Tesla, Uber & Co. are on everyone’s lips with their electrically powered, autonomously driven cars and shared economy concepts. But do the technologies and concepts of these companies really provide adequate answers to the problems of individual transport in the 21st century?
On June 20, 2017, the Wall Street Journal published a detailed article entitled „The end of car ownership – Ride-sharing and self-driving will redefine our relationship with cars“ and on July 28, 2017, the hype surrounding Tesla reached a new peak with the handing over of the first 30 vehicles of „Model 3“. Tesla was founded in 2004 and, at $55 billion, has meanwhile achieved a higher market capitalization than the Ford Motor Company – an over a hundred year old company with a turnover of around $142 billion (status: 2016). The same applies to Uber, whose market capitalization is estimated at over $70 billion.
The expectations of Tesla, Uber & Co. are therefore enormous and feed on the hope that these innovative companies from Silicon Valley will have the potential to bring about disruptive changes in the automotive industry with their multi-billion dollar sales – similar to Apple’s success 10 years ago with the iPhone in the mobile communications and multimedia industry.
The future of individual transport
The concept of individual transport based on internal combustion engines is now more than 150 years old, and the success story of the conventional automobile with approximately 1.1 billion passenger cars and about 380 million trucks on our planet has apparently led to serious problems such as environmental pollution, health risks or traffic accidents, especially in the international metropolises with their millions of inhabitants. Reasons enough to think about how individual transport should or must be organised in the future.
In recent years, electric drives have developed into the technology that is generally believed to have the greatest future potential in the area of individual transport. If it is possible to generate the energy for the production and operation of electric cars exclusively from renewable energy sources and if a practicable and appropriate infrastructure for the distribution of energy from the energy source to the final consumer can be established, electric cars will actually be able to mitigate at least the environmental impact and health hazards of individual traffic. In this sentence, however, there are two „ifs“ that are not easy to solve.
In addition, electric cars – with the exception of the gradual optimisation of traffic flows through autonomous driving – do not provide a response at all to the problem of traffic congestion, which is mainly caused by private transport and the limited traffic infrastructure with growing population numbers. So far, politicians all over the world have been trying to tackle the problem of traffic congestion, for example by imposing driving bans on cars in city centres or by making the use of cars in city centres as unattractive as possible and instead promoting the use of public transport.
However, the success of these measures is very limited: in Germany, public transport has a market share of less than ten percent of the total transport market, although the range of services on offer in Germany is by and large not bad and despite the fact that environmentally harmful behaviour is now outlawed by society.
In addition, there are only about 55,000 taxis and about 224,000 rental cars in Germany (as of 01/2017) – in relation to about 45.8 million passenger cars.
An overview of the key data on mobility in Germany extracted from official sources (e. g. the Federal Motor Transport Authority, Federal Environment Agency) can be found here:
Since the conversion of individual transport from conventional internal combustion engines to electric drives is accompanied by major changes, for which valuable resources are consumed to a considerable extent, the question must be allowed as to whether electric cars in the 21st century are still the right answer to the pressing problems of our time or whether we are not too short of the mark with this concept or whether we are even manoeuvring into a technological or conceptual dead end.
Electric cars – a technological dead end?
In this context, I would first like to look at some facts and figures. The United Nations forecasts that the world’s population will grow from 7.6 billion people in 2015 to 9.8 billion in 2050 – that’s an impressive 30 percent growth in 35 years (UN Total Population Report). The United Nations also estimates that 1.3 billion people will live in „more developed regions“ in 2050 and 8.5 billion people in „less developed regions“. An interesting overview of the current world population with a variety of options for analysis per country (e.g. fertility rate, average age, percentage of urban population) based on UN data is provided by Worldometers.com.
With a view to the development of individual transport, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published a forecast based on data from Bernstein Research in 2016, according to which the number of motor vehicles will double between 2015 and 2040. Interpolating the WEF forecast to 2050, the number of passenger cars will rise from 1.1 billion in 2015 to 2.35 billion in 2050, and the number of trucks will rise from 380 million in 2015 to 950 million in 2050, i. e. in 2050, 9.8 billion people will be moving about 3.3 billion vehicles on our planet – that’s a coverage of about 33.7 percent and one million vehicles.
Germany is not only famous for its automobile industry, but also for the volume and reliability of its statistics. The following table is an excerpt from a statistic of the Federal Motor Transport Authority. It documents that the number of motor vehicles in Germany has risen by around 600 percent over the past 57 years – from approx. 8.0 million in 1960 to approx. 55.6 million in 2017.
90 percent of these vehicles are currently passenger cars or motorcycles (in 1960, this proportion was slightly lower at approx. 80 percent). As prosperity has grown, the demand for individual mobility solutions has increased dramatically over the past decades.
What can we learn from this development? After a bon mot, which is attributed either to Mark Twain or Winston Churchill, predictions are difficult, especially when it comes to the future. Despite this, however, I would like to use the above-mentioned data and facts to deduce the prognosis that the growth of population and prosperity in „Third World“ countries will lead to a similar development with regard to individual transport in these countries as has been the case in Germany or other industrialized countries in recent decades.
For the „Generation Y“ and the „Millenials“, smartphones in teenage years may still be the most important status symbols, but by the time they enter adulthood, these generations will also want to own their own car and realise this wish as soon as they can afford it. Furthermore, as the father of three „Millenials“, I do not share the optimistic view that the growing generations on our planet will have a much more pronounced environmental awareness than their parents and grandparents.
The „DAT Report 2017“ (translated homepage see: https://goo.gl/ma6UGx) provides interesting insights in the emotional aspects of mobility: „For 57% of new car buyers and 39% of used car buyers in Germany, buying a car is fun and an experience. Buying a new car is a necessary evil, stressful or a burden for only 8 % of new car buyers whereas 21% of used car buyers in Germany see it that way. More than 90 % of all car buyers in Germany see themselves as being significantly restricted in their mobility without automobiles , this also applies to those who live in cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants.
Although environmentally friendly behaviour is massively advertised by environmental associations and political parties with comprehensive support by the media, the market shares of car-sharing and rental car companies are still very low: In Germany, car-sharing companies such as Flinkster, Drive Now or Car2Go have a market share of less than one percent (German Federal Environment Agency article of July 6, 2017); the global market share of car rental companies such as Avis, Budget or Sixt is just three to four percent of the global automobile industry’s turnover (German Tagesschau report published on August 18, 2016).
All this inevitably leads to the conclusion that electric cars, autonomous driving and shared economy concepts are not the right answers to the pressing problems of individual transport in the 21st century. They only solve some of the pressing problems, do not have the necessary acceptance in large parts of the population (shared economy), their development consumes valuable resources and ultimately leads us to a dead end. But what could be the better answer?
eVTOL jets as an alternative?
There are now a number of companies that are driving the development of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft with electric propulsion. Examples are Lilium, E-VOLO with the Volocopter or Airbus with the Vahana. Lilium already promises a range of 300 kilometres with a cruising speed of 300 km/h for its electric-powered VTOL jet. Increasing improvements in the efficiency of electric drives will make it possible to achieve greater ranges in the future.
How this concept works in practice can be seen in the following video, which was published by the British Guardian on April 21, 2017 as part of an article under the headline „Electric flying cars that takes off vertically could be the future of transport“: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/apr/21/electric-flying-car-lilium-google-uber-vtol-jet-taxi.
VTOL jets with electric propulsion (eVTOL), autonomous control and the possibility of exchanging power storage units have a number of convincing advantages:
- eVTOL jets offer their users a spectacular travel and flight experience with a panoramic view from above onto the overflying terrain.
- eVTOL jets are not tied to conventional transport infrastructure (roads, bridges, motorways, petrol stations) and can simply „fly around“ obstacles.
- eVTOL jets enable very short travel times by using the direct connection between two locations and high travel speeds
- eVTOL jets can take off and land almost anywhere, e. g. on skyscrapers, meadows, mountains or islands.
- eVTOL jets cover regional mobility requirements with a range of 300 kilometres
- eVTOL jets are 100% emission-free and have a low noise level
- Thanks to their simple design, eVTOL jets have low production and operating costs – no need for expensive landing gear (such as electric cars) or complex gearboxes.
- eVTOL jets with interchangeable power storage devices eliminate the need to build a costly energy distribution infrastructure from energy source to end user.
- eVTOL jets help to drastically reduce the cost of maintaining conventional transport infrastructure
- eVTOL jets open up completely new possibilities for structuring the work-life balance, as employees no longer have to live near their workplace.
To illustrate the advantages of eVTOL jets compared to conventional taxis, Lilium has put the following, very impressive diagram on its homepage to illustrate the advantages of eVTOL jets using a practical example (transport of a passenger from Manhattan to JFK Airport):
I am fully aware of the fact that eVTOL jets require considerably more powerful electric propulsion systems than electric cars in order to get the jet and its passengers up in the air and to hold or move it there. The following CNN.com article published on November 21, 2017 under the heading „Future of Aviation: 7 electric aircraft you could be flying in soon“ provides an overview of current approaches of various companies for the „electrification“ of aviation: http://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/electric-aircraft/index.html. In the past, the efficiency of electricity storage systems has doubled every 20 years. However, it is to be expected that the speed of development will increase significantly, as massive investments have been made in research and development in recent years to promote the topic of „electro mobility“.
A potential „show stopper“ is the fact that driving an aircraft undoubtedly requires more knowledge and skills than driving a car. However, this challenge can be solved by using autonomous control systems. In contrast to electric cars, the autonomous control systems of eVTOL jets do not have to hold the flying object exactly on a road, but rather avoid collisions with other flying objects, buildings or obstacles in three-dimensional space. If autonomous driving on the road is possible, it will also be possible in three-dimensional space. It will probably even be possible to fall back on existing technologies, e. g. in the field of air traffic control.
A stunning and inspiring Mashable video published at YouTube on June 13, 2017 shows drones called ‘SWARMS’ that can autonomously coordinate with each other using infrared cameras around the room (see: https://youtu.be/cF6QHTQqL7g). The team of engineers at University of Pennsylvania is building off this technology to create autonomous drones that uses its onboard sensors to perform labor intensive tasks, such as inspections or search and rescue. The technology could also provide a solution for the challenge to enable a huge number of eVTOLs to fly in a tricky environment with limited space, e.g. in cities with skyscrapers or forests with trees.
The increased space requirement of eVTOL jets compared to electric cars is undoubtedly another remarkable argument that argues against eVTOL jets at first glance. However, this problem can be significantly mitigated by folding or retractable wings, for example. In addition, there will be a multitude of creative solutions to organize the parking of eVTOL jets in large cities or their vicinity according to requirements. For example, if an eVTOL jet is equipped with an autonomous control system, it could transport its user to the workplace and then fly alone to a parking lot near the workplace.
Conclusion: Thinking ahead instead of running after it
In view of the considerable investment and major changes in energy and transport infrastructure, which inevitably necessitate the conversion of individual transport away from cars with internal combustion engines, the next step must be well thought out – especially since, with regard to users and investors, it is not possible to change direction every 20 years in these fundamental issues.
Electric cars – pushed by US companies from Silicon Valley – are en vogue, but electric cars are not able to solve the problem of traffic infarction convincingly. „Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) jets with electric propulsion, autonomous control and the possibility of exchanging power storage units are conceptually far superior to electric cars and there are a number of convincing arguments in favour of eVTOLs (not least the overwhelming „user experience“compared to electric cars).
The main argument against eVTOLs is that it is a paradigm shift in which we have to leave thinking behind in our usual ways. A Chinese proverb that I hold in high esteem says: „When the wind of change blows, some build walls and others build windmills“. German industry has all the necessary skills to bring the eVTOL concept to production maturity – both for large companies such as Siemens or Airbus, as well as for small startups such as Lilium or E-VOLO.
By making targeted and coordinated use of these competencies, German industry could secure a pioneering role in a billion-dollar future market – as it did more than 150 years ago with the development of vehicles with internal combustion engines. This way is definitely better than the limited concepts of Tesla, Uber & Co. running after it.
Note: An earlier version of this article was published in German language at CIO.de on August 4, 2017: https://www.cio.de/a/elektroautos-sind-nicht-die-beste-loesung,3560723