In this, the first of an eight-part series between Audi and Monocle, we embark on a journey to discover the future of mobility in our cities. We start with a focus on electric cars and how urban environments need to adapt to accommodate them.
Where we're going next and what it means for our cities
Electric cars are an exciting prospect but what are the practical measures that need to be implemented in order for them to take to the streets? Here’s a lowdown on the forward-thinking ideas required.
Sometimes vehicles evolve in order to keep pace with the changing needs of society. More often than not, however, the invention of new means of transport actively defines the conditions and possibilities of life in a specific time and place – and can herald revolutionary ways of inhabiting our planet.
Take the car, for example. Few other objects can stake a claim to having shaped the 20th century as much as the four-wheeled vehicle. The motorised, faster evolution of a horse-drawn carriage did much more than just cut travel times. When cars entered mass production – and became affordable for all classes – it created unprecedented opportunities for individuals to move about wherever and whenever they wanted. And in the long run it shaped the way we have set up our countries for transit: the network of tunnels, flyovers and tarmac strips we created brought the car to all of the isolated places that trains could not reach. But the car helped to create the city as we know it: a vast, vibrant agglomerate of neighbourhoods crisscrossed by busy roads.
Yet the very same urbanisation that the car helped to foster has now reached a point that forces us to rethink the role we want automobiles to play in the future. Governments around the world are putting deadlines on when their processes to cut all emissions needs to be carried out by; our way of understanding the notion of environmental responsibility has shifted dramatically. Finding ways to improve traffic and improve air quality have always been important for municipalities. Climate change has become the defining – and urgent – issue to contend with on a global level. A way out has long been wished for but now the technology to make it happen has matured and is ready to be implemented.
The equation that will be behind mobility in the future is underpinned by two factors, and both need to change if they are to produce the right result. First, city-planners need to adapt to include new transport options; second, cars need to change if cities are to make room for them. Even tweaking the layout of a street can do plenty to make certain that bikes and public and private transport can coexist in harmony in the city of the future. But any multimodal network cannot entirely forgo the car. The same tenet that made them so popular throughout the 20th century is what users will still require in the future: flexibility and adaptability when it comes to the personal needs of drivers.
As for the side of the equation relating to cars, Audi has long been trying to establish a future trajectory and developing answers that can work to define it. The electric car may not be a newcomer to the world of mobility but it is precisely because Audi’s engineers have studied its evolution over the years that this technology has reached a point of maturity that makes it ready to get the global exposure it deserves.
In the early stages of development of the very first cars, batteries were considered as one of the alternatives to propulsion. Petrol engines may have prevailed in the contest then but nowadays they need not feel like the only possible option: hybrid and fully electric cars are poised to catch up. Cities also have a great responsibility to ensure that battery power can take over from petrol engines, which can be achieved simply by installing an extensive network of charging points across its streets.
With that in place it’s Audi’s job to make sure that the electric car has the technological prowess necessary to both complement and improve the urban environment. A car powered with sustainably produced electricity is always good news for the urban dweller as it reduces both pollution and noise levels. The company is also working hard to improve on those core qualities by equipping its models with long-lasting batteries that can be charged quickly. In this manner, Audi’s electric cars aim to achieve their potential.
There are plenty of developments that Audi has led that, until recently, felt like they belonged in the future. Currently in the works are exterior lights to alert passers-by to an electric car’s silent presence; meanwhile, advanced connectivity helps to identify mechanical issues before they present themselves. Plus, advanced artificial intelligence could help to pilot a car autonomously, which takes all of the stress out of traffic jams.
These advancements signal a turning point in the way we envisage mobility. They are proof that electric cars are no longer just an alternative but, rather, the mainstream we’re looking forward to welcoming.
Dutch professor Carlo van de Weijer is head of the Smart Mobility strategic area at the Eindhoven University of Technology, where he forecasts what the car and transport networks of the future will look like. We ask him what’s on the horizon.
Q What do you think we can expect from 2018 in matters of mobility?
A The turning point will be the trend towards electrification – not so much spearheaded by environmental concerns but mainly because, in due course, it will be cheaper to drive electric. Plenty of governments are now supporting electric cars because a self-sustaining system will make driving cars much cheaper. And this turning point will come much quicker than people expect.
Q What do you think cities can do to help make this change a reality?
A Cities should facilitate the instalment of charging infrastructure but a market mechanism is what will help. You’ll see many fuel providers buying into companies that provide charging structures; there is a strong business case behind that. It’s easier when people have their own charging point in their driveway but not everyone has a parking spot. Cities can help by increasing the number of lampposts equipped with charging points.
Q In terms of technology, what do you think is making electric cars ready for such a shift?
A The main thing is the volume effect: people thought it would take 20 years before the electric car started spreading and being competitive against the engine car. But a sharp decrease in battery pricing has really been a mind-shifter. There’s also the maintenance factor: there are fewer components in an electric car, and rideability is better.
Q What about in 50 years’ time – what do you think mobility will be looking like then?
A I think electricity will still be the main propulsion method. Fast charging is approaching; although I have been riding electric for four years myself, I don’t consider charging time a problem, it’s just a question of mind-shift. I do think that a few long-distance vehicles – and planes – will probably still need liquid fuel in the future. But I think that given energy will be abundant in the future due to the drop in cost of solar cells, and we will be able to produce synthetic fuel with sustainable electricity.
Q How do you think digitalisation will impact the car industry?
A As with any industry confronted with digitalisation, changes come in exponentially – and are often fuelled by new players. But I don’t believe in a future of fully driverless cars. Cars will never be able to flexibly interpret the law in certain situations. Automated driving will come in a form, though. It will take the nasty bits out of driving: the traffic jams, the commuting, the long highway drives. Humans have an important biological urge that makes us want to be mobile for a certain part of day; the car is a good tool to use to fulfil that biological need.
Are cities ready for the advent of electric cars? Who develops the technology that ensures they are ready to take to our streets? To find out the answers to these questions and more, follow our eight-part series on the future of mobility.
Read part 2 of the series here.