From London to Shanghai, congestion and slow-moving traffic are pushing large cities to their limits. The future demands modern, environmentally friendly solutions. Electromobility is the central driver to achieve this.
Urban agglomerations are becoming larger and larger around the world and are therefore also facing considerable traffic problems. As an example, anyone working in and around Munich, Germany's most congested city, spent an average of 51 hours stood idle in traffic in 2017. This accounts for 16 percent of total driving time, beating even the global leader Los Angeles. Congestion in LA is the biggest everyday problem for motorists, not only in rush hour. Nevertheless, it accounts for "only" twelve percent of total driving time, i.e. less than in Munich. Overall however, car drivers in the Californian metropolis spend 102 hours a year stuck in traffic, far more than in Germany. The costs caused by congestion are becoming an ever greater burden: in Germany alone they total around 80 billion euros, an average of 1,770 euros per driver per year. While the economic and environmental losses are already massive, the entire quality of life in busy cities is suffering more and more as well – due to smog and stress.
Turning traffic around
The traffic chaos in many cities demands solutions. The majority of mobility concepts for the future rely on electromobility as part of a traffic turnaround – for public transport and private commercial vehicles. In Germany, experts anticipate that electric cars will increasingly replace vehicles with combustion engines by 2020 at the latest, as manufacturers launch more and more new electric car models on the market. More than 750,000 electric cars were sold worldwide in 2016 and more electric vehicles are being registered than ever before. China is the leader by quite a large amount. The country saw 336,000 new registrations. In second place is the USA, with growth about half that. At present the market is still concentrated in relatively few countries. In Europe the leaders are France, Germany, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. Electrically powered commercial vehicles achieved a market share of 29 percent in Norway.
The greatest potential for the expansion of electromobility lies in cities. Car sharing models using electric cars are the most promising solution to reduce the enormous levels of smog and traffic chaos in conurbations and to improve the quality of life. There is now consensus that electromobility will prevail in urban and rural areas. However, when it will take the majority market share depends on the expansion of the charging infrastructure and how well car sharing catches on. In rural areas, on the other hand, most electromobility pioneers are currently on the road. In many cases they also have a PV system and are acting out of conviction. However, electric mobility solutions tend to be tested on a larger scale in conurbations with major traffic problems. This also includes appropriate charging stations for the electric vehicle – not just at home, but also at the workplace and on the route in between. Smart traffic and parking guidance systems, which work using sensors and divert traffic at peak times, will also contribute to easing traffic in the cities of the future.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that between one and seven million new charging stations for electric cars will be added worldwide by 2025 to the two million charging stations already in place in 2016. The IEA also has a positive forecast for the increased demand for electricity: depending on trends, it estimates that the additional energy required globally for electromobility will account for around 1.5 percent of total global energy demand in 2030. This would make up only about six percent of the additional electricity demand from the industrial, residential and commercial sectors. Overall, the entire electricity grid is set to become more flexible: researchers around the world are working on smart grid solutions that integrate batteries from electric cars into the power grid as flexible storage devices, closing the gap between generation and consumption.
So the outlook is promising. Some technology start-ups are working to eliminate congestion in urban traffic with technologies related to electromobility. They want to raise traffic into the third dimension. Flying taxis or even high-speed underground tunnels are possible solutions to today's traffic chaos. What is most astonishing, is that many technologies are already more or less ready to be used.
Air taxis for commuters
Perhaps the most promising means of transport of the future will look like an oversized camera drone and will do without pilots and have a purely electric means of propulsion. Worldwide, around a dozen companies are currently working on electrically powered flying cars, including such big names as Airbus and Uber. They see it as the next mobility revolution. One air taxi solution of a start-up company near Munich promises such flying taxis could take passengers from London to Paris in about one hour, for example. Ultralight electric aircraft for private use will eventually replace cars, taxis and trains. Despite the strictly regulated airspace in Germany, commuting by drone taxi could become a reality here in six to ten years, for example at Frankfurt Airport. At least according to a spokeswoman for Fraport, the operator of Frankfurt Airport. Technology seems to be nearly there: at the beginning of 2018, a Chinese company reported that it had succeeded in making its first passenger flights with a pilotless air taxi.
Another idea: capsules shoot through a tunnel in a vacuum at supersonic speed, i.e. more than 1,000 kilometres per hour, turning the world into a village. The Hyperloop could bridge the distance between Munich and Berlin in just 39 minutes, according to the project's homepage. The man behind it all is Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame. He is convinced that high-speed tunnels linking cities are the transport solution of the future. Although the technology certainly needs thorough testing a few more years, work began on a first loop tunnel in Los Angeles in December 2018 – although in this case traffic will still flow without vacuum or high speed. Electrically powered modules can pick up 16 people at stations, take them into the loop tunnel via elevators and then speed through the city at over 200 kilometres per hour.
Urban travel by cable car
In South America, cable cars have long been a hit as electrically powered local transport: Colombia's second largest city, Medellín, started its first routes in 2004 and 2007, followed by Manizales in Colombia in 2009, Caracas in Venezuela in 2010, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in 2011, La Paz in Bolivia in 2014 and Cali in Colombia in 2015. In Germany, there is also a cable car in Koblenz, originally set up for the National Horticultural Show 2011. Other than that, public transport gondola systems in German cities are still a vision of the future. They are currently being discussed in Heidelberg, Ulm, Freiburg, Wuppertal, Bonn, Trier and Bochum. The big advantage is that cable cars can be built quickly and cheaply within a few months, whereas it can take up to ten years to construct a subway line. They could be used to close local traffic gaps, such as between different underground lines, and require little space.
Whichever of the solutions prevail, it is certain that the mobility transition is coming. And it will largely be electric – on water, on land and in the air.