• Ryan Jin

Does Future Mobility equate to Sustainable Mobility?

I made a mistake, quite an awful mistake, in my opinion. Since last year, I’ve been talking about Future Mobility very much from a technological deployment and advancement perspective: Autonomous Vehicles, Air Taxis, and various forms of Smart and Shared Mobility. How people and perhaps goods are moving as we know is changing, with changing expectations from users, societal behaviour, and technological advancements. The global mobility sector is growing and is expected to grow to a whopping US$26.6 trillion by 2030 as reported by Oliver Wyman Analysis. But is it feasible to place more tech into such a constantly evolving sector?


So what is Future Mobility?


Everyone would have a slightly different vision of Future Mobility, one that fulfils their unique needs, and is affordable and accessible. Based on current trends, it is common for most people to envisage Electrification, Autonomous, Shared Mobility, Urban Air Mobility, and 5G and Telematics enabled Smart Mobility.


My version of Future Mobility involves teleportation and Magnetic Levitation (Maglev) shared vehicles.

However, I doubt it will become a reality soon.


Before the COVID-19 pandemic, meals and groceries delivery, e-commerce, and Netflix had already made it possible for one to stay at home almost exclusively except for jobsand essential services not available digitally. The rise in the sharing economy such as ride-sharing companies like Uber and Grab has already made it less attractive to own a personal car. The pandemic accelerated the digitalisation process and possibly instituted structural changes in social behaviours that many speculate will be long-lasting such as working from home (in part or in full), the gig economy and reduced international travels. These changes reduced the practical benefits of owning a car and could influence how people perceive their day to day mobility needs with a risk-based approach.


With the fear of the coronavirus, people are commuting and heading out less. Those who need to go out might avoid crowded public transportation and generally prefer more personalised transport such as taxi or ride-hailing services to reduce person-to-person contact, if they can afford it. Many e-commerce and grocery delivery services are offering contactless delivery through leaving at the customer’s doorstep or at a local centralised delivery hub for self-collection. In places with a physical retail outlet, we are already seeing increasing adoption of self-checkout at groceries stores and unmanned stores. Recently, Foodpanda also carried out a trial of the first food delivery done by a drone to a ship near Marina South Pier.


With increasing interest towards contactless experiences, it begs the question on whether society is ready for people and goods mobility to be fully unmanned through use of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) and Unmanned Delivery Vehicles (UDVs).

However, no man is an island. It is the same for technology too. AVs and UDVs cannot reach their full potential without the concurrent deployment of technology like electrification, energy storage technology, telematics, V2X and 5G to name a few. On the surface, these technologies are not in conflict with sustainability. Engineering and technology development, for the most part, is about the combination of increasing performance and users’ experience, reducing wastage and cost, hence making it more efficient with less, very much aligned with the core principles of the circular economy.


So what’s the catch for Future Mobility?


With the impending global climate crisis, sustainability is a moral obligation for mankind.

Global automotive makers such as Daimler, Volkswagen, Toyota and many more have publicly displayed their commitment in shifting from Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) vehicles towards Electric Vehicles (EVs) including ICE phase-out targets or electrification targets for their vehicle portfolios by the end of 2030.


Many nations, cities and regions have also committed to some form of policy implementation and plan to phase out combustion-engine vehicles over the next few decades – with plans for cleaner vehicle adoption, increasing ridership on public transportation and better, more efficient urban planning.


But is that enough?


Let’s take a step back, replacing ICE vehicle with EVs will greatly reduce the tailpipe emissions (e.g. PM, COx, NOx, HC). However, to power the EVs, electricity needs to be generated and transmitted. Whether or not EV has a net carbon impact in the operation phase of its entire lifecycle will depend on the source of energy, whether it is generated from fossil fuel (coal, natural gas etc), renewable sources (Solar, Wind, Hydroelectric etc) or others (Nuclear, Waste-to-Energy etc).


Let’s take Singapore as an example. Merely by switching all the vehicles from ICE to EVs, we may have better air quality within the city and highways especially during peak hours with zero tailpipe emissions.


However, without careful planning and a strong support system, the transition to EVs will only shift emissions from the tailpipe to the powerplant.

About 95% of our electricity is generated with Natural Gas, and the remaining consists of other fossil fuel sources, Solar Energy and Waste-to-Energy. We will not reap the full benefits of transitioning to EVs without increasing the carbon-neutral generation in our energy mix and other supporting plans such as increasing Singapore’s Solar PV target to 2 GWp by 2030 and 200MW of Energy Storage Systems beyond 2025, improving the public transport network and accessibility, capping private vehicle growth rate and more.


I have mentioned the Energy Storage System (ESS) earlier. What does it mean for mobility and why didn’t I just use “battery” instead? An important aspect of electrification of vehicles involves the Energy Storage System. Especially for Cars, Drones, Trucks and Vessels without access to consistent external power sources through third rail, roof-mounted pantographs or overhead supply lines like trains and high-speed rails. One of the most common energy storage systems for EVs is lithium-ion battery. Others include Lithium-polymer, Nickel-Metal Hydride, Ultracapacitors and the Hydrogen Fuel Cell.


With improvements in battery technology and decreasing costs, the growth of electric vehicles is imminent. However, like any other electronic devices, we cannot ignore the environmental impact of an EVs’ total life cycle. Take Lithium, the core material for theEVs’ battery as an example: Mining of Lithium places a severe strain on the local environment, causing water, soil and air pollution. Reported by CarbonBrief.org, around 50% of a battery’s lifecycle emissions come from the electricity used in battery manufacturing and assembly. The unfortunate reality now is that Lithium batteries typically last for a few thousand charging cycles before the batteries’ performance and health degrades until they become unusable. The recycling process for batteries is not perfect yet. Hence, the end-of-life processing may have a larger impact on the environment compared to their operational life. We can only hope for a technology breakthrough in the battery recycling process, further progress in Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology for mobility or for new ESS solutions.

To close

I like to use this image to illustrate my point that it’s not about Future Mobility or Sustainable Mobility. It is about a Sustainable Future. I know of advocates of sustainable mobility who stand by cycling and public transport fully. However, there will be times when you need a more personalised form of transportation and the Future of Mobility should be able to address unique needs and requirements such as time, cost, vehicular type or low carbon emission.


Mobility-as-a-Service is a concept that aims to achieve that by offering commuters a choice to personalise their transport requirement and best match it with options ranging from public transport, smart mobility, shared mobility, on-demand ride services and more. It's not about any particular technology, but a combination of technologies with user-centric design. With the advancement of technology and mobility applications, a future of a pool of shared AVs could be catered to those who need more personalised transportation on-demand which could concurrently piggyback goods delivery. This would both reduce idle vehicles in car parks and the total number of vehicles on the road, increasing the system's efficiency of our society.


Attend our upcoming event on circularity in the mobility sector to hear more from Ryan:





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