Features / Motoring

Sector spotlight: The future of motoring

By aphra evans, Friday Oct 6, 2017

Fast facts:

  • This year, Tesla’s market capitalisation reached US$51 billion (£39 billion), briefly overtaking that of General Motors and remaining well above that of Ford
  • 169,000 automotive manufacturing workers generate an annual turnover of over £70 billion in the UK.
  • But how will the 2040 ban on the sale of new fossil-fuel cars affect them?
    Source: The Conversation

Driving in Bristol isn’t one of life’s pleasures. For commuters in particular, seemingly every journey is hampered by congestion and parking woes. But motorists have far graver causes for concern.

One of the most polluted cities outside London, air pollution levels around Bristol city centre are almost twice the legal limit. The issue accounts for 8.5 percent of all deaths in the city, an estimated 300 deaths a year in real terms.

“These deaths all have a massive financial impact on both the state – especially the NHS – and on companies, in terms of productivity,” says Tim Chatterton, a senior research fellow in environment management at UWE. “The size of the impacts makes it one of the greatest public health risks at the moment.”

Diesel lorries and vans account for 23 percent of the emissions in Bristol, and the same percentage applies to buses and coaches, but by far the largest proportion – at 40 percent – comes from diesel cars.

Bristol’s population growth is part of the problem. The sheer number of vehicles making their way into the city every morning is increasing – and far too many are single-occupancy.

“We desperately need change in Bristol,” says Eleanor Combley, Green Party councillor for Bishopston Ashley Down. “Years of focus on the private car have just led to ever-increasing congestion, pollution and stress. Bristol needs real alternatives.”

One logical response to the single-occupancy issue is car sharing, an increasingly popular option for the thrifty, eco-minded or non-car owners which can alleviate traffic and pollution.

“As more and more people flood into cities like Bristol, it isn’t hard to see why the existing car ownership model can’t continue,” says Jonathan Hampson of Zipcar, the car sharing service. “It just doesn’t make sense for cars that sit idle for 95 percent of the time to take up so much valuable space.”

Zipcar’s app

In the last year, each of Zipcar’s shared cars in London was equivalent to 10 privately-owned vehicles being taken off the city’s roads. It’s easy to see how expanding car sharing services like Zipcar could lead to emptier streets with more breathable air.

But an ideal transport system extends beyond car sharing – it lies in combining initiatives like Zipcar with other emerging technologies.

Automotive brands are currently embroiled in an autonomous and connected vehicle arms race, while producing more affordable electric models that are improving in range and power.

However, electric vehicles still have a way to go in terms of cost, range and life cycle environmental impact (from raw material extraction to recycling materials after use), something the University of Bath is hoping to tackle with its new propulsion systems research centre.

“We need to improve the current technology very significantly if it is to replace current designs at a price and performance that allows rapid adoption by the mass market,” says Chris Brace, professor of automotive propulsion.

But for him, the 2040 ban on the sale of fossil-fuel cars is largely academic in practice. Thanks to existing regulation and market forces drive changes, he says, “It will be quite rare to see a new non-hybridised vehicle being introduced by the early 2020s.”

There are, however, huge challenges on the commercial side of transport. “For long-distance road haulage the challenge of energy storage is much greater, leading us to believe that clean, efficient diesel engines will dominate for decades to come,” Brace continues. “This, along with the challenge posed by decarbonising aviation, shipping and construction, leads to a strong case for zero-carbon, fully synthetic liquid fuels.”

So, for the research facility freight remains a challenge in crafting a more efficient, electric transport future – but it seems this is already in reach for consumers.

“It is possible to envision a future in which autonomous, shared vehicles, powered by electricity generated from all-renewable sources, cruise the streets waiting to be summoned to one of their users,” says Combley of the Green Party. “Imagine the huge amount of space that would be freed up in the city if no more parked cars lined the streets.”

One potential stumbling block could be reluctance on the part of motorists to give up their privately-owned vehicles for shared ones. “The social norm for many years has been to own at least one car, and while we believe that this is evolving, it takes a while to change people’s attitudes,” says Hampson of Zipcar.

That said, shared vehicles already have certain advantages over privately owned ones, in terms of cost-efficiency and ease of use, which could tempt people to convert. “In cities like Bristol and London, owning a car is becoming increasingly costly and a hassle,” concludes Hampson.

Alongside car sharing and electrification, an important driver of change will be making vehicles connected. It is at this point that the internet of things (IoT) becomes vital to the transport revolution, by connecting cars to city controllers so motorists do not cause traffic and find parking spots digitally.

Zoetrope is an IoT consultancy which sees huge opportunities for the technology’s application in transport.

“We’ve got an interesting moment coming up where the widespread use of IoT and driverless, electric cars will arrive hand in hand,” says Adam Drake of Zoetrope.

“It’s unlikely that people will own these vehicles, though. People will subscribe to pools or lease them and there’ll be really advanced tracking and remote monitoring on the roads.”

Zoetrope sensor

IoT will enable your car to tell the city where it will be and how long for. The city controller could then plan a route and reserve a parking space to make sure you get in and out without delay.

“But as there will be no driver to check the clutch or the breaks, no-one will be able to report problems to mechanics,” he continues. “So even if we don’t go totally driverless, cars need to communicate back to base when they need a service.

“We’re in talks with Jaguar Land Rover about this, and also about in-cabin entertainment experience. They’re getting ready for when cars don’t have steering wheels – so you need your Netflix movie to start playing where you left it when you get in.”

Zoetrope coding

Perhaps more important than Netflix is that IoT-enabled vehicles will continuously create streams of data of immense value to urban planners, enabling them to design cities in a more informed way – because for Chatterton of UWE, the root of the pollution problem ultimately lies in how cities are planned, thereby dictating how residents move through them.

“The overwhelming problem is continued decisions that make our society dependent on automobility,” he says. “This isn’t just a transport issue – it is all about how we have built-in expectations for high-emission lifestyles, like the distances between service-sector jobs and affordable housing.”

As commuting accounts for a large number of drivers on the road, businesses have a role to play in ensuring the way their staff get to work is beneficial not only to their well-being but to the environment around them.

“One of the key responsibilities for businesses is considering how their own staff travel, and how they can promote and facilitate public transport and active transport like cycling,” suggests Combley of the Green Party.

“Reports have shown that employees who cycle to work are happier, healthier and more resilient to stress – that is good news for them, of course, but it is also good news for your business productivity.

“Many of the key changes needed do not depend on developing technology, but in what we choose to do with technology that already exists. Simple changes, such as making it easier to transport bicycles on public transport so that people can combine the two over longer journeys, can make a big difference.”

“From my own viewpoint, the ideal scenario is to still own a car as a valuable part of family life, but not to be reliant on it for predictable, every day commuting,” concludes Brace of the University of Bath. “I expect private cars to be a necessity for many people for a long time to come.”

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