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Cities prepare for the electrification of transport in an ever-changing world

E-mobility is set to transform all aspects of transportation across the next decade as the technology becomes mainstream, writes Christopher Burghardt, Managing Director for Europe, ChargePoint.


If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that everything we once took for granted can be upended overnight. As we’ve experienced, global change can be sudden, unexpected and disorienting but often it is entirely predictable — which means it’s also manageable. Consider the evolving relationship between cities and mobility. Although urban areas make up just two per cent of the earth’s surface, they are responsible for a staggering 70 per cent of the planet’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Nearly all of that is generated by road transport. With the population of cities expected to explode in the coming decades — from 4.2 billion people today to 6.7 billion by 2050 — maintaining the status quo is simply unsustainable. For cities, tackling such an enormous challenge is daunting, but it is happening and more quickly than you may realise.

Providing health benefits for both planet and people


Municipal leaders around the world know the reliance on fossil fuels to power passenger cars, buses, trucks and delivery fleets is a dead end, not only for the environment but for public health. In the UK, transport is responsible for 80 per cent of nitrous dioxide, which causes air pollution and are linked to illnesses and conditions such as respiratory illnesses, certain cancers and cardiovascular disease, among others. Nurturing a healthy population is another reason cities around the world are accelerating the switch to electric vehicles (EVs), a step the UK Government has identified as playing an important role in the “least-cost pathway” to hitting net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Phasing out fossil fuels

Cities are at the forefront of that fight. London, Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid, Hamburg, Rome, Brussels and many other European metro areas have all implemented plans to either restrict or ban petrol and diesel-burning cars from urban centres. In total, 24 European cities with a cumulative population of more than 62 million people have committed to either eliminating or severely curtailing the use of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030. These types of restrictions on fossil fuel cars are one of the main reasons major automakers have come around to electric vehicles in recent years. The industry, which is already facing disruption from autonomous, connected, electric and shared mobility trends, has chosen to be part of the current sea change in transport.


Today, there are 60 plug-in electric vehicle models available in Europe, with plans for an additional 214 in 2021. While that number may change, one thing is certain — carmakers have invested tens of billions of pounds in e-mobility and they are unlikely to double-down on petrol moving forward.


Leading by example

Restrictions work, but only to a point. Although European diesel vehicle registrations fell from 50 per cent of total to only 36 per cent between 2015 and 2018 due to new regulations, authorities must do more to get citizens on board with the electrification of transport. They must lead by example. For its part, the UK Government has committed to making 25 per cent of its own car fleet ultra-low emission by 2022, with plans to get to 100 per cent by including plug-in electric vehicles in all new vehicle procurements by 2030.

Cities will soon no longer be constrained by the availability of electric vehicles.

London has gone one further by piloting an electric delivery fleet trial with private industry, which revealed even more failings of traditional vehicles. Because the specially-designed zero-emission vans had more payload volume, they were able to deliver 30 per cent more parcels each week, thus reducing not only GHG emissions and air pollution, but also congestion. Fuel costs were far lower too — 75 per cent less than their diesel counterparts—and used “five times less energy per km” due to the energy management features provided by smart networked charging solutions.


Building instrumental (and incentivised) infrastructure


Speaking of charging, London currently offers the most and greatest density of charge points in the country (nearly 50 per 100,000 residents), including 36 in one single square mile. However, more public charging infrastructure is an absolute must to encourage the mass adoption of electric vehicles. It will be needed to power the delivery fleets, minicabs, taxis, rideshare and autonomous vehicles that will proliferate as fossil fuels are phased out. To incentivise the switch to e-mobility even further, a number of grant schemes are available for charging, including one in which local authorities can apply for a grant that covers much of the capital costs (£6,500-£7,500 per station) associated with providing on-street charging infrastructure for residents without off-street parking. In London, that’s four out of every five residents.


Rising demand = wider availability and lower costs


As with all technological innovations, the costs associated with electrifying transport will continue to decline, even as performance improves. This is in contrast that to the internal combustion engine, a design that has achieved only modest upgrades in 160 years of service. Because of new efficiencies of scale and improved battery technology, electric vehicles will reach cost parity with internal combustion engine vehicles early this decade, even as their range improves. Cloud updates to both vehicles and charging solutions mean that cities will be able to scale the electrification of transport much faster and more affordably than in the past.


Cities will soon no longer be constrained by the availability of electric vehicles. By mid-decade, it is expected there will be hundreds more passenger battery electric vehicle models on the market, in addition to public buses, heavy- and light-duty trucks and a vast array of specialised fleet vehicles. Within the decade there will be an electric choice for nearly every use case.


Change is inevitable


E-mobility will completely alter current transport models, in both obvious and unforeseen ways. As urban electric public transport and delivery fleets grow, so too will ride-sharing offerings. Technologies such as mobile apps and autonomous vehicles will result in a further reduction in individual vehicle ownership. Information gleaned from urban sensing technologies, networked charging stations and in-vehicle data will realise enormous benefits for the environment and public health while reducing congestion and improving driver and rider experience.

Even today, the trends are clear. As traditional car sales plummet, battery electric vehicle registrations are up (nearly 200 per cent in March 2020). We never know what tomorrow will bring, but one thing is certain: change is inevitable. The question then becomes, “Will you be prepared?” For the health of the planet and everyone on it, the answer for many cities appears to be “yes.”

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