Self-driving cars, electric drives, and mobility services: these are the new business areas of the automotive industry. The Volkswagen Group is determined to be one of the front-runners.
With a soft whir, the electric shuttle comes to a stop at the curb. Marie puts away the smartphone that she just used two minutes ago to order the self-driving car to its virtual stop in Berlin’s Friedrichstraße. She crosses the bicycle and e-scooter lanes and gets in the car, taking a seat up front on the left side.
She looks out the window, daydreaming, as more passengers gradually get in. The big screen in front of her, which has linked automatically to her smartphone, tells her the ride “has just been charged to your credit card.”
Right after that, Marie receives a push notification from the supermarket where she’d placed an order earlier: the delivery drone will drop her purchases off at her door at precisely the time she arrives there on the shuttle.
Electric drives, automated driving, and mobility services – these are the areas that will determine whether the German automotive industry will continue to shape mobility in the future or whether these new business opportunities will go to others.
Volkswagen is now racing to catch up, investing heavily in electromobility. Starting in 2020, for example, the company will be rolling out a whole new line of battery-powered vehicles and plug-in hybrids. Just five years later, it is estimated that two to three million electric cars are sold worldwide.
With equal intensity, the company has set about exploring the much less familiar field of mobility services. It seems that the time is right for it. In 2015, carsharing, carpooling and ride hailing accounted for barely four percent of all kilometers driven. But according to a study commissioned by the US bank Morgan Stanley, by the year 2030, this portion could increase to a quarter of all driving worldwide. “In the more mature markets of the West – and in the densely populated regions of the world at large – it’s becoming increasingly more important to sell customized, integrated mobility solutions than cars,” says Yves Leterme, former Prime Minister of Belgium and member of the Volkswagen Sustainability Council. “Particularly in the cities, more and more young people are choosing not to buy their own car,” says also Ludger Fretzen. “These are customers we can’t afford to lose.”
So it is not by chance that our subsidiary MOIA is now preparing to test run a new mobility service in Hamburg. The plan is to deploy around 200 specially developed electric shuttles in the city to serve commuters who don’t own a car, thus closing the gap between public transportation and taxis. Unlike their major competitor, Uber, which provides their customers with access to franchised cabs, MOIA will be hiring their own qualified drivers.
Of course, in order to run the electric shuttles, we’ll first need to set up the necessary infrastructure. “Our team has been talking to local power companies, public transport operator Hochbahn, and the city in order to decide, for example, where to park the cars and charge them,” says MOIA spokesperson Michael Fischer.
Ultimately, MOIA plans to establish a city-wide virtual network of shuttle stops. An app shows the user the nearest available stop and an image of the surrounding area. The app is also required in order to hail the shuttle. “The street,” explains Fischer, is where “the demand for mobility” arises.
Particularly in the cities, more and more young people are choosing not to buy their own car.
Someone who switches modes of transport (e.g. bikes part of the way and then hops on the subway) at least once on their way to work, home, or to the store is said to be using intermodal transport. “It’s not necessarily something you do for fun – it’s a way to save time,” explains Laura Gebhardt. “It’s especially common to see people doing this in large cities in order to streamline their daily routines and commutes.”
Gebhardt’s team conducted a survey of 1,100 residents of Berlin to find out which means of transportation they use when and for what purpose. Based on the results, they were able to produce several prototypical “mobility types” which reveal how city-dwellers would like to get around. Three examples:
Sylvia, 44. A mother of two, Sylvia shares a car with her husband. Together, they decide who gets the car when and who has to take the bus or the train. In her free time, Sylvia enjoys riding her bike. She also takes her bike to the railway station. From there, she switches to the commuter train. Sometimes, she does take the car, though – to go shopping, for instance, or to drive the kids to sports practice.
Peter, a man over 50 and an “all-purpose car user”. The kids are all grown up, Peter and his wife have two cars all to themselves. They don’t like taking buses or trains, and would sooner call a cab. “Eighty-one percent of the people in this category use their cars on a daily basis,” says Laura Gebhardt. “Nationwide, these folks are still the majority in Germany.”
Steffen, 36, academic – lives with his girlfriend in the city center and takes the subway to work; it’s too far to go by bike. He has an annual pass for the bus and rail and is registered with a car-sharing service. “Less than half of all households in this category have their own car,” says Laura Gebhardt.
Whether or not these target groups end up changing their mobility strategies is going to depend on how attractive the alternatives are. Sylvia, for example, might benefit from a user-friendly app that integrates different means of transportation – in case, let’s say, she unexpectedly needs to rent a car to get home with her purchases from the home improvement store. Peter might take an interest in autonomous cars that let him work or talk on the phone to his grandkids or – once he reaches a certain age – that he can use to drive to the doctor’s. Steffen might like the idea of micromobility – electric scooters or even electric skateboards that are like something out of “Back to the Future” (except that they can’t fly, at least for now).
But it’s not just our mentalities that have to change. The cities themselves do, too.
And there are bound to be some conflicts along the way. “The cities are growing, but road space is staying the same, especially in downtown areas,” says Andreas Rieckhof. As Hamburg’s State Council for Transit, he’s accustomed to seeing these types of conflicts in his day-to-day work.
When his agency decided to set up a depot for a carsharing provider, a weekly market was forced to relocate. “There was a lot of discussion, just like there is every time we allocate a new cycling path or reserve a parking lot for electric cars,” says Rieckhof. But the task set before municipal authorities is to ensure mobility for all.
That’s why Rieckhof would like to see mobility concepts like MOIA incorporated into public transportation – the way that Hamburg’s Hochbahn is already doing it with rental bikes and carsharing fleets.
