From EVs to ‘walking’ cars: the future of business motoring

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Future of transportation, Michele Marconi

While electric vehicles dominate the fleet agenda today, relentless innovation is creating a world of possibilities for greener and smarter options tomorrow. We ask the experts what twists and turns to anticipate on the road ahead

The means by which businesses mobilise their people and products are changing in ways that were unimaginable only a few years ago. Breakthroughs in automotive technology are making fleets cleaner, safer, smarter and, ultimately, more cost-effective.

Pure electric vehicles (EVs) are at the heart of the revolution. They are expected to cut both the cost and environmental impact of running a fleet more than any other recent development. For instance, a business with 10 company vehicles could save £20,000-plus in class-1A national insurance contributions alone over four years if it used EVs instead of petrol cars.

Despite such advances, there is still a strong appetite among fleet operators for further hi-tech innovation to help them address risks ranging from cyber crime to the soaring cost of haulage in an increasingly brittle global economy.

Tom Cheesewright, founder of Book of the Future, a consultancy that helps organisations to anticipate tech-driven changes in their markets, divides the recent developments in business motoring into two categories. “The first is about information and the second is about the transport itself,” he says.

The emergence of the internet of things (IoT) has given firms far more intelligence on how their fleets are performing, all the way down to the habits of individual drivers. “This technology has now flowed from the largest and most sophisticated companies down to the rest,” Cheesewright says. “The information it provides can be used to improve route planning, asset utilisation and driver behaviour.”

When it comes to the second category, “there are more options now, particularly with regard to motive power – whether that’s hybrid, fully electric or something more esoteric – than ever before. This breadth of choice presents a challenge for fleet operators, which need to balance all the environmental and tax considerations with those of operational performance.”

As the pace of change in business motoring shows no sign of slowing, firms that seize emerging opportunities could gain a crucial competitive advantage. So what does the future hold for fleet operators – and how can you stay ahead of the pack?

In the next decade, many businesses will possess or use a small fleet of drones, just like they do with cars today.

JUST AROUND THE CORNER

The argument has been won: the fleet world foresees a future dominated by electric powertrains. But we’re not quite there yet. Jonatan Pinkse, professor of strategy, innovation and entrepreneurship at Alliance Manchester Business School, explains:

“The main bottlenecks in the development of EVs are their batteries and recharging infrastructure. Currently, with battery capacities of 40kWh [giving a range of about 150 miles], inter-city travel is not really within reach for EVs, which means they still have limited use in fleets.

“Only firms focused on local mobility see them as an attractive option at present, but the technology is developing fast: the capacity and efficiency of batteries are increasing, while prices are falling. This will be a big force in bringing EVs on a par with traditional cars.”

Batteries providing more than 60kWh can now be found in the new Nissan Leaf E-Plus, the Hyundai Kona Electric and the Kia e-Niro, for instance. These will enable drivers to travel more than 200 miles on a single charge, in turn allowing for a much wider application of EVs in fleets.

Ford is gearing up for a period of “unprecedented change” in the industry that will be both “electrified and connected”, according to Dave Phatak, its director of commercial solutions in Europe.

“Electrification is starting to change the fleet industry, although many factors will determine the speed of adoption,” he says. “The total cost of EV ownership will need to incorporate the cost and availability of charging infrastructure, as well as taxation and the expansion of low-emission zones. Each fleet owner needs to assess its own range and charging needs too, of course.”

Phatak continues: “Connected vehicles are also providing significant opportunities for fleets to ensure regulatory compliance, operate more effectively and minimise waste.

“Ford is planning to connect 90 per cent of its vehicles globally by 2020 with hardware that will dramatically increase the availability of accurate vehicle data. We’ve also developed a suite of connected vehicle solutions specifically for our fleet customers. This enables them to choose how best to use the data to operate safely, legally and efficiently.”

EV100, a global campaign organised by environmental charity the Climate Group, has the goal of ensuring that most of the world’s largest fleets are electrically powered by 2030. In little more than a year, it has secured commitments from several key players, including BT, DHL, EDF Energy and Unilever.

Myles McCarthy is the technical partner to the EV100 initiative for the Carbon Trust, a company that helps organisations from all sectors to cut their CO2 emissions. He predicts that the electrification trend will continue apace.

“The government is helping to accelerate our transition to EVs by committing investment to the innovation of ultra-low-emission vehicles as part of its Industrial Strategy white paper, while at the same time backing the roll-out of the battery charging infrastructure,” McCarthy says.

“A number of oil majors and utility companies have also started making big moves into charging networks. Shell, BP and Centrica have all made multi-million-pound acquisitions of firms working in this area over the past couple of years.”

Case study: Bentley Motors

It’s not only advances in electric power that are helping to improve the efficiency of fleets. Vehicular “infotainment tech” is constantly increasing in sophistication too. British luxury marque Bentley is a leading innovator in this field. It recently unveiled Advanced Connectivity, which it claims to be the first “reliable and secure” super-fast in-car Wi-Fi system.

Hamid Qureshi, its connected car product manager, explains: “The idea is that when you’re in a Bentley you can use this technology to view multiple types of ‘heavy content’ simultaneously. For instance, one passenger could be making a live Skype call while another is receiving a file from the office, editing it and sending it back, all as a result of this advanced router connectivity.”

FURTHER DOWN THE ROAD

Self-driving cars and delivery drones are expected to become a familiar sight by 2030. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are likely to enter the mainstream first. They will “offer genuine alternatives for some fleet users”, according to Phatak, who adds: “These vehicles will interact increasingly with their operating environment. This is what we mean when we talk about ‘smart vehicles operating in a smart world’.”

Drone tech is already being used as a safe means of inspecting the integrity of structures in inhospitable environments. (See “Ask the execs”, September/October 2018, to read about the oil-rig inspection business founded by IoD 99 member Kieran Hope).

But drones promise a huge efficiency gain over the next few years for the logistics sector in particular. DHL has been testing its Parcelcopter, for instance, while Amazon has been developing its autonomous Prime Air service.

Cheesewright notes that ground-based drones are “fast becoming a realistic option for deliveries in metropolitan areas”. But he adds that, while they promise to cut road congestion and pollution, they’re also likely to cause big job losses in the sector.

“Forget the shutdown at Gatwick before Christmas last year – the drone economy is still coming,” predicts Dan Lewis, chief executive of Future Energy Strategies, a consultancy and research provider. “In the next decade, many businesses will possess or use a small fleet of drones, just like they do with cars today. The benefits are simply too great to pass up.”

Lewis, a former senior adviser to the IoD on energy and infrastructure policy, believes that the biggest barrier to the widespread uptake of drones is “not so much regulatory as technological. The UK’s main legal restrictions on drone flights – not too close to airports and not higher than 400ft – actually aren’t onerous.

For deliveries, an operating range of several tens of miles will be necessary, but the freedom to fly beyond ‘visual line of sight’ [generally defined as a horizontal distance of 500m from the controller] won’t happen without developing more powerful batteries; rolling out a national 5G and fibre network to enable real-time communications; and building drones reliable enough to fly in all weather.”

Case study: Aptiv

AV technology developer Aptiv began operating a fleet of 35 self-driving BMW taxis in Las Vegas in May 2018. By the end of the year, these vehicles had completed more than 25,000 paid-for journeys, prompting observers to predict that AVs will transform personal travel within two decades.

Last December Aptiv opened a state-of-the-art R&D centre in Las Vegas. Karl Iagnemma, the firm’s president of autonomous mobility says: “Having logged more than one million miles globally, we have proved our ability to launch, build and scale up a successful autonomous mobility solution. We’re proud to be setting the stage for future deployments, as we expand to serve more passengers in more cities around the world.”

Smart technology and driverless cars should… make transport safer, cheaper and more convenient

Michele Marconi walking car

Walking cars could be a reality in less than two decades’ time. Illustrations by Michele Marconi for Director magazine

OVER THE HORIZON

Be prepared for change on a seismic scale after 2030. Everything about business travel will be completely different from how it is today, according to Pinkse.

“As cars and vans become smart devices that move around as part of an IoT-based platform, the efficiencies provided in using EVs might increase tremendously in terms of cutting costs and emissions,” he says.

“Another big development will be the use of hydrogen power in fleets. Affordability concerns and the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure have always posed a chicken-and-egg problem for hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, but fleet operators could invest in their own infrastructure, making this technology a much better option for long-distance travel.”

McCarthy agrees that hydrogen-fuelled vehicles are likely to become more popular in the longer run. He also believes that “the growth in smart technology and driverless cars should, if they work well, make transport safer, cheaper and more convenient. This would in turn lead to quicker journeys, easier parking and cleaner air.”

McCarthy foresees another long-term development that he thinks will reduce overall company vehicle usage and, in turn, cut road congestion: a vast improvement in digital connectivity and a consequent advance in videoconferencing technology.

French company Valeo demonstrated the potential of this tech at this year’s international Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with its Voyage XR concept. The system can “teletransport” people into a car from anywhere in the world.

With the aid of cameras, sensors and state-of-the-art 3D imaging software, a virtual passenger using a headset can “sit” in the back seat of the vehicle and view its surroundings. The driver will see an avatar of their passenger in the rear-view mirror and be able to converse with them.

“High-quality videoconferencing, which may eventually include the use of holographic telepresence, will displace the need for travel. It will do this without diminishing users’ ability to build relationships and do business effectively,” McCarthy says. “Driverless cars and improved teleconferencing systems should help to boost productivity, because they will enable employees to work effectively while on the road or avoid having to make journeys altogether.”

Phatak believes that Amara’s law – which states that we tend to overestimate the impact of new technology in the short term but underestimate this in the longer term – is likely to hold true in this sector.

“We’re living through the most turbulent and exciting time for the automotive industry,” he says. “In the long run, the technology will fundamentally alter the landscape we know today.”

Case study: Hyundai Elevate

Making its public debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas at the start of this year, Hyundai’s new “walking car” concept is part of a project by the South Korean manufacturer to explore “beyond the range of wheels”.

The Hyundai Elevate can activate four robotic legs, enabling it to walk over rough terrain at 3mph and, potentially, scale a 5ft barrier or jump a 5ft gully. Such mobility gives it emergency-response applications in the event of disasters – earthquakes, for instance – where conventional vehicles cannot get close to the stricken area.

In normal “stowed drive mode”, the Elevate’s legs fold up and the use of an integrated passive suspension system maximises the EV’s battery efficiency. This enables the car to be driven at normal highway speeds.

“By combining the power of robotics with Hyundai’s latest EV technology, Elevate is able to take people where no car has been before, redefining our perception of vehicular freedom,” says David Byron, design manager at US design consultancy Sundberg-Ferar, which is working on the project. “Imagine a car, stranded in a snow-filled ditch only 10ft off the highway, that’s able to climb over the treacherous terrain back on to the road, potentially saving its injured passengers. This is the future of mobility.”

Read more articles on business motoring from Director

About author

Ben Rooth

Ben Rooth

Ben Rooth is an award-winning freelance business journalist who has interviewed everyone from Prime Ministers to the chief executives of FTSE 100 listed companies. Over the past 20 years, he’s filed stories from destinations as diverse as Kabul, in Afghanistan, and Palm Springs, in America.

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