The electrification of transport is inevitable. This is not a question of if, but when, given the pressing challenges we face in terms of climate change and air quality. The big question is: what will the future hold for eMobility? Will it overcome the hurdles that remain and become the dominant form of transport?
The very nature of our world is one of continual change. This, for the most part, is a very positive thing. Occasionally though, we get somewhat slightly ahead of ourselves and neglect to use our rearview mirror as we hurtle uncompromisingly into a pre-defined future.
Take the electric car as a prime example. The entire automotive industry has been pulled, pushed and cornered into accepting the inevitability of eMobility. Sure, studies have been performed, DOE, the EPA and the EU have issued directives calling for a shift away from internal combustion engined vehicles, and battery chemistry is advancing at pace. But when you zoom out and look at the bigger picture it can be difficult to accept that all the due diligence has in fact been done.
Devil in the details
To get a better understanding of where we currently find ourselves, it is necessary to examine how we got here. Humanity’s quest for progress and profit have delivered us the the veritable crossroads that Robert Johnson sang about. For progress demands a price, much as the Devil does in Mr. Johnson’s song.
Around two years ago, Tempus.Motu Group was charged with providing insights into the challenges that remain in the shift to electromobility and increased electrification. To say that we identified a rather large pachyderm in the room would be something of an understatement. Policymakers, despite clear signals from the automotive industry, decided to bring the curtain down on internal combustion engines and ‘encourage’ automakers to begin the switch to electric propulsion systems. To be fair, there was mostly stick and very little carrot involved in the discussions that led to this dictate.
The real culprits
However, everyone agreed that the internal combustion engine had outlived its usefulness and was a key contributor to climate change, even though power generation, the air travel and shipping industries, along with construction, remain the biggest contributing culprits.
The task we had been given was to provide a group of companies with some insights and potential pathways forward, whilst highlighting the challenges that lay ahead on their pre-determined journey.
What emerged was fascinating. A complete disconnect between policymakers demands, access to the required natural resources, a lack of strategic planning and threat analysis, little or no public consultation on the question of electro mobility, and a decidedly poor international-level approach to what would ostensibly become one of the major technology shifts of our time.
As usual, policymakers made the simplistic choice to replace one technology (the combustion engine) with another (the electric motor and battery) without fully examining the potential for disruptive alternatives.
To paraphrase my business partner, Aric Dromi, we continue to design everything in our mobility and logistic systems around the width of two horses’ asses (based on the initial technology – the chariot – for which the Roman Empire built its first roads). For a wonderfully inventive and imaginative species, we seem to be very attached to our horses’ asses, as we continue to design everything around them…
Of course public consultations do not necessarily provide any measure of actionable direction, but they do offer a snapshot of peoples’ pain points in the current mobility paradigm, from which one might extrapolate and experiment with alternatives.
Similarly, we found that while governments were hell-bent on a technology shift towards electrification, they seemed less aware of the crumbling nature of the electrical grids in their charge and their marked inability to meet the coming demand for both generation and distribution of electricity (green or not) to power the cars of tomorrow. It is somewhat akin to having a baby in an empty bathtub.
The lack of foresight, planning or even awareness to the potential challenges that lay ahead was nothing short of criminal. One must only look back around 20 years when diesel-engined cars were heralded, by the same cadre of policymakers, as being better for the environment than petrol-engined cars.
Of course hindsight is infrequently experienced with less than 20-20 vision, but to continue making such schoolboy errors is unforgivable, given the current state in which we find our planet.
Our findings were relatively straightforward and actionable. We saw a clear need for huge levels of investment in national electricity grids and power generation facilities – the kind of investments that governments and nations alone might struggle to achieve without private investment – even in the short term. For without this and without the underlying charging infrastructure that electric cars demand, there will be a lot of immobile electric cars on our streets in the coming years.
We also understood the huge challenge that was dropped onto the laps of the automotive industry, forcing them to adapt combustion-engined platforms to electric propulsion, when in fact they would have benefited from another 8-10 years to develop a ‘skateboard’ platform that better met the needs of an electric car. We are getting there today, but it has been a costly process, during which time the Hydrogen Economy has emerged to fracture consensus.
A new way of thinking
One cannot help but think that once again we are traveling down that old Roman road, two asses wide, when we have an opportunity to re-imagine public transport and personal mobility, just as we have the potential to re-imagine the road haulage, construction, steel and shipping industries.
The potential for smart grids, metered by AI, a move to a form of Universal Basic Public Transport to reduce single-person journeys, a fresh approach to town planning that puts people, rather than traffic first, is not too much to ask for.
If we must cross The Rubicon, let us do so in full knowledge that things cannot remain as they once were. If the current gas, oil and electricity shortages brought about by the conflict in Ukraine tells us anything, it is that we are still not prepared for tomorrow, or today, for that matter.
Authors: Trevor O’Rourke and Aric Dromi