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Coping with two transformations in mobility

V Sumantran | Updated on September 20, 2019 Published on September 20, 2019

The future is here Electric vehicles were a prominent part of the Frankfurt Motor Show this year

Urban mobility is set to witness a tectonic shift with EVs, and a revamped, refocussed infrastructure. Here are some pointers for India from Frankfurt and Berlin

It is a period of considerable uncertainty for the auto industry, not just in India, but globally. Each region faces many short-term issues, but how we manage the longer-term issues will significantly impact quality of urban life and economic development in the decades ahead. It starts with the recognition that the context of mobility has undergone significant change. Unabated concentration of populations in urban areas, a likely lethal trajectory with global warming, unhealthy air quality in most global cities, and the unacceptably high social cost of fatalities on roads are all combining to create a storm that promises to transform urban mobility.

Dull auto show

Over the past week, Frankfurt hosted its famed biennial Auto Show. Germany is an acknowledged shrine for high performance cars and wizardry with internal combustion engines. The Frankfurt Show is expected to showcase this reputation. This year its effort was markedly tentative. No doubt, visitors could gawk at the uber-luxury BMW X7 and a roster of sports cars, SUVs and crossovers toting twin-turbo powertrains.

But the absurdity of employing more than 500 hp and employing a vehicle weighing more than 2000 kg to transport, often, a single occupant weighing an average 65 kg, offends the sensitivities of a growing number of consumers and societies. This year, the aesthete was equally offended. Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz seemed to have embarked on a new race for bling — manifest most conspicuously in their ever larger and chrome bedecked grills. Perhaps in an indication that celebration of such excess is passé, the Frankfurt Show is facing an existential crisis and many auto-makers are calling for a change in the show’s format. Major brands like Toyota, Nissan, Fiat and Peugeot were absent, while even the hometown faithful such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz had scaled back their participation this year. In a further admission that change is just over the horizon, the show was also the backdrop for a number of significant new electric vehicle (EV) launches. Being Frankfurt, one could forgive the emphasis on Porsche’s Taycan — a 625 hp electric supercar that can sprint to 100 kmph in a mere three seconds. But the more significant launches were elsewhere. Volkswagen’s long-awaited blitz as a new EV convert started with the ID3. This nomenclature conveys a lot. First, VW has seen the need to establish a fully parallel brand named “ID”, which will be dedicated to a full line-up of EVs. Further, this product is seen as the third chapter of Volkswagen, following their legendary Beetle that launched the company, and the Golf that saved the company from bankruptcy in the 1970s.

EV focus

The ID3 shoulders very weighty responsibility for VW. Another noteworthy EV launch was the Honda-e, a model no less significant for the Japanese brand. This car is intended to recreate the success of the first Civic, the car that established Honda as a major auto-maker. Mercedes-Benz too were filling out their dedicated EV brand (named EQ) with variants of the mid-size EQC product line and re-launching the micro-car Smart as a pure EV. These mainstream EVs are obliged to ration their limited energy stored on board and are therefore oriented to efficiency. In pursuit of this goal, their designs, inspired by the “form follows function” philosophy, seem to result in avoidance of excess and present a clean, wholesome form. Renault’s new entry-level EV, the Kwid-derived KZ-E, highlighted another virtue. Based on the India-developed and Chinese-manufactured CMF-A architecture, it was praised for bringing an affordable EV to market — expected to retail for under $10,000. Renault’s CEO Thierry Bollore stressed that “not everyone can afford the price of the electric vehicles on the market today. Everyone’s working on high-end cars, but the key element is that we need to have accessible electric mobility.” So it appears that while Tesla opened the doors to public acceptance of EVs with their seductive styling and power, now we are beginning to see the arrival of affordable models that promise to widen the appeal of EVs and render them mainstream.

If Frankfurt, the financial epicentre of the German industry, was slowly girding itself for change, the view from Berlin, as not only the seat of government but also the start-up capital of Germany, seemed to demand more urgent change and move even beyond EVs. Berlin, like its neighbours, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm, has accelerated its course to transform its mobility architecture.

Changing mobility scenario

Bike paths and bicycle populations have multiplied leading to changes in commuter habits. Shared mobility and shared ride solutions proliferate across the city. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel used her inaugural address at the Frankfurt show to admonish the auto industry, one that is vital for Germany’s economy, that dependence on internal combustion excess and failure to read the shift in public opinion was dangerous. “A lot of trust has been destroyed. That is why the industry must do everything to win back confidence..” she said.

Appropriately, the Shift_Automotive conference, was hosted in Berlin, concurrent with the press days of the Frankfurt Show, as if to emphasise the counter-point. Here the focus was on a variety of micro-mobility modes (scooters and e-bikes), technologies promoting digital connectivity and autonomous driving, and Mobility-as-a-Service platforms. For this community, the mobility of tomorrow is ready today.

The two horizons of mobility transformation — first with electrification and the second with a shift to a new mobility architecture — are closely stacked.

This is leaving both consumers and industry apprehensive and bewildered. This mirrors the perceptions in India where the sudden collapse in demand for two-wheelers, cars and commercial vehicles has multiple causes and the stakeholders are at a loss for a simple causal explanation. In the circumstances, we would do well to listen to the advice of Bill Gates who observed, “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”.

For consumers in India, there is no need to panic and assume that sales of conventional cars will evaporate in the short-term. The migration across the two horizons will unfold over a decade. But equally, this environment does not allow industry or the government any respite in transforming themselves to address the new world of mobility.

V Sumantran is co-author of the book, Faster, Smarter, Greener: The Future of the Car and Urban Mobility, published by MIT Press

Published on September 20, 2019
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