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Future of urban mobility begs questions for Highlands and Islands

By Andrew Bradshaw, Fifth Ring

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I felt sorry for the train conductor on a recent trip to Aberdeen. You could hear the sadness in her voice as she told us that two services to Glasgow had been suspended because a sleeper train had broken down near Arbroath.

At the same time, I looked out of the window. We were passing Insch and I could see a sizeable snake of rush hour cars stacking up at temporary traffic lights. Smoke coughing out of old exhausts.

Because I think of nearly everything in terms of energy, these two simultaneous situations colliding at once made me think of the pressures on our transport system and infrastructure and how much we rely on them to get on with our daily lives.

Except we don’t use the word transport any more. For reasons unknown to me, we now refer to it as mobility. Whatever we call it, how we get around is predicted to change dramatically in the next 10 to 20 years, more so than it ever has in the history of mankind.

Across the board, forecasts suggest global demand for oil is going to continue rising into the next decade, but it will flatline thereafter – anywhere between 2024 and 2040 – and then decline. This flatlining in oil will coincide with increasing global concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and the growth in popularity of electric vehicles, and could be speeded up by government legislation on single-use plastics.

The International Energy Agency has suggested global electric car sales could reach 23 million by 2030 from the 5.1 million on the road today.

Charging points are found in greater numbers in urban areas, while electric taxis are already on the road in Inverness. Picture: SPP
Charging points are found in greater numbers in urban areas, while electric taxis are already on the road in Inverness. Picture: SPP

Volkswagen recently announced ambitious plans to leapfrog Tesla and increase the production of electric cars to around 1 million by the end of 2022, with China a key market. The company will use existing factories to mass produce the electric vehicles, supported by revenue from increasing SUV sales, and drive down electric vehicle prices.

The momentum is therefore certainly with electric. However, there are challenges to be overcome. There would seem little environmental point, for example, in using electricity generated by coal to power vehicles – but it is anticipated that renewable energy sources would deliver total electrification provision in the not-too-distant future.

Also, electric vehicles are expensive to buy at the moment, although the idea is that with a cheaper energy source than petrol and less costly maintenance requirements, they will make up for the heavy initial outlay over the life of the vehicle.

Initiatives like Volkswagen’s will make them more affordable. Battery life and lengthy charging times are also key issues currently, but improvements are being made all the time.

An excellent paper titled “Mobility’s second great inflection point” from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company suggests the second great inflection point for mobility is imminent.

The first inflection point, it argues, was the shift from horses to cars for land-based mobility in the early 20th century. The second will be no less profound: electric and autonomous vehicles, smart-based infrastructure managing traffic flows, greater data deployment and an increase in shared journeys using ride-hailing services like Uber, for example.

This isn’t fantasy stuff. It’s already started. Look at the technology in today’s high-end vehicles. The McKinsey report states that as far back as five years ago the average top-spec car had approximately seven times more code than a Boeing 787. Today, you’re basically driving a data centre.

Supermarkets across Inverness provide a limited number of charging points. Picture: John Davidson
Supermarkets across Inverness provide a limited number of charging points. Picture: John Davidson

The early adopters for electric cars are likely to be in urban areas where mass charging points or home charging are envisaged and traffic flow management is a critical issue. But what does that mean for regions like the Highlands and Islands?

How quickly will the change occur here and what societal impact will it have? Will it smooth the tensions between urban and rural community living or widen the mobility gap between the haves and the have nots?

An examination of the map for electric vehicle charging points in our region highlights the potential problem facing mass adoption. However, