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Interview With An Expert

Interview with an expert: The future will therefore see a purpose-adapted individual mobility

We are mobile, at any time and in any place. But what will the world of mobility look like when our children have one day grown up? Who could know this better than Prof. Ulrich Wagner, in charge, in his capacity as a member of the Executive Board, of the research focal areas of energy and transport at the German Aerospace Center (DLR). He holds a doctorate in electrical engineering, has been Professor (Ordinarius) of Energy Economics and Applications Engineering at the Technical University of Munich and, at the same time, Scientific Director of the Munich-based Energy Research Institute. He is also head of the co-ordination office of the Bavaria hydrogen initiative launched by the Bavarian State Ministry for Economy, Infrastructure, Transportation and Technology.

“The car remains the core element in individual mobility,” Prof. Ulrich Wagner, Member of the Executive Board at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) MobileKids: Professor Wagner, our society faces the challenge of making its own mobility solutions more efficient in the future, and taking even greater heed of people and the environment. Can you tell us what mobility will look like in 30 years?

Professor Wagner: In the future, we will be using many different vehicles depending on where we want to go. For example, we will go to school by bike, drive into the city in an electric car and head off on vacation in the hybrid station wagon. By contrast, we are still using the all-rounder "universal-race-travel-station wagon-limousine" today, whether we have to cover a short distance or are going on vacation far away. From a technical and energy perspective, and particularly from an environmental perspective, this is a very complicated solution. The future will therefore see a purpose-adapted, individual mobility solution, which will also be more closely connected with other means of transport.

Can you describe this in more specific terms? Which means of transport will then be of importance?

The car will obviously remain the core element in individual mobility, even if it will have a slightly different appearance to what we are used to today. In other words, smaller vehicles for shorter distances, and private ownership of cars may in many cases well be a thing of the past. Naturally, you will still be able to head off to the South of France on vacation by car, but you will borrow a special vehicle to do so, for these two weeks. As soon as you return home, you will switch back to using a small car which has been optimized for urban traffic. In addition, variable usage models such as car-sharing will be important, as well as intermodality, i.e. the combined use of different means of transport. This means that we start off by car if we live quite a distance away, then we transfer to the train or streetcar, and possibly cover the last mile to school or the workplace by bicycle, for example in areas which cars will no longer be able to reach in 30 years. What would make sense here would be an integrated system for information, prices and payment. You then enter your requirement via your cell phone or computer and get the schedule from A to Z, from door to door, and your ticket as well.

You are now describing mobility concepts; will these be as important in the future as new, more efficient technologies?

Yes, definitely. It is naturally very important to further develop the technical options of electric vehicles, operated by battery or fuel cell. However, we must also deal with traffic management. For instance, an electric vehicle has a limited range. This means that before we even set off, we have to know where the nearest charging station is, if it is open at the moment, what remaining distances we can still cover with the vehicle in the near future and much, much more. We need an intelligent navigation system for this, one which "communicates" with the battery management system in the car, and which can learn and understand the user and his or her behavior. It is also connected with traffic management, and receives all the reports about traffic jams, accidents or the nearest free parking space. This navigation system must constantly be up to date, because we do not want to waste one single kilometer.

Electric cars will play a major role in individual transport in the future. At present, there are likely to be many car drivers who are afraid that the long time which batteries currently take to charge will mean that they can't just get up and drive, that they might lose individuality...

And yet 95% of all journeys which we make each day are, on average, much shorter than 50 kilometers, and can therefore be made by smaller electric vehicles with absolutely no problem. The problem is presented by the other 5%, which, while they do not have an enormous impact on day-to-day life, nonetheless are a highly discernible presence in people's lives or take the form of a highly present risk. It is necessary to absorb or cushion this 5%, there must always be a solution available to do so. However, if we can rely on good forecast systems in the car which reliably display the remaining range of electric cars operated by battery or fuel cell, and if the infrastructure is in order and the information about the remainder of the journey, e.g. where we can find the nearest public transport system or a bicycle for the "last mile", then I don't believe that this is a problem any longer.

I assume that electric vehicles will take less time to charge in future, and that there will be enough stations to "fill up" at...

Yes, there are already systems in existence today which can be almost completely charged within half an hour. Naturally, 30 minutes is still not comparable with filling up in the normal way at a gas station, but measured against the four to six hours which conventional battery systems have required, this is undeniably major progress. In my opinion, the most important charging facilities will be located in the home and at the workplace; this is where most charging will be done. In addition, we will definitely need a certain public infrastructure but the idea that we would have to provide one, two, three charging stations in public areas for each individual electric car, as many people claim today, is totally exaggerated.

Apart from electric mobility, which technologies will be the great hopes of the future? Because it is not just with cars that we have to increase efficiency and reduce emissions, we have to do the very same in goods and local public transport.

This also holds for goods transport: by means of better traffic management, it will be possible to transport more goods by rail, and to further optimize the link between rail and street-based traffic. However, it is much more difficult to electrify an articulated truck than a car. The problem is the range: a truck (which must cover in the region of 1,000 kilometers a day) cannot be operated by battery. We need other interesting options there, such as biogenic fuels*. In the field of passenger transport, intensive work is currently being performed on innovative drives and alternative fuels. This means that natural gas drives, to mention just one example, will further establish themselves, for instance for buses in cities. (*Editorial note: The term biogenic fuels refers to biofuels, which are manufactured predominantly from renewable raw materials or even energy plants. Among the most well-known of these are vegetable oil, biodiesel and even bioethanol (new fuels are currently in development).

If we transfer concepts such as intermodality or car-sharing to commercial transport, this would mean that not every shipping company sends off its own trucks but instead cooperates with other suppliers...

This is a major challenge, as one can imagine. But it is only through increased cross-company networking that empty trips can be avoided in commercial transport. This applies primarily for long-distance transport; it becomes much more difficult in distribution transportation.

What can one do then on the last mile?

In terms of logistics, one quickly comes up against barriers here because it is very difficult to bring a parcel delivery company and a heating company together using the company car. In this area, it is therefore important to use innovative, more environmentally friendly drives. For example, a typical post office vehicle accelerates and brakes every 20 meters, i.e. it drives stop-and-go all day long. However, driving in this way would be an absolute catastrophe for a combustion engine with regard to efficiency and emissions. By contrast, it would not be a problem for an electric or fuel cell vehicle at all.