The future will be autonomous, electric and shared

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That’s the consensus of an international conference on future mobility

The future of mobility will be autonomous, electric and shared. That conclusion, condensed to its essence, was the consensus of presenters at an international conference on the future of mobility held recently in Montreal.

Called “Movin’On’, that conference was the successor to the Michelin ‘Challenge Bibendum’ events that were initiated in 1998 by the late Edouard Michelin, great-grandson of the French firm’s co-founder, to generate a focus on environmental sustainability. Challenge Bibendum, which brought together key players from industry, governments, academia and the environmental movement, continued on an irregular basis at sites around the world until 2014.

Rechristened as Movin’On for 2017, Michelin billed the event as a “global sustainable mobility summit,” which comprised three days of presentations, panels, round tables and hands-on workshops as well as demonstrations of innovative vehicles and technologies.

Its Montreal location, which proved to be ideal for the purpose, resulted from a chance meeting between Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre and a Michelin executive. Setting the scene for subsequent conference activities, Mayor Coderre and Michelin president, Jean-Dominique Senard, arrived at opening ceremonies in a self-driving electric shuttle.

Unlike most such conventions, held in stuffy conference rooms, Movin’On had a carnival-like atmosphere that extended from a warehouse cum art gallery onto a huge waterfront patio complete with a big-top tent, food trucks and out-buildings converted from shipping containers.

While the atmosphere was casual, the conference’s purpose was serious. It involved 4,000 participants from 31 countries and included everything from formal presentations and hands-on workshops to one-on-one discussions and team-building exercises.

Unlike past Challenge Bibendums, Movin’ On had minimal representation from the world’s automakers, with viewpoints expressed tending more to the academic, political and philosophic than the purely practical. As such, they serve as something of a wakeup call to those of us with an industry-based perspective, for they represent the interests that will define the environment in which we exist
in the future.

There are still huge challenges to be overcome if Bloomberg’s prediction that one-third of new vehicles will be electric by 2040 is to be realized.

What seemed a given from the outset was that the internal combustion engine has already been written off as a relic of the past in the minds of these futurists. Not one of the 49 workshops and masterclasses addressed the progress being made in ICE technology, already accepting as fact that electric is the way of the future.

One of the few voices of the industry adding context to that assumed inevitability was that of Hyundai Canada president and CEO, Don Romano. The evolution of electric vehicle technology is now at the music equivalent of the 8-track stage of development, he said — which means we have no sense at all of what it will be like even 20 years from now.

There are still huge challenges to be overcome if Bloomberg’s prediction that one-third of new vehicles will be electric by 2040 is to be realized, not the least being the ever-present limitations of range and recharge time for battery electric vehicles. Other challenges yet largely unaddressed include the effects of winter and the problems of storage.

The latter may be resolved, Romano suggested, by the use of hydrogen fuel cells to generate electricity on-board — a technology in which Hyundai is playing a pioneering role. At this stage, it’s too early in the development process to know how the evolution
will play out, he concluded.

While participants also seemed to accept as fact that varying degrees of vehicle autonomy are now inevitable, the conference did not delve deeply into the enabling technologies for that progression. What was covered in greater depth was the shift to a sharing economy, which will involve all levels of mobility from personal to public.

That concept is expected to expand well beyond the current models of Car2Go and Uber/Lyft — the latter of which won’t truly fit the shared model until they are fully autonomous — to those of vehicles-as-a-service and the sharing of personal vehicles.

A company called Turo that coordinates peer-to-peer rentals — like an AirBnb for cars — already exists, with thousands of private cars available from more than 4,700 cities and 300 airports across the U.S., Canada, and the UK.

That broad-based sharing prospect, more than anything else, may pose a threat to the future of car sales as it promises far greater usage of individual vehicles. meaning that fewer will be required to cover the same total distances as now.

As noted above, these concepts all serve as a wakeup call as we prepare for the future. Is it time for dealers to become part of these new ways of doing business rather than risk being left behind?

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