Planes, trains and … rickshaws: why the future of transport is electric

Jon Card

Transportation is going to change enormously during the 2020s. The electrification of vehicles large and small is opening up all kinds of possibilities. Electric vehicles (EVs) lend themselves very well to being connected vehicles and, by combining transport with apps, data and smart systems, we are provoking a total rethink of how we travel.

The traditional transport system of trains, planes and automobiles is being upended by big data. Transport will soon be far more than the simple A to B and is already encompassing elements of the sharing economy, autonomous systems and cross-sector collaborations.

Clean air
A major driver behind electrification is the push for lower carbon emissions. Transportation contributes close to a quarter of all global emissions and policy makers and the general public are demanding cleaner mobility.

The lockdown created in response to the coronavirus pandemic has led to huge drops in traffic and congestion across the world. As a result, we’ve all been experiencing far better air quality, and many want this to continue.

“A precipitous fall in traffic on our roads has suddenly given British cities cleaner air and we must all realise that returning back to the norm is not an option,” says Charlie Jardine, founder and CEO of EO Charging.

Autonomous vehicles and sharing
Another way to cut emissions and congestion – as well as to reduce costs – is to use our vehicles far more efficiently. Most cars spend the majority of their lifespan parked on a driveway or street, and there are comparable inefficiencies in larger vehicles, too.

Laurence Weir, technology lead at the engineering company Plextek, is among a growing number of experts predicting the growth of vehicle leasing on a “per trip” basis. Few of us will own cars, he suggests. Instead, we will take advantage of smart platforms that will match our journey needs with the appropriate autonomous vehicles.

“Most of us currently drive to work alone in a car with enough space for a five person family going on a week’s holiday and, for a lot of the rest of the time, that car sits dormant on a driveway or in a work car park. It’s clearly not the most efficient use of materials,” he says.

Autonomous vehicles would also be a real gamechanger for freight and haulage, Weir adds. “The haulage industry would be transformed. Currently, so much of the logistics and costs revolve around the driver and the availability of a vehicle large enough to make it efficient. Without the driver, goods could be moved around in smaller, discrete crates at the optimum time of day, therefore making the use of the road network much more efficient.”

Artificial intelligence is already changing the way vehicles are designed, says Holger Hampf, president of the BMW subsidiary Designworks. “AI is more of an aid in efficiency rather than in the development of entirely new designs,” he says. “The designer is becoming more like a conductor; setting directions and making decisions.”

Apps and software
Transport is moving away from being centred on ownership and is instead becoming a service you can access from your phone. The term “Mobility as a Service” (MaaS) is now an industry buzzword and is suggestive of how much tech and transport are overlapping.

Last year, the navigation app Citymapper unveiled a pass that enables users to pay for all London tubes, buses, bikes and even taxis via one payment card. Nearly everyone has a wallet and a phone and with those two items we’ll soon all be able to rapidly access transport.

Pedal power
Mark Hodgson, founder of Co Cars and Co Bikes, has embraced the all-electric theme with gusto, offering pedal power and engines to his club members. He describes short-term hire for an e-bike or electric car as a smart option.

“Our experience shows that there’s huge interest in zero-emission travel,” says Hodgson, adding that electric cars are the most popular part of his fleet, perhaps suggesting that, given the choice, people will pick the cleaner option. Meanwhile, he describes e-bikes as a credible, “non-sweaty”, alternative to driving.

Related: ‘A tipping point is likely in 2021’: why electric vehicles will soon dominate UK roads

Car manufacturers are investing heavily in electric vehicles. As well as having a range of 10 plug-in hybrid vehicles, often the first step for consumers towards a fully electric car, BMW is planning on building its iNext model from 2021, describing it as “fully networked, fully electric”. These “cars of the future”, complete with a newly designed steering wheel, talking functions and increasing autonomy, are starting to resemble a certain car called Kitt, which for those old enough to remember was one of the stars of a 1980s TV show, Knight Rider.

There are big challenges ahead for electrification. Converting planes from jet fuel to a battery-powered solution still appears to be some way off. But rapidly growing economies such as India and China do seem to be embracing electrification where it makes sense to do so.

Mathias Lelievre, CEO of the sustainability consultancy Engie Impact, points to “mammoth momentum” in China, which is expected to have 200,000-450,000 e-buses by the end of 2020. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, in India the ancient rickshaw is receiving an electric makeover.

“India [is purchasing] about 11,000 new electric rickshaws every month – not because of government mandates or even sustainability goals but because they’re cheaper than conventional rickshaws, which enables operators and drivers to make more money,” he says.

Finally, as lockdown restrictions begin to ease, many of us are taking advantage of home delivery services. Johan Herrlin, CEO of Ito World, ponders whether this could mean a rebirth of an EV that was once ubiquitous on British streets – the milk float.

“Where milk delivery companies still operate, they are seeing very high demand,” he says. “Perhaps the local grocery home delivery market will undergo permanent change after Covid-19, and we might see a return to local electric vehicles making deliveries.”

Technology drives the world, and is the beating heart of every BMW. Discover how BMW is pioneering plug-in hybrid vehicles at bmw.co.uk