Electric Currents

Ten Trends in the Future of Mobility

Nov 30, 2014

You're a college student studying automotive mechanics or renewable energy technology. You have 40-50 year future ahead of you but the landscape is undergoing tectonic shifts beneath you. What's driving it and how should you respond?

I recently gave a talk at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa. It's a beautiful, relatively new campus with lots of new construction taking place. It was my first time there and I'd been asked to talk about electric vehicles to a class of students getting two-year degrees in solar technology.

As it turned out, two additional classes joined, one a math class and the other, naturally enough, automotive. So, with some 50-70 students, most of them what demographers would classify as 'Gen Y' or Millennials, slated to be in room, I decided that the best thing I could talk about were the ten trends I saw taking place in the EV world as it would impact their future careers. I had planned to record my 50-minute talk, but circumstances intervened when my 2003 Honda Odyssey's starter gave up the ghost in the college parking lot, but that's a story for another time.

In thinking about the ten trends, I wanted to focus on those that would most impact students studying renewable energy and automotive technology, because, increasingly those once neatly separated fields are gradually merging with the need to find ways to store renewable energy and the slow, but steady shift toward electric-drive vehicles. So, here are my ten trends:

1. Widespread Automobile Electrification is Inevitable. Between ever-tightening emission standards - both on carbon dioxide and less benign pollutants - globally, as well as growing concerns over global warming, the world's transportation system will shift inexorably towards greater and greater electrification of the powertrain.

2. Our I.C.E. Age Legacy Will Slowly Retreat. - We're on the threshold of a global fleet of 2 billion trucks and automobiles, most of them dependent on fossil fuels. There is a vast and costly infrastructure built to support those vehicles that will, like that fleet, take decades to replace. Besides the industry's sunk capital costs, there is the market acceptance issue - the majority of consumers have little, if any, understanding of EVs. Given a choice, they'll nearly always stick with technology with which they are familiar. Then there is a vast energy infrastructure of refineries and pipelines and gas stations - 120,000 plus in the United States alone - that's been built over the last century to support the Internal Combustion Engine. But like the retreating glaciers of Glacier National Park, the ICE-age automobile will only slowly retreat and fade.

3. Economics Rule - As the cost of e-drive systems come down to the point where battery costs equal the cost of fossil fuels, it will only make sense economically to go with the electric car option with their lower operating costs and greater energy source options from your own solar panels to wind energy to fusion power, assuming Lockheed-Martin can, in fact, deliver on their promise of affordable and practical fusion power plants.

4. The Search for Fossil Fuel Alternatives Will Continue - While fracking has substantially increased the amount of tight oil and gas that can be extracted from various geological formations, most observers see this as relatively short-term prospect. The search for less carbon-intensive energy sources will continue, from ethanol to natural gas to hydrogen.

5. Generational Shift Reduces Auto Needs - From baby boomers who have less need for automobiles to Millennials who are less and less interested in car ownership and the economic burden it entails, more of us are looking beyond the automobile for more convenient, less-costly alternatives, including more urban living that only requires access to safe sidewalks, bicycles and reliable public transit.

6. Lower-Cost Vehicle Alternatives Appear - In response to this shift in mobility needs, companies are experimenting with a wide variety of vehicle platforms, most of them based on short-range, one or two-passenger electric types that range from LIT Motors C-1 to Renault's Twizy, vehicles that are designed more for urban settings where current battery limitations are less of a concern. Many of these proposed models are targeted to cost under $10,000USD, and increasingly they will be utilized as part of short-term rental and carshare operations.

7. Public Transit Revival - Commensurate with the shift from suburban-tailored passenger cars to more urban-friendly runabouts will be the revival of public transit from improvement in bus technology, like a shift to hybrid-electric to all-electric powered by rapid conductive or inductive systems, modeled into Bus Rapid Transit systems that emulate aspects of light rail, but without the enormous expense.

8. Rise of Robotic, Self-Driving Vehicles -- Programmable, self-driving cars will start to appear by the end of the decade, likely in high-end, luxury models first, it may find its widest use in driverless, transit-on-demand systems that provide either feed-end service to BRT systems or personal point-to-point travel: think Uber without the driver.

9. E-Drive Market Share Will Grow - While we tend to think mainly about the use of electric drive systems in automobiles like the Volt, the LEAF and the Model S, in fact, the technology is invading other mobility niches from aviation to maritime. Several companies are already racing to bring electric flight trainer aircraft to the market in the next several years and increasingly vessels like car and passenger ferries are being converted to plug-in electric hybrids.

10. The Source of the Energy to Power This Transportation Future will Shift to the Sun - From PV to concentrated solar to wind and wave, the greater energy efficiency of e-drive systems enables mankind to tap into the power of the Sun today, not from 65 million years ago, as we do now when we burn fossil fuels. Yet, always bear in mind there can be 'black swans' that unexpectedly appear and change the future, so from a career perspective, the best advice is to be make sure your personal knowledge and skill set is as flexible and adaptable as possible. Ten of the top paying jobs in IT today weren't even around in 2004. Just like the above photo of downtown Detroit in 1900. There are horse-drawn carriages, electric trolleys and lot and lots of bicycles around the square in front of Detroit city hall. But what you don't see is one, single motorcar. Not one. Yet, by 1910, the street alongside city hall was filled with parked cars. That's how fast things can change in this world.

And with change comes opportunity: opportunity to be creative, to collaborate, to build something new, something paradigm transforming.

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