-called energy walls for homes and industrial applications.

But won’t the rise of EVs overload our power grid? By no means. The estimated 600,000 electric vehicles that will eventually be on the road in e.g. Belgium will only account for a 2 percent increase in electricity consumption. Smart management is essential though to avoid that we all charge our EVs at the same time. Technological solutions for vehicle-to-grid (V2G) energy are currently under development. Smart digital meters connect to smart cars and determine the best time to charge, preferably during off-peak hours. During peak hours the car functions as a home battery, providing electricity to cook, watch television and power the lights.

Vehicle to grid (V2G) – Car batteries cannot only be charged, (excess) energy can also be put back into the grid.

What about hydrogen? It is clear that hydrogen is the fuel of the future. But what about batteries then? Read further here.

2. Skateboard platforms

More than ever, cars, and more specifically EV’s, are constructed through modular design. Customizability and flexibility are the key here, enabled by new production technology and driven by new service demands. The central component is the skateboard platform. The skateboard architecture will enable a shift from partially customizable vehicles – built on fixed platforms and produced in large quantities – to highly customizable vehicles built on modular platforms in small and medium quantities. Parts are drilled, milled, and even 3D-printied in fully robotized micro factories. These cell-based assembly units have the potential to replace traditional automotive production lines.

Skateboard platform as basis for modular EV production

The development of these platforms is ongoing and one of the more bolder propositions comes from REE. The Israel-based manufacturer, produces only ‘skateboards’ with all the needed functionalities integrated inside the platform. REE wants to sell it platform to whomever can dream up a specific vehicle and build it on top of their skateboard. Other manufacturers, like Canoo, built only one adaptable modular platform that accommodate a wide range of personal transportation and commercial vehicles.

3. Autonomy

It is estimated that by 2050, up to 80% of transportation vehicles will be autonomous. However, think wider than ‘not having to drive your own car anymore’. Autonomous vehicles will appear in new mobility products and services that we can’t even imagine yet. Consider entire systems like personalized offices, stores, restaurants, fitness centers, and even hotels, that will come to us when needed. Toyota already designed an entire city where all these functional modules, including: dentists and doctors’ offices, are strategically positioned in function of the inhabitants needs.

Mobility as a service

Ownership is at stake. In the future, we will no longer own transportation vehicles as mobility will be widely offered as a service.

This service model will rely heavily on shared transportation. While we collectively take the bus and the train, we mostly consider our cars as private property. But this mentality change is already gradually taking place, as evidenced by the success of Cambio and disruptive modes of transportation like Uber. Surveys of the millennial generation reveal that car ownership is no longer seen as a status symbol, but rather as an expensive hassle and a polluting nuisance. This generation has already embraced mobility as a service, stimulated by the many convenient and intuitive mobility apps that exist today.

The next level of carsharing is illustrated by the new Citroën AMI, a vehicle specifically tailored for carsharing. Not the best looking car, yet very practical, durable and easy to clean. The real revolution within car sharing will come from autonomous vehicles (AVs). These types of vehicles are very attractive for shared mobility, as they can drive themselves to the user. This not only adds convenience for the user, but also allows carsharing platforms be more efficient and serve a larger area with the same number of vehicles. And maybe the most important of benefit of all is that these model expand the target group greatly to people without a driver’s license or with reduced mobility.

The Citroën AMI, dedicated to car sharing

Autonomy brings new functionalities to cars. Think beds for sleeping, desks for working, screens for entertainment, etc.. Volvo designed the 360c concept car as a transportation solution that offers all of these features in the form of a safe and luxurious mobility unit. One could easily imagine this being a disruptive competitor to airlines and trains.

Volvo 360c Interior
Interior of the Volvo 360c concept car

A radical new environment

If we can adapt to this new and revolutionary approach to mobility, and if technological development can keep pace, it will radically change the world we live in. We have already mentioned that by 2050, 80% of the world’s population will live in cities. So these urban entities will have a great impact on their demand for a healthy environment and efficient transportation. We will see the emergence of night deliveries with silent electric trucks, micro-mobility (e.g. electric bikes, skateboards and scooters) and vertical mobility and even 3D mobility (e.g. 3D elevators). Public transport will also be adapted to our new environmental and service requirements. The urban space, provided the necessary infrastructural adaptations are made, will become more fluid.

In suburban and rural areas, we will see an increase in car sharing, autonomous (same day) deliveries and public transport with autonomous ride-sharing vehicles that will be much smaller and much more customized than the buses we know today. That smaller scale will still be cost-effective because the bus driver will no longer be needed. Drone delivery will also take off – pun intended – in these less populated regions, where security and privacy regulations are much less stringent than in busy cities. In the future everything will have wheels. Many stores will be replaced by mobile parcel delivery platforms, autonomously driving to your home, location or local square where you can receive your ordered parcel.

UDELV autonomous parcel delivery platform

Although the most significant changes in the future of mobility will initially take place in the densely populated cities, the mega-impact of electrification, autonomy and automation, and modular mobile platforms will affect all aspects of mobility, whether freight or passenger, in the long term. The benefits of increased comfort, reduced environmental impact and economic benefits simply cannot be ignored and will drive the relatively rapid implementation of these new technological developments.

Stakeholders, seize your opportunity

Although in the coming decades we may not have the flying cars that the screenwriters of “Back to the Future” dreamed of, the way we transport people and goods will change dramatically. This will not only have huge implications for the automotive industry, but also for suppliers, other industries and, of course, our own daily lives. Many of these changes are already underway, although not everyone welcomes them.

Auto repair shops are looking at electrification with dismay because ICE cars and hybrid cars bring with them much more maintenance revenue (due to many more auto parts). Subcontractors fear that they will no longer be needed to produce lager, motor oil, gearboxes. Driving instructors fear that they will be out of work if autonomous driving becomes the new norm. These parties need to stop thinking in terms of problems and start thinking in terms of solutions and opportunities, because the mobility revolution has started and is unstoppable. Embracing this trend and taking control of the future is the way to go. This is why Tesla sells its cars through its web shop, making dealers and car stores redundant due to their stubbornness to go along with this.

What these “disadvantaged parties” can and should do is retrain themselves, based on their experience and know-how in traditional mobility. Driving instructors can put their extensive know-how at the service of software engineers working on AI and software for autonomous vehicles. Subcontractors can provide improvement suggestions on the production of structural batteries, grids, microcells, and so on. As we move toward mobility as a service, there are also opportunities in car cleaning services, re-fitting tires, fleet maintenance in general, etc.

Now traditional car manufacturers must decide what their role will be in this future landscape. Will they help build this landscape, or will they stand complacently by the side of the road watching radically different technical solutions, new business models for mobility and new companies take their place? Will they take the highway to the future, or the dead end of the status quo?

References

Disclaimer

Although this forecast already provides a well-founded look into the future of mobility, it can only be seen as a first insight into what the future may hold and not as a basis for making strategic decisions.

In addition to what has already been mentioned, there are many other (sector-specific) aspects that will have an impact on the mobility sector and adjacent sectors.

The real challenge is to identify the opportunities in this new future that will suit your business and then act on them so that your business not only survives but thrives in the future.

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