The MOIA shuttles are part of a mobility partnership between Volkswagen and the city of Hamburg. “The partnership is intended to make transit safer, cleaner, more efficient, and less noisy,” says Rieckhof.
Within the next ten years, as those involved hope and plan for, we’re going to see shuttles (and private cars) that drive through the city autonomously with no need for a driver. The German Federal Ministry of Transportation has already approved test tracks for driverless cars. In the summer of 2017, the ethics commission appointed by Minister of Transport Alexander Dobrindt wrote in its final report that automated and connected driving was, in fact, an “ethical imperative if the systems cause fewer accidents than human drivers.”
German automakers are not satisfied with just supplying the sheet metal for Google’s intelligent car – they want to get actively involved. “When it comes to data, software, and IT, there’s no doubt that Google has advantages. We know that,” admits Ludger Fretzen. “But a lot of tech players underestimate the complexity of automotive manufacturing.” Automotive engineers, on the other hand, are, according to Fretzen, “perfectly capable of mastering the new digital technologies.”
Potential buyers might be transit authorities looking to add SEDRIC to their bus and train networks. They might be companies interested in using SEDRIC to take their employees to work or business meetings. And, of course, they might also be private consumers.
After all, SEDRIC could also be used to get kids to band practice or pick up their parents from the bar in the evening.
The cars aren’t enough by themselves, though. “Autonomous vehicles need their own ecosystem,” says Mario Rautenberg, Director M&A and Business Development at on-demand mobility provider Gett. “Carmakers, fleet operators, power providers, insurance companies, and logistics sectors all have to play ball.” Founded in Israel in 2010, Gett has since become the largest and fastest-growing app-based mobility provider in Europe. In addition to Israel and the UK, the service is now also available in Russia and the US. Aside from ride services for private consumers, the company also relies on corporate clients; with over 7,000 customers, Gett is the world leader in this segment.
Gett – more and more robotaxis
Gett cars are still driven by people. But the company is preparing for the day when more and more robotaxis start hitting the streets. That’s why, in 2016, Volkswagen made a strategic decision to purchase a $300 million share in Gett.
Already today, Gett algorithms can predict with almost down-to-the-minute accuracy when and in what street a driver will be able to score a passenger – and guide the driver there with a push notification before the order is even placed. One day, these very algorithms will also be guiding autonomous vehicles.
HERE – data is already being used in a million places
The map service “HERE,” which, in late 2015, was acquired from Nokia by the Group’s brand Audi, together with BMW and Daimler, will be leading the way to the future of autonomous driving. And they won’t be taking any detours through Google to get there. “HERE’s data is already being used in a million places,” reports Roland Pfänder of Audi Electronics Venture. “In the new Audi A8, for example.”
In the future, “HERE” data will be able to do much more than just show traffic congestions. It will be helping autonomous vehicles to navigate based on precise real-time maps. “The data will be generated by the vehicles themselves using something for example radar or cameras,” explains Pfänder. There will also be external data involved, e.g. from cities or weather services.
“And this number is going to rise,” predicts Mario Rautenberg of Gett. “At some point, it won’t make sense anymore to have your own car in the city.” The emotional attachment to cars will start to fade – even for Germans.
There’s an added bonus in all this when it comes to the environment. The number of cars in the cities could drop significantly, leaving more room for bike paths, parks, and playgrounds. Rautenberg cites a Berylls study, also conducted in April 2017. According to the findings, in Munich alone, 200,000 of the 700,000 cars registered in the city could be replaced with just 18,000 robotaxis. And no, there’s not a zero missing there. “The goal should be for more and more people who live in overcrowded cities to start using these other mobility services instead of having their own car,” says Michael Fischer of MOIA.
Others are more skeptical. “Carsharing is going to become more common for future generations. In the best-case scenario, we’d have a lot of people who share a car, and that really would free up some space in the cities,” says Laura Gebhardt of DLR. “But in the worst-case scenario, autonomous cars could make driving so easy that we’ll end up with even more cars in the cities than we have today.”
A study conducted by the company had some surprising interim findings. Self-driving shuttles would, in fact, reduce the number of kilometers driven in the city. Self-driving taxis, however, might actually cause an initial increase in traffic volume and, as a result, an increase in traffic congestion. “Deadheading, especially, would increase mileage and, as a result, increase local traffic volume,” explains Florian Kranke from the Group environmental research unit. Deadheading refers to drives from one destination to the next pick-up location or back to the depot or to the charging station. That’s why Gett and other companies are considering the possibility of using those drives in the city for delivery services.
Whether they’re dealing with autonomous cars or regular taxis, Yves Leterme of the Sustainability Council has two pieces of advice for city governments and mobility companies. “First of all, cities should avoid the mistake of creating a monopoly for a single provider. They need to give the market free reign.” And secondly, he says, life in his part-time home of Stockholm has shown him the benefits of “locally negotiated mobility solutions”: “You listen to what the locals have to say, and then the cities and other mobility providers find efficient, sustainable solutions based on the needs and wants of the people who live there.”
This approach could also prove beneficial in rural areas where buses are rare and the distances are too far to travel by bike, where you can’t get by without owning a car and carsharing is limited to the occasional ride with your neighbor. “The debate could catch on in those areas, too,” predicts Laura Gebhardt. “Autonomous buses could be used as shuttles to help people get to the nearest commuter train stop. That could help prevent some traffic congestion.”
In this brave new world of mobility, instead of downtown Berlin, Marie could also be hailing her self-driving electric shuttle in a remote little village in the countryside.