Electric vehicles

Electricity’s bright future

Petrol power helped shape the 20th century, but its decline may define the 21st. So how will the future of urban transport look?

The take-away

  • Electric buses are an attractive solution, but keeping batteries charged remains a challenge.
  • Universities are coming up with radical solutions for electric bikes and cars.

“Peak car”. This phrase, with its echoes of peak oil and peak gas, came to prominence in 2015, and it describes the moment at which per capita car sales level out or start declining. Surprisingly, a number of countries including France, the UK and Sweden may have already reached this point. As urban populations continue to swell, cars have become a victim of their own ubiquity, creating clogged roads and pollution hotspots. Consequently, younger generations seem less keen on car ownership and more interested in cheaper, sustainable alternatives. For most people, that means electric power.

In future cities, the range of transport options will likely flourish, but where the goal is simply to move large groups of people efficiently, electric buses offer a logical solution. Managing large fleets of these buses requires quick charging, though, and that’s a challenge for batteries designed to power 5 to 10-tonne vehicles.

One solution is the TOSA system developed by automation giant ABB. Like many great innovators, the team did not look for a smarter solution, they asked a smarter question: “What if you powered buses to reach the next stop rather than the terminus?”

Success in Geneva

Eschewing overhead cables, these buses power up at specific stops in just 15 seconds. “A robotic arm on the roof zips out automatically and connects to a charging port, storing the energy needed to reach the next recharging station,” explains Simone Amorosi, deputy director of the Transportation Centre at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). After a successful pilot run in Geneva, EPFL Professor Michel Bierlaire and his collaborators are currently working on myTOSA, a complementary project that will determine the least expensive configuration for TOSA within a given network. This is a vital step for uptake in other cities.

So far, so sensible. But if you’re thinking electric vehicles might bring about the death of excitement in transport, you’d be wrong.

Step forward T0RR, an electric superbike under development by students at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and China’s Tsinghua University. When finished, the bike will reach a dizzying top speed of 250 km/h.

T0RR is still in the construction phase, but it boasts notable innovations, including an ingenious reverse rotating electric motor. When cornering, the bike is stabilised by the mass of its wheels turning in one direction. The greater the rotating mass, the more stable the bike. But this stability makes leaning in and out of corners physically difficult. “Simulations showed that the angular momentum of the motor and of the two wheels are exactly the same at a specific rpm,” explains Fabian Ebert from the development team. “We realised that reversing the engine’s rotation would improve manoeuvrability at the beginning and end of turns.” This move, in tandem with the bike’s ability to instantly discharge its battery power, has left the team confident that the bike will beat most petrol-powered rivals in the speed stakes.

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Electric superbike

250 km/h of top speed: T0RR has been developed by students at the Technical University of Munich and China’s Tsinghua University

The transformer

Some R&D projects are thinking even more radically. The eSeater, a three-wheeled electric car developed by TUM in cooperation with Croatian car manufacturer Rimac Automobili, is harnessing the convergence of transport technologies to rethink modern transportation altogether.

The vehicle’s futuristic looks wouldn’t be out of place in Minority Report, but there’s as much function as form in the folding chassis of this concept car. With the vehicle’s rear wheel folded, the pod sits tall and upright, allowing easy access for users. Once the vehicle is moving, however, it transforms. “The rear wheel unfolds and the eSeater lies flat during driving to reduce air resistance,” explains Gernot Spiegelberg, the project’s leader. “This is the main factor governing the range of travel for electrical cars – not the weight.”

At the project’s core is a desire to anticipate the shifting needs of future populations. The eSeater is particularly well-tailored to serve an ageing population; tasks like parking and charging can be automated, and the intuitive navigation stick and artificial intelligence-enabled control console keep mental and physical exertion to a minimum. As part of a fleet, the eSeater could also tap into growing demand from younger travellers for “always-on” shareable transport services.

Sharing and Vending

Ease of access to shared transport will be the key to keeping people moving around megacities. Consequently, electric bike and scooter availability is already growing rapidly. Shareable e-bikes are now available citywide in Madrid thanks to the BiciMAD initiative, and Israeli-based start-up Roadix is so confident in the rising popularity of electric mobility that it is currently working on roadside vending machines to dispense their MUVe electric scooters. Add these to the examples above and the mix of transport types in future cities looks pretty exciting.

Indeed, with infrastructure moving just as rapidly as vehicle R&D, electric vehicles may even be charged by smart lamp posts in the near future. In conjunction with cleaner, quieter transport, such a move really would help cast city streets in a new light.

Simone Amorosi (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), Gernot Spiegelberg (Technical University of Munich)