Last Friday I spent a few hours on the 9th floor of the Greater London Authority building (the one that looks like a giant crash helmet) in the company of General Motors.
Highlight of the day was a presentation by GM’s futurist-in-chief, Chris Borroni-Bird. Long GM’s fuel cell advocate, Borroni-Bird has turned his attention to inner city mobility, especially mobility in the coming Mega cities of India and China.
The booming middle class and the human desire to enjoy personal mobility that is already seeded in the East is colliding headlong with sheer difficulty of allowing so many people to attempt to use the roads. As his research shows, the greater the population density, the lower car ownership. And as the global population moves from the country to the city, global car makers need to find a way of staying relevant in order to stay in business.
The expected shift in population trends make alarming reading for the car industry. In 2007, for the first time in human history, the number of people living in cities overtook the number in the country. By 2030, according to Borroni-Bird’s research, 60 per cent of people will live in cities and they will also own 80 per cent of the world’s wealth.
Borroni-Bird has a clear view of how carmakers can make sure they benefit from rising prosperity and middle class aspiration, even in cities that current have near-impassible streets. The city car of 20 years hence, he says, has got to be pollution-free, run on renewable energy, reduce travel time, offer safety for all road users, reduce the amount of parking space needed and be accessible for all ages.
Borroni-Bird sees today’s cars as ‘over-engineered’ for city use and primarily for inter-city use.
GM’s solution is the EN-V concept, which comes in three styles but is based on the same electric ‘skateboard’ chassis. The concept is a strict two-seater and rolls along on two wheels. The technology to allow the car to remain perfectly balanced and upright was developed by GM and Segway.
The 1.5m-long EN-V steers via torque manipulation of the two-in-wheel motors. The underfloor battery pack gives a top speed of 25mph and a range of 25 miles - so local CO2 and pollution emissions are zero. It weighs less than 500kg and needs just 2.25sqm of space to park. A conventional car needs a substantial space of 5.7m by 2.7m, says Borroni-Bird and some two thirds of any parking space is ‘manoeuvring space’.
However, the real key to the EN-V is in the name (Electric Networked Vehicle). These city cars can communicate with each other, preventing collisions and allowing traffic flows to be finely controlled and journey times to be accurately calculated. The cars can also drive themselves to a destination via sat-nav and traffic reports using information from other EN-Vs. Even the costs of building a car like the EN-V are estimated to be surprisingly low.
The hurdles are immense. Such are the requirements of such a vehicle, the auto industry probably needs to sit down and collectively agree on a city car ‘operating system’ in the manner of computer operating systems. And the carmakers would also have to collectively sit down with city authorities and agree on the infrastructure that has to be built into the city. It’s not impossible, though, especially in the new-world Mega cities.
What is so fascinating is to see the global car industry rushing to address the issue of personal mobility inside cities. BMW is well on the way with the Mega City carbonfibre electric car and Nissan is launching its own ‘twinpod’ electric car concept at the Paris show, just as Mini and Smart move into scooters. Indeed, BMW’s old E1 roofed scooter is being revived with electric power and Renault’s upcoming Twizzy is said to effectively be a covered four-wheel scooter.
On the way out of the GLA, the security guard pointed at the EN-V and said: “I remember those concepts, they were in [the 1993 film] Demolition Man.” He wasn’t wrong. GM supplied 18 concept cars for the film that was set in 2032…