Mobility needs to electrify quickly to build a responsive, efficient and sustainable city –and the pandemic may serve as a catalyst for that process

The lockdown and societal impact caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has ignited a debate around mobility – particularly with reference to densely populated cities. How people move around cities while maintaining social distancing measures and whether mass public transportation systems need to be redesigned are at the forefront of this debate.

The seemingly impossible task of implementing social distancing on already over stretched public transport systems is leading authorities to beg users to walk, cycle or drive. As such, it’s fair to assume car usage is set to rise rapidly – in the near future at least. Meanwhile, the severity of COVID-19 and poor air quality has been linked[1] and air quality and emissions targets remain, so as we move into a ‘new normal’ the onus must be on accelerating the use of greener alternatives and ensuring city mobility is as efficient as possible.

Even before the pandemic, there was clear incentive to revolutionize city mobility. Cities across the globe are changing and growing rapidly. By 2030, 60% of the global population is expected to live in large cities and this could climb to two thirds by 2050. Against this backdrop, there is a clear need to minimise the environmental impact of this growth and enhance quality of life of residents. Enabled by new and emerging technologies, cities are under pressure to get smart, using data and connectivity to radically enhance mobility, and they need to electrify – quickly. The pandemic may serve as a catalyst for that process.

While the automotive industry is facing unprecedented economic challenges amidst the pandemic, some governments are looking to support EV uptake as they pursue a ‘green recovery’. At the beginning of June, the German government announced that anyone buying an electric vehicle will be entitled to a €6,000 subsidy towards it – double the current amount[2]. Meanwhile, France announced in May an auto industry bailout package worth some 8 billion euros ($8.8 billion) which includes substantial support for electrification.[3] Overall, electric vehicles (EVs) have been identified as part of the solution for future cities and are widely regarded, by governments globally, as key to creating healthy and more environmentally friendly urban areas.

With governments committing to reducing vehicle emissions and looking to EVs as a crucial part of the solution, adoption is only going to continue to escalate, albeit at a slightly slower pace in the short-term following the COVID shock. Before the pandemic, it was predicted that within the next ten years, the market will grow significantly. McKinsey’s base-case prediction for EV adoption suggested approximately 120 million EVs could be on the road in China, the European Union, and the United States by 2030 [Source: McKinsey 2020].

Is data the key to widespread adoption of EVs?

While governmental support to encourage the purchasing of EVs is an important factor to promote widespread adoption, it is just the tip of the iceberg. For EVs to achieve mass penetration and to become a true part of the smart city, a supporting infrastructure and data/connectivity are fundamental. In the first instance, the number of available charging points needs to keep up with the number of EVs; something that governments are increasingly recognizing. For example, earlier this year the UK transport secretary announced that funding for the installation of charging points on UK streets will be doubled in 2020.

In a world where more and more drivers will change to EVs, demand side management (DSM) is a crucial piece of the puzzle. One of the challenges of integrating electric vehicles into the electricity grid is that consumers tend to charge their vehicles at peak times putting the grid under unnecessary stress. This has the potential to lead to more frequent maintenance and upgrade requirements, while energy companies have to procure electricity at peak rates, often getting it from dirty, non-renewable peak generation sources. Good demand side management, on the other hand, can lead to improved integration of renewable sources into the grid.

Our low-emission smart city jigsaw

It’s for this reason that we at Future Energy Ventures, see DSM as the single biggest challenge in the shift towards electric vehicles and is why we recently invested in a company called One part of the solution, it works in partnership with energy companies enabling them to intelligently manage and optimize EV charging based on consumer need, environmental impact, grid load and cost. And complementing’s solution is another of our investments, gridX, which enhances the energy efficiency of EV charging by providing green electricity from renewable sources, and connecting local power generators with consumers. We also invested in Mojio, which supports the connectivity of cars by linking them to smart charging infrastructure or urban services, and it forms another part of the low-emission smart city jigsaw.

Connectivity and data will also be an essential part of ensuring smart and efficient energy usage. Smart phones, IoT devices, sensors, vehicles and even buildings provide increasing amounts of user data and are becoming more interconnected. Low-power wide-area networks (LPWANs) are also an attractive solution for smart cities being energy efficient, cost effective and scalable while the rollout of 5G networks will make more data available, faster, enabling new insights and bringing smart cities even closer.

In this COVID era, mobility data is also painting a picture of which urban areas might be at higher risk of reinfection than others. One of our investments, Teralytics, offers advanced insights into mobility patterns and its technology can draw a direct connection between mobility and COVID-19 infection rates. In partnership with The Economist research, Teralytics has captured mobility data from Italy, Germany and the United States and analysis shows that cities’ vulnerability to COVID-19 is proportionate to their connectedness to the outside world. Data capture such as this could form an essential tool for authorities trying to manage the virus – through mobility planning – while opening up the economy.

The bottom line: embrace data and cutting edge technology or suffer the consequences

Beyond COVID, a more responsive, efficient and sustainable city will require the use of data to manage complex operations and automate infrastructure systems, optimising the relationship between people, companies, the authorities and the built environment. And without utilizing cutting edge technology and adopting true interconnectedness, cities will be inefficient, and health, quality of life, business efficiency and the environment will suffer. Meeting these challenges relies on collaboration and the convergence of different industries. It will take innovation, planning, commitment and capital. Both young start-up companies and established multinationals are providing innovative solutions to achieve this vision.

The new reality we now find ourselves in will accelerate the pace of change in our cities as they electrify and connect, capitalizing on emerging technologies and a wealth of data. And forward-thinking capital providers with experience in energy and infrastructure are increasingly willing to invest in companies that are developing the key components of this future reality.

[1] University of Cambridge research