Chengdu, China – Self-driving cars, cars that run on biofuels and hydrogen, lightweight cars made from high-tech plastic: we’ve heard all the predictions for what cars of the future will be.
But there’s something bigger than the car itself, and that’s the future of sustainable mobility overall. I had the opportunity to travel to the twelfth edition of the Michelin Challenge Bibendum global summit, a global think-tank where researchers, scientists, political decision-makers and automakers get together to tackle the issues involved. (Disclosure: My trip was courtesy of Michelin North America.)
While the Challenge takes a global approach, the issues around sustainable mobility are often unique to different areas. For example, North America tends to prioritize fuel efficiency, while European legislation gives more weight to CO2 emissions reduction. Asian countries are more likely to look at two-wheeled vehicles as everyday transportation than we are over here. And while electric vehicle charging stations tend to be private enterprises in North America, they’re more likely to be underwritten by utilities or governments elsewhere. But no matter where you are, there are issues that need to be solved.
Most presenters at the Challenge agreed that “Big Data,” the exponential growth of available information, is going to play a key role in sustainable transportation, possibly in the near future. “There are 80 billion connected devices expected by 2020, and it could turn out to be 120 billion,” says Sarwant Singh, a senior partner at analyst company Frost & Sullivan, who adds that when all devices in the home are connected, the car will be part of that. “We will see the evolution of smart parking solutions that will allow you to book your parking before you get home, more demand for ride-sharing and transport systems, and door-to-door journeys where smartphones can show you show to take the train, to the plane, to the car, all integrated into one device with the tickets on the smartphone.”
A major issue, many analysts say, is that our transit systems are station-to-station, while almost everyone wants to go door-to-door—and when transit won’t take them there, they won’t use it. This is where Big Data would come in, Singh says, with people planning seamless trips on their smartphones from one conveyance to the next, and public planning that would improve the flow of people and traffic. “Currently, cars are designed around cities, instead of cities designed around cars,” Singh says. “We’ll be looking at new urban vehicle technologies like traffic jam assist and valet parking, connected driving such as V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle communication), taxis that might be autonomous in the future, and new mobility business models like car sharing.”
In theory, planning a trip could involve simply typing in your start and finish points. From there, integrated data could route a carpool vehicle to your door, have it drop you at the subway station, and have a bicycle or car-sharing vehicle reserved at the appropriate stop.
Singh also expects to see a shift in how cars are purchased, possibly over the next ten years. His company predicts that 4 to 5 per cent of all cars will be sold online by 2025, and that large, stand-alone dealerships will become out-of-date. “It will be more like Tesla’s strategy, with showrooms in shopping malls,” he says. “The number of visits that customers make to dealerships (when buying) has dropped (overall) from four visits to 1.3, so there’s no need for so many brick-and-mortar stores.
“Most of the leads from new-car buyers (currently) come from walk-ins or by telephone. This will migrate to online, and 70 per cent will come in via digital,” Singh adds. He also says that there will be more Internet aggregators that would look at a car’s purchase price, its lease price, the comparative cost of used vehicles, and predictive maintenance costs, and come up with the best solution for each prospective buyer.
While very few people include it in their vision of the automotive future, improved “last-mile logistics” are an integral part of the problem and solutions. The term refers to the final stage of goods delivery: after items have been shipped by boat, rail, or long-haul truck to a central location such as a warehouse, they then have to be moved to stores, supermarkets, factories, or to consumers. Currently, that’s usually done with medium- to heavy-duty diesel trucks, which add to traffic congestion as well as emissions.
La Poste, the French post office, currently uses a fleet of small electric vans for moving mail within cities, and equips its letter carriers with electric-assist bicycles. Courier company DHL, as well as Amazon.com, are working on drones to deliver small parcels (as are some global aid associations, which see them as an ideal way to get food and medicine to people in remote zones or disaster areas). Truck manufacturer Hino, meanwhile, is working on a strategy of different vehicles for route lengths, such as electric or plug-in hybrid trucks for short distances, fuel-cell vehicles for medium distances, and diesel for long-haul.
Other solutions are already being used in specific areas, and could one day become commonplace in others. Prague limits the number of heavy-duty vehicles in its city centre, while Paris assigns time slots when each type of truck can make deliveries. Berlin restricts trucks by their emissions ratings, while Barcelona allows trucks to use bus lanes at night. Other possible ideas include pooling freight at large urban distribution centres that would use route planning, location mapping, and delivery management to get goods most efficiently their final destination. Since many delivery trucks are only partially filled, leading to more trips and more congestion, the use of intelligent transport systems could optimize deliveries and ultimately reduce the amount of truck traffic on the road.
Still, private, public, and commercial transportation still has a long way to go before we’ll be seamlessly getting to our destinations without any stress or fuss. According to the Challenge Bibendum, one of the major issues is a lack of shared real-time information on public transit, especially in major metropolitan areas made up of smaller cities and jurisdictions that each run their own systems. This is further complicated with payment systems that still aren’t fully developed to work with smartphones.
Rolling out Web-based multimodal systems—which, going back to the beginning, will leverage the power of Big Data—will go a long way toward unifying transit solutions. One day, your car will map out the quickest way to get around traffic (which should flow much better with those improved truck routes), perhaps suggest that you pick up a couple of carpoolers going your way to help share the fuel costs, reserve and prepay a parking spot at your destination, and if it’s electric, set up its charging schedule while you’re at your appointment. The future of mobility is far more than just fuel and emissions. It’s about everything you’ll do to get from Point A to Point B as quickly, inexpensively, and efficiently as possible.