Electric vehicles are becoming a common sight, a paradigm shift in the making. And it is not just about switching one engine for another; the entire design of the car has been dictated by the mechanics of the combustion engine. The vehicles of the future will be lighter and more autonomous, and may turn mobility into a service instead of a product.

According to estimates, the number of vehicles in the world is set to double in 40 years. With current technology, this would cause a heavy burden on the environment and require a lot of resources. But technology is evolving.

Electrification is gaining traction. Battery technology is improving, and the cost of Li-Ion batteries is falling fast. All major car manufacturers and a number of startups are developing electric models, with better and better range. While electric vehicles are not necessarily environment-friendly – depending on the mode of production – any function that is electrified will keep getting greener during its lifetime, as carbon-neutral sources increase their share of the energy mix.

The world’s first electric highway for trucks has been opened in Sweden, with current collectors and overhead contact lines. In many cities, electric buses have been put in operation. Heavy machinery such as mining trucks is also beginning to be electrified. A recent German suggestion to ban newly produced combustion engine cars from being sold in the country from 2030 is a sign of the times: it is not a wild assumption that the technology development by that time will have killed both supply of and demand for petrol-fueled cars.

The mass of the car uses most of the energy

New kinds of batteries with better performance will replace the ones we are using today. We will probably see alternative modes of charging such as induction and battery swaps emerge. But the car of tomorrow will likely differ from the ones we are used to in more fundamental ways. A conventional car, by design, is not very energy efficient.

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Car sharing and a service perspective on mobility can lead to less congestion and more efficient use of resources.

A mere five percent of the energy consumption of an average car ride is utilized to move the driver, the passengers and the load. 95 percent goes towards the basically useless work of accelerating the tonnes of steel that constitute the car itself.

Furthermore, the average car is used only four percent of the time. With one billion cars in the world, 960 million are parked and idle at any given moment. This is why the new business models of the sharing economy are such a big deal. If the degree of utilization could be doubled, 40 million less cars would be needed (although higher utilization would also shorten the lifespan of the cars).

An OECD study simulated the traffic intensity of Lisbon, Portugal, to find out what the impact would be if car sharing in autonomous cars was the norm. According to the study, the total number of cars could be reduced by 90 percent on average and 70 percent during rush hours. The number of parking spots required would drop even more.

A reinvention of the car

Uniti - en svensk, innovativ elbil med hållbarhetsfokus.

Uniti – a Swedish, innovative EV with sustainability kept at the core of the development process.

The dimension and design of the vehicles of today is a product of the heavy combustion engine and its many moving parts. Electrification circumvents many of the constraints. The buses with in-wheel hub motors we wrote about in the article ”Electric buses improve the urban environment” is a good example. The technology is still relatively expensive, but it eliminates the need for a drivetrain which makes the bus more silent, lighter, and needing less maintenance.

A report by ABN Amro and Circle Economy suggests that the automotive industry is uniquely placed to embrace the circular economy and reinvent itself. Digitalization will meet the new perspectives of the service economy. Other properties will be more important when a vehicle becomes more of a tool that delivers a service and less of a product to own. New light-weight materials will be popular to achieve better energy efficiency. The need for a creative reinvention process will invite new innovators to the industry.

What does that mean in practice? One example is offered by the Swedish company Clean Motion, one of the winners of the WWF Climate Solvers award. The company develops an ultralight, electric three-wheeler: the Zbee. The vehicle is designed for short transports in urban environments, and seats up to three people. Thanks to the glass fiber composite body, the Zbee uses less than a tenth of the energy compared to a conventional car, and weighs only 270 kg. It is already on the streets in India, with a price tag of about 80 000 SEK.

Another Swedish company with ambitious plans for the future is Uniti, recognized as one of the 25 most promising greentech startups in the Nordic Cleantech Open 2016. The company began as a research and innovation project at the University of Lund, where urban vehicle usage patterns and transportation needs were studied and analyzed. Uniti is now using the insights to develop an electric urban vehicle, focusing on sustainability and creative solutions. Digitalization allows the steering wheel and dashboard to be redesigned from scratch, and augmented reality can be used to provide the driver with information right on the windscreen. The company describes their vision as closer to the world of robotics than the car industry, and the development process is resting on open source and crowdfunding. A production prototype is planned to be launched in 2017.

Smarter, more autonomous

Cars are becoming smarter and more autonomous, and the driver will eventually become redundant. Self-driving cars are very much a reality already; technology is competent enough to handle basic driving and traffic without problems, what remains is to make the systems robust and reliable in unexpected situations and susceptible to subtle signals such as hand signals given by cyclists. All over the world, systems are being tested and evaluated to prepare them for real traffic environments and make traffic regulations ready for their arrival.

Google is testing completely autonomous vehicles in traffic, hoping to reach commercialization by 2020. The Google system, seven years in the making, has so far accumulated more than two million hours of driving experience. Tesla, Uber, Ford, GM and Toyota are also developing self-driving cars, competing with a number of startups. Volvo Cars is preparing a test program where 100 Gothenburg families will be able to test drive a self-driving Volvo SUV in dedicated zones around the city.

Autonomous vehicles will be especially attractive to use in urban taxi fleets, and such fleets will be able to offer efficient and competitive urban mobility services. This will compete favourably with private motoring and car-owning, likely leading the way towards a service economy. A report recently published by Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that urbanization, electrification, the growth of Internet of Things and the development of self-driving capabilites will create a mutually reinforcing dynamics, and that it will transform our view of mobility very soon, beginning in the megacities of the world.

Since its inception, the car has become faster, more efficient and much more streamlined. Still, the basic design has largely remained the same. Electrification can change this, by removing constraints and giving opportunities for innovative redesign. The car is likely to transform, both in appearance and usage. This will decouple transports from emissions, and allow us to focus our resources on achieving the task we invented vehicles for: bringing all of us closer together.

The article was published in October 2016.