There’s light at the end of the car tunnel. Is it an oncoming SUV, headlights blazing? Or are we about to witness daylight, no longer filtered by smog? Ask yourself: when the car has an electric motor, is controlled electronically, why hasn’t it gotten to the next stage: the car as an appliance-on-wheels?
To cut through the nonsense that is compromising personal mobility, endangering our living environment and doing its share to contribute to Climate Change, it is best to rethink the car. To do a reboot. Will Detroit ‘clean up its act’? Is Silicon Valley going to bring relief? Or will a rebellious bunch of mind-mappers, that perceives things differently, take the passenger car to its next stage? Hannibal Lecter’s lesson* to ask ourselves of each particular thing “what is it, what is its nature”, helps to throw light on what’s playing. Do we really need that much interior space all the time, if that is what keeps us boxed in and gets us stuck in traffic, and ruins our chances of making a successful and affordable energy transition?
- Automakers’ principal business is to develop-manufacture-sell their latest models. Electronic features, including driverless, are predominantly seen as add-ons, meant to make them sell better than their competitors’. New technology, gadgets, apps are brought to our attention as convenient solutions to issues which we weren’t exactly bothered with — in fact, safety experts repeatedly warned that they tend to distract. More importantly, they blur what we truly crave for : new solutions to concrete problems, like congestion, poor inner city air quality, shortage of space, surges in electric grid demand, and loss of what Germans call Fahrvergnügen.
- Tech funds hope(d) to replace auto maker’s wasteful hardware thinking (car is used 5 percent of the time on average) by a provider-based business model. They focus on mobility as a service, in which a percentage of the chauffeur’s fee goes to the provider. Problem is: ride-hailing services are hemorrhaging investor billions like there is no tomorrow. Solution: remove the driver, and all revenue goes to the provider. Interestingly, Foxconning of car brands (have them function in a supplier role in the production of autonomous vehicles) never happened. Waymo and UBER simply deploy the MPVs and SUVs they bought from car brands as mobile platforms for their self-driving technology, and became fleet owners themselves. The high expectations people had regarding robo-vehicles from tech funds (Apple iCar, etc.) never materialized. Which is peculiar, especially since autonomous ride-hailing hasn’t panned out yet like those tech funds had envisaged. Now all of a sudden it is electric scooters they focus on. Many city councils already put a stop to this though. They have led to a steep rise of accidents and abandoned E-scooters cluttering the streets.
3. In response to Silicon Valley’s onslaught, automakers started their own car- and ride-share services, as well as driverless research, often by teaming up with each other. VW and Ford work together. So are Mercedes and BMW. No wonder that the interests of car brands (1) and tech funds (2) tend to fall together. UBER and Toyota collaborate for instance. So, no clash of the titans. No epic battle. It looks like alliances are being forged before truly meaningful transformation could take place.
4. The need to put a stop to emissions and Global Warming have changed the rules of the game though, infused new energy. Governments demand that the transition to zero-emission propulsion be taken more seriously. Now cars have always been regarded as increasingly complicated pieces of engineering. What if we, for the sake of argument, get rid of the whole notion of high-maintenance machinery, and picture cars as oversized household appliances? That would constitute the biggest leap forward since Tesla brought us the EV 2.0 in which the combustion engine was swapped for battery drive . Personal mobility may cease to be the auto industry’s sole domain altogether.
Reduce footprint, and there’s more space to move around
THE challenge is to downsize and reformat our favorite mode of transportation. There’s where the biggest gain can be made. You don’t use a big truck to lorry a few parcels around town. You send in a delivery van. Likewise, most ride-hailing trips will be over relatively short distances, carrying one or two customers. There is where a comfortable (autonomous) vehicle, sleek enough to slice through traffic to get passengers to their destination on time, will do nicely. What’s more, large, self-driving cars actually contribute to gridlock and increase transit times in and around cities. Not only by substituting away from mass transit to mobility-on-demand vehicles, as Boston Consulting Group has established, but also because large autonomous vehicles occupy more road space and drive at slower speeds. It is comparable with, let’s say, a hundred, seriously overweight pedestrians as opposed to a hundred athletes, both groups walking down the same stretch of pavement. Only having to deploy ONE costly, electric grid-hungry SUV on one of every twenty on-demand rides, yields higher profit margins to the provider or substantial savings it can pass on to its customers. Car-sharing same story.
The average car is pretty clumsy hardware, which makes us less mobile and does NOT lend itself particularly well to have it drive autonomously. Many experts say that foolproof Level 5 (top level of autonomy) will be hard to achieve for a very long time. The delay could have disastrous consequences for companies banking on this trillion-dollar market. BMW’s UK representative, Ian Robertson, believes that autonomous features may even be outlawed as too risky. So, why complicate things by starting out with the wrong vehicle? Reformat the car before any fancy stuff goes in.
I am not advocating that we all should straight away start using sleek EVs. Vilify car owners? No! It’s great to take the V8 classic out for a spin on the weekend when roads aren’t packed with commuter traffic. But to have an alternative for all routine trips, would be nice. Small-footprint vehicles and bicycles make sense in the city. 60 percent of the world population lives in an urban environment. Bicycle promotion, always a difficult thing in metropoles like London, Paris, New York, Rio de Janeiro, will be a lot easier when cyclists don’t risk being run off the road. Plus automakers will no longer have the excuse that the costs of electric vehicles keep buyers away. Sleek, lightweight EVs can be built cheaper than what the industry is telling and selling us now.
Last but not least, a lightweight, low-drag road-vehicle would make for the perfect module to clamp onto a what’s called eVTOL, to fulfill what has been the dream of many for decades: escape traffic and fly off to your destination. AIRBUS is already thinking of modularly combining EV and eVTOL. Benefits as opposed to operating separate surface and aerial taxis (UBER’s business model): logistics, no swapping passenger compartments means no boarding and unboarding, economics, safety, transit times.
Author Ralph Panhuyzen has a background in port-related real estate development & logistics. He wrote books on the Port of Rotterdam and auto-mobility in the Netherlands, was managing director of a major multi-modal distribution center. His (semi) three-wheeler and aerial vehicle concepts have received expert recognition for their simplicity and viability (“Seamless 2D and 3D transit”). He can be reached at email@example.com
*Want to read about the Holy Grail in Next-Gen personal mobility, go to: “Greetings Earthlings, here is your Green New Deal Car”