TechnologyHeartbeat ArchiveSustainability

Networked from A to B

1. December 2022

The transformation in mobility involves more than the shift from internal combustion engines to electric motors. Car sharing, the linking of private and public means, of transport, and the emergence of autonomous driving are all revolutionizing the way we think about mobility, how we use it, and how we experience it.

The future of mobility also puts our aesthetic sensibilities to the test – take the driverless minibuses that have been operating on the grounds of the Charité hospital in Berlin since March 2018.

Not all that long ago, the car was almost every German’s darling: having one’s own car – usually financed with a loan or leased – was an integral part of life. Either that, or one made a conscious decision against it, and made a point of using public transport – renting or borrowing a vehicle only in order to transport furniture, for instance. Of course, this classic division still exists today in Germany, but the boundaries have become more fluid. In fact, the question of whether to travel by public transport or private automobile can be answered with another: Why not both?

Car sharing: a successful model

Digital networking makes this possible: in 2017, around 150 German car sharing companies had 1.7 million registered members. Ten years earlier, there were barely 100,000. The breakthrough for car sharing came with the massive expansion of the smartphone. Today, it’s easy to find the nearest available car to borrow – there’s an app for that. And once you’re finished driving, you can leave the car wherever you want, because the next driver can easily find it with their cell phone. This makes it possible for car sharing companies to offer their cars anywhere in a given territory, with no need for a fixed location. Known as “free floating”, this represents a huge plus for customers compared with having to pick up or drop off the car at a specific place. As opposed to a conventional rental car, a shared car is great for a quick shopping trip or hopping into during a rainstorm.

The distances that car sharing vehicles are used for bears this out: the average figure for Berlin is just 5.8 kilometers.

Hand in glove with public transport

Moreover, digitization enables seamless interlinking of multiple forms of transport. A typical journey might be structured as follows: the user drives a car sharing vehicle to the closest metro stop. On the way, they check the schedule in real time, and book a digital ticket online.

The user leaves the car at the metro stop and continues their journey by train. They then use a car sharing app to see if an automobile or e-bike is available at their next destination, and reserve it. They can then proceed to their final stop without delay. Many public transport operators have developed special offers in order to better intermesh with car sharing companies; for example, Stadtmobil Rhein-Neckar offers its customers an especially attractive monthly pass for buses and trains operated by VRN, the local transport authority. Car sharing will be increasingly important not just as a means of transport – it’s going to change the way cities function. According to a study by Germany’s Federal Car Sharing Association (bvc), a single shared car replaces up to twenty privately owned vehicles. That saves a lot of space that can be used for making cities nicer to live in again.

More and more, car sharing is going electric

Because shared cars are usually driven only for short distances, they’re practically predestined for e-mobility applications. Indeed, their share in car sharing fleets is greater than the general average. According to bvc, of its members’ shared vehicles, one in ten is electrically powered. Some car sharing companies depend exclusively on e-vehicles. A project known as “EnergieSüdwest Elektroauto für Landau” (ESEL) offers electric cars that can be flexibly used in the city of Landau and parked again in accordance with the free-floating principle.

In China, too, car sharing has become a part of everyday life…

The autonomous automobile

Rapid-paced development in the field of autonomous driving likewise opens enormous new possibilities in the rental car sector: in the future, it will be possible to do more than just reserve autonomous vehicles via an app. Instead, customers will be able to summon a driverless car to pick them up, which finds them via the smartphone’s GPS signal and heads straight to their location. Once the car reaches its destination, a web-based payment system automatically charges the customer for the distance driven, the passenger exits the vehicle, and the car either finds a parking space on its own or simply returns to its point of departure. Before long, taxi and car sharing companies will be able to deploy their fleets with extreme efficiency.

Analytical tools will identify districts with the greatest demand even before the demand arises. The vehicles will drive in advance to areas where they will soon be needed – a first step in the direction of a self-managed fleet of vehicles.

We’re talking about the future here, but the necessary technologies already exist. Beside actual transportation, innovative services will draw on entirely new applications for vehicles. At the Hanover trade show in 2017, for instance Professor Hans-Jürgen Pfisterer from the University of Osnabrück unveiled a service that makes it possible to use e-vehicles as a means of storing energy.

It is based on a bidirectional rapid charging station: when parked, the e-car can either be charged or – if necessary – return its stored power to the mains. This creates synergies between energy management and mobility in intelligent, decentralized smart grids.

…thanks to easy-to-use apps.

Trunks instead of package centers

Plans also exist for exploiting the physical presence of automobiles. In cooperation with Audi, the German postal service has successfully tested a model project that enables packages to be stored in the trunks of cars.

This is how it works: first, the recipient has to register for this service with the car manufacturer and DHL, and then download an app. They then receive a TAN or car ID via the manufacturer. When they place an order, they have to enter this along with the delivery address and select the desired time frame. The car has to be located within 300 meters of the delivery address. Aided by an app, the delivery person identifies the corresponding location, opens the trunk with a temporarily valid code, and places the package inside it.

As soon as the trunk is closed again, the code becomes invalid. The recipient is notified of the successful delivery via a text message or app. What will all these developments mean for companies like Rheinmetall Automotive? It’s already clear that e-motors and hybrid systems will play an increasingly important role in powering modern automobiles. While the technology itself is crucial, the possibilities for integrating it into future mobility networks are equally important. This is why it’s always so important to consider this aspect when evaluating new technologies.

(Article originally published on 11. Mai 2018)

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