March 5, 2012 11:16 pm

Urban transport: Microvehicles on fast track to bypass megacity gridlock

China witnessed in August 2010 what has been described as the worst traffic jam in history.

In Hebei province, a combination of roadworks and a high volume of coal trucks heading to Beijing halted vehicles for at least 11 days. One journalist who was there wrote that the normally hectic expressway was so quiet he could hear crickets chirruping nearby.

As it happens, 2010 was also the year that China overtook the US as the world’s largest car market. That year, too, Beijing’s city government introduced a lottery for licence plates to limit the number of new cars.

Carmakers are watching the growing congestion in emerging countries with alarm, coupled with a sense that if they think creatively, they can exploit business opportunities from an increasingly urbanised world.

Bill Ford, Ford Motor’s chairman last month warned of the danger of “global gridlock” as the number of cars rises from about 1bn to a projected 4bn by 2050. He said carmakers must work with governments and industries such as telecommunications to find solutions to urban congestion, or risk their products becoming obsolete.

About 70 per cent of the world’s population is projected to live in cities by 2050, up from about half today. The problem is not confined to emerging countries such as China: Ford estimates the economic cost of congestion in the UK alone will rise to $35bn annually by 2025.

“We know from the US and Europe that vehicle ownership and usage are affected by population density,” says Chris Borroni-Bird, General Motors’ director of advanced technology vehicle concepts. “As cities become more densely populated, the appeal of owning a car is threatened because of the lack of parking, congestion and viable alternatives such as public transport.”

At GM, Mr Borroni-Bird heads the team that developed the EN-V, GM’s two-seat electric, networked vehicle, which it showed at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. The car is designed to communicate with other vehicles and public infrastructure, enabling it to navigate, avoid crashes and find parking autonomously.

For now, the EN-V is experimental and would only work in a controlled environment where it was surrounded by similarly wired vehicles. GM last year secured such laboratory conditions when it signed a memorandum of understanding with China’s largest “Eco-City”, on the outskirts of Tianjin, where it will deploy the next generation of the car.

The EN-V, says Mr Borroni-Bird, will lend itself for use as a second car or in car-sharing schemes. “It might not be something you own,” he says.

Other carmakers are devising blueprints for urban vehicles and services, typically with electric drivetrains and in-car technology that connects them to the surrounding city.

BMW’s new BMW i sub-brand was formed in the Munich carmaker’s brainstorming sessions about a “megacity” vehicle. The venture’s first two cars, the electric i3 and plug-in hybrid i8, will launch in 2013.

The company, like its rivals, is also devising services that offer casual car use or meld car travel with public and other forms of transport.

“The future of transport is door-to-door mobility,” says Sarwant Singh, a partner with Frost & Sullivan, the consultancy. “This will be led through more connectivity and convergence of the mobile information technology industry with the car industry, but will be largely enabled using the smartphone.”

Manufacturers such as Volkswagen and Honda are developing microvehicles for big cities, including scooters, bicycles and electric carts. VW last year unveiled the NILS, a single-seat electric concept car just 3 m long and 0.39 m wide that it said could meet most German commuters’ needs.

Carmaking executives reiterate Mr Ford’s view that the threat of global gridlock will be addressed only if the industry joins forces with other sectors and governments to find common solutions.

“I honestly believe we need a broader approach than just talking about the car,” says Peter Schwarzenbauer, Audi’s head of sales. “I would call it a mobility system, and the car is just part of the whole issue.”

However, most industry analysts and many carmakers point out that while two-wheelers and microvehicles have a viable global niche, most consumers in countries such as India and China who can afford to buy a car typically make their first car the roomiest four-seater they can afford.

John Miles, a member of the UK Automotive Council, which recently published a study on “intelligent mobility”, thinks much of the technology needed to pilot cars smoothly in big cities is already within reach.

An anarchic, Darwinian approach – under which the best technologies win out – is likelier than a top-down solution imposed by decision-makers.

“Our conclusion is that it’s all going to happen on its own – but not fast enough,” says Mr Miles.

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