In this post, I want to share my thoughts on mobility. I've now been working for a big automotive supplier for almost one year and have put many thoughts on what's the current status of how we move people and things and how this can be improved in the future. This is a not-so-nerdy post, but as well a topic that really bothers me.
It's everywhere in the news. "Dangerous" autonomous cars which are killing people. I want to point out some facts and give an outlook on what autonomous driving can become in the future.
First off, there are no level 5 autonomous cars out there today. Level 5 describes the ability of a car to handle every traffic situation without human input and supervision. Followed by this, there is level 4, which depicts cars which are able to drive without human input and supervision in specific, well-defined scenarios. Even that is cutting-edge research today and definitely not available in series production. Level 3 describes the ability of a car to drive partly autonomous, with the driver being able to take over and to intervene if told by the system. Level 2 cars are able to overtake basic acceleration/deceleration tasks while steering, though the driver is at all times supervising the system and monitoring the environment, being able to take over immediately any time. Basic adaptive cruise controls (ACCs) etc. are depicted by level 1.
One famous example of autonomous driving is the Tesla Autopilot. This name was chosen very unwisely since even this is just a Level 2 system. The driver is advised to be awake, constantly monitor the environment and supervise the system to be able to take over any time. Unfortunately, some drivers misunderstood the strong marketing name and where unfocused during their rides, leading to crashes.
I want to make clear that there are no Level 3 and higher cars in series production currently, so drivers still have to drive themselves!
Nevertheless, heavy research is going on to implement higher levels of driving automatization. In future scenarios, it will be completely normal for us to read the newspaper in front of the steering wheel, still being able to take over if we feel like it. Later on, steering wheels will be abandoned and people become passengers instead of drivers, being able to face each other while being driven autonomously. In that scenario, people don't need a driving license and anyone will be able to ride in a car. It will be usual to see children being taken to school alone in their parent's cars.
Another buzzword flooding the news. Nevertheless, I'm a strong believer in electromobility and am convinced that combustion engine cars will disappear eventually.
First, electric cars are no over-all solution. They still consume a vast amount of energy, which has to be produced somehow. Depending on the country they are charged in, energy is still produced out of fossil sources. In Germany for instance, 51,2 % of energy still was created out of fossil sources, and additionally 11,6 % out of nuclear energy. Both are sources whose share should be decreased in the energy mix.
Nevertheless, electric cars bring some advantages. First of, their efficiency is incredibly high in comparison to combustion engine cars. Efficiency depicts the energy output of the system (kinetic energy) divided by the energy input into the system (either electrical energy or chemical energy in form of gas). Electric cars are able to transform over 90 % of the electric energy into moving the car, while combustion engines (which are realistically driven away from their optimal operating point) end up with an average of about 15 %. This means the majority of our mobility today relies on a technology which wastes 85 % of the energy by heating up the motor and radiating heat into the surrounding environment. Tell me that does not sound crazy to you.
Furthermore, electric cars don't burn fossil fuels in cities, leading to an increased air quality. Many big cities face air quality problems, most famous in Germany is the car capital Stuttgart. While currently, fossil fuels need to be burned to create energy, we can do it at places where the health of people is not as directly affected as in densely populated areas.
In accordance with that, noise pollution can be decreased by electric cars. Imagining that combustion engines work by inducing literal explosions to move, it's no wonder that conventional cars are just loud. Typical sports cars are allowed to emit up to 75 dB. At the same time, people are forced to use hearing protection when working in an environment that is louder than 85 dB. There are many studies that show that noise induces sickness, additionally to the obvious decreased quality of life when living next to a heavily used road.
At this point, I want to say that I'm very disappointed in the German government, which has completely failed to make electromobility attractive to drivers. I assume strong lobbyism from our car manufacturers is a major reason since Germany's economy relies heavily on the car industry. I would suggest for car manufacturers, to face the change and invest in research and development of electric technology in order to be able to become internationally competitive instead of holding onto past technologies and trying to slow down the change.
Buzzword number three. I'm not sure what to think of ride sharing. I'm convinced that the future of mobility does not involve individual vehicles that are used by one person exclusively. Since the average car is used less than 10 % of the day, that means we can assume that we are very bad at keeping house with the resource car. As a side effect, this leads to tons of cars demanding parking space in our city, blocking open space for locals. So from this point of view, it totally makes sense to establish ride sharing, where one car is shared between several drivers throughout the day. This increases the usage time of the car and could lead to fewer cars in total in a city while providing a similar amount of mobility.
Nevertheless, I see issues. First, of, people mostly want access to mobility for commuting. That means high peaks of demand in the morning and the afternoon, making it difficult to share one vehicle between several people. Establishing group rides for people that are headed in the same direction might be a better idea. Also, studies have shown that car sharing does not harvest its customers from established car drivers, but from people that would otherwise use public transport or the bike. This leads to even more traffic in cities.
In the long run, I don't see individual cars in the future. People will have a mixture of a taxi and a bus, taking people that are headed in similar directions dynamically from one place to the other. Routes are calculated live and on-demand, optimizing traffic, ride time, etc. One approach to this is the e.GO Mover.
I honestly believe cars don't belong in cities. I haven't owned one car in my life and don't plan a purchase in the next years. I do everything by bike, which is extremely convenient in bigger cities. Now living in a rather rural, my bike covers 95 % of my mobility needs. For the remaining 5 % I use public transport. Less than 1 % is an actual demand for a car, in case I'm moving into a new apartment, for instance. In that case, I use car rentals.
If we think about how much space we dedicate to cars in cities, one might wonder. Streets are a no-people zone, it's dangerous to go there. People tell their children to stay away from the streets. Is that a livable environment for cities? I don't think so. The vast amount of space that is now used by cars could be dedicated to public space, leisure, parks, recreation, art, etc. etc. Mobility can take place underground, as proposed by Elon Musk's Boring Company. This would make cities fundamentally more safe for pedestrians and cyclists and at the same time enable faster traveling in cars. Noise and pollution will be reduced due to the spatial separation. For inter-city travel, cars still can be an option. For instance, Amsterdam is promoting park & ride solutions, with large parking spots at the city borders and attractive public transport conditions for drivers that leave their cars there. Following and developing that example, I think we could achieve a safe, livable and attractive mobility of the future.