Electromobility: a Revolutionary Change

Interview with Danielle Attias, Investigator with the CentraleSupélec research center.  

César Guerrero

The arrival of electromobility will have a disruptive impact on business models in the automotive industry. It will also change consumption patterns, our mobility behavior and public policies on urban spaces and environmental protection. Danielle Attias, an investigator with the CentraleSupélec research center and director of the Armand Peugeot Research Chair, reflects on the extent of this transformation in her book The Automobile Revolution: Towards a New Electro-Mobility Paradigm (Springer, Cham, 2017) and in this interview with Comercio Exterior.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the automotive industry unleashed a profound transformation of production dynamics and social relationships as well as the urban environment. Do you think the "automobile revolution” you speak about in your book will have a similar impact?

Yes, of course. One thing we can be sure of: the evolution toward electromobility will be a revolution. In fact, if we take into account multiple energy, environmental, socioeconomic, political and technological factors, as well as the context of social transformation, which extends far beyond the automotive industry, we can say that we are already experiencing a new automobile revolution.

One thing is clear: this is, first and foremost, a radical technological breakthrough (for example, driverless cars or autonomous vehicles). The automotive industry is undergoing a profound transformation; new types of vehicles are emerging that offer features and uses that break with the traditional model. The very nature of movement is changing. A different relationship between users and cars is being created (users prefer to share a car, choose to carpool) that is giving way to electromobility and a new ecosystem in cities, namely the connected city.

Mobility is at the heart of a profound change in our society. What must be understood is that the automobile is a component of Mobility 2.0 

The car becomes an element of mobility with which users "do more than move about.” It is no longer simply a means of transportation: it is part of an interactive mobility and as such, contributes to a special relationship between the driver, space and a network of information and communication.

 What impact is the new paradigm of electromobility expected to have on the automotive industry's business models? What strategies are companies implementing to adapt to the new trends?

For the global automotive industry, the first impact is socioeconomic. It will have to work with new players such as Google, with telecommunications companies, with insurers and with start-ups (such as Navya and Easy Mile, who offer autonomous shuttles). Manufacturers are obliged to evaluate their own abilities and develop new cost reduction and commercialization strategies that respond to consumer purchasing decisions. Given that technology is increasingly complex and has shorter life cycles, it seems unlikely that a car manufacturer on its own could have the financial resources and experience needed to take the lead.

Providers of mobility will look for ways to add value, and their ideas will have a profound impact on the future: new materials, components, vehicles and services will be used; there will be new players who will reconfigure the value chain and win over their competitors' customers, thus challenging original equipment manufacturers (OEM) with different products and services. Consumers themselves will be part of the value chain and will become prosumers (producer and consumer). Simultaneously, sustainable mobility will gain strength and bring forward solutions to the systemic challenges and externalities that our societies face.

The automotive industry must rethink its business models and adapt its strategies to a new vision of public and private transportation (on-demand transportation, time-of-use payment and autonomous public transportation are just some alternatives). The strategies of traditional manufacturers —which oscillate between competition and cooperation— are outdated; the automotive sector needs to adapt to an ecosystem whose epicenter will be the intelligent and autonomous car. We are witnessing reorganization in the industry, and one of the characteristics of change is the emergence of strategies of cooperation.

What role will connectivity and technology companies such as Google and Amazon play in the new paradigm?

Google and Apple are pioneers in the design of driverless cars. But now there are also companies of this type that are financially powerful, such as Amazon and Alibaba. In the new paradigm of electromobility, they will be serious competitors for the automotive industry. They will also play a role in creating and developing users' power of control over mobility. This is a new era in which value creation is due to the relationships between partners in the same innovation ecosystem, but also to partnerships with actors outside the automotive industry. Will this entanglement of companies be profitable for everyone in the long run?

 Connectivity: the key to mobility of the future. 

 

How would you define the classic paradigm of the individual and social relationship with automobiles?

In the classic paradigm, drivers had a specific relationship with their cars. The car projected an image of power, freedom, social mobility and ownership. For a century, the technical fundamentals of the car changed little. Vehicles were mass-produced in the triad nations (United States, Western Europe and Japan) and represented a basic component of social achievement through personal mobility. The automobile was an object of social recognition and value that could be owned. This positive image was accompanied by the idea of pleasure and personal freedom, but that has changed completely due to an awareness of the inconveniences that a car brings (traffic, pollution, noise and environmental damage).

BlaBlaCar, Lyft and Uber are changing the way cars are used. How will the shared economy impact our mobility behavior?

My opinion is that the shared economy will serve as a blueprint for public and private transportation. It is a visible trend for all economies and all urban users. Certainly we will evolve from being car owners to car users. More and more, the economic model of multimodal transportation includes carpooling, which encourages more sustainable and collaborative mobility. Different studies seem to coincide on the following conclusion: the number of shared vehicles will increase significantly in the coming years. We see how this pattern has emerged on a digital community platform that manages direct connections between car owners and users. 

How will the automobile integrate with other means of communication and transportation?

In the future, cities will be connected as well as all means of transportation, including the car. In the developed countries, some of the vehicles sold today already have Level 3 autonomy, meaning they are equipped with a camera for reverse maneuvers, automatic braking and cruise control (according to international standards of the Society of Automotive Engineers). The connected car will be one that communicates with other connected cars. One of the advantages is that there will be greater safety and less accidents. Also, mobility will diversify to become multimodal (people will move from a car to a train and from a train to a bicycle or another car, etc.). This is possible thanks to information technologies: intelligent transportation in the context of demobilization. The idea of a mobility-car nexus has lost its relevance as we already live in a society that is so mobile it forces demobilization (for example, dispensing with having to make trips): work becomes teleworking, education takes the form of distance learning, meetings take place on social networks.

What impact will the new electromobility paradigm have on the urban environment? What should we understand by smart cities?

What should be understood by smart cities is a sustainable economy (smart cities are inseparable from an intelligent grid), an ecological, electrical and therefore non-polluting environment. The connected city allows all its citizens to save transportation time, live more comfortably and access new services. The emergence of smart cities will be potentially disruptive; it will involve questioning internal combustion autos, new forms of competition in which other players will participate (information technologies, shared services, utilities, etc.) and the diversification of economic models (big data will be used, there will be less ownership and more and better services). The smart city is also a new system, with a different urban design and social organization (more medium-sized cities and shorter commutes to work, to reduce flows). The goal is to manage vehicle and infrastructure capabilities and disseminate incremental innovations (electric vehicles) and disruptive innovations (autonomous vehicles) in the medium and long terms.

Currently, half of the world's population lives in cities, and the UN estimates that by 2050 this ratio will rise to 68%. What are the implications for public policies of this change in relation to the automobile?

In 2050, cities will have around 10 billion persons and four billion vehicles. We can imagine the urban pollution and congestion. Local governments will prioritize clean or ecological vehicles for health reasons.

I am currently working on a European project entitled Autonomous Vehicles to Evolve to a New Urban Experience (AVENUE). Its objective is to rethink the concept of public transportation. In Europe we can identify various strategies that are being developed for public transportation. In the first place, we have the so-called traditional models in which public or private organizations provide all public transportation by means of buses or trams, metro or similar means. From the perspective of AVENUE, in urban or semi urban environments, autonomous vehicles will ensure safe, fast, economic, ecological and personalized public transportation that minimizes the number of transfers and gets as close as possible to the departure and arrival points. The mission of AVENUE is to demonstrate that autonomous vehicles will be a key element in the solution of public transportation in the future.

AVENUE seeks to create disruptive public transportation services that shape a new model of mobility based on an offer friendly to the environment and available at all times. AVENUE will validate different transportation systems in a number of European cities (Geneva, Luxembourg, Lyon and Copenhagen); evaluate their transportation models and strategies and the integration of autonomous vehicle and innovative services.

What benefits and challenges does this new paradigm pose to preserving the environment?

Urban mobility faces the challenges of decarbonizing and decongesting cities in order to preserve the environment. In this, public policies are very important because they have a global dimension; they allow the integration of technological innovations within a social context where collective and individual decisions are applied and reconciled in order to open the door to sustainable and orderly mobility. Another important issue is the correct choice of energy sources, for example for batteries (which can be lithium or not) and for electric vehicles (electricity or hydrogen), as well as the future level of energy consumption and reduction of emissions. 

The golden age of the automobile in the triad of North America-Europe-Japan is over. Could you tell us anything more?

The automotive industry has the means to lead the transition to a new mobility, but this will require profound and rapid changes to its business model. Automotive production is experiencing global competition with the emergence of China and other Asian countries. BYD, a Chinese manufacturer, said that it will be “[...] the first producer of electric cars in the world by 2020.” But I think that the traditional players in the industry and the disruptors need each other. In this new mobility ecosystem, the "traditional" forms of competition are being rethought, the automotive industry is reinventing itself, economic models are undergoing radical change, and new strategic alliances are now the cornerstone of development in the sector. Car manufacturers must remain adaptable, they must think of new strategies for a new century, whose driving force is innovation, and move toward sustainable and responsible mobility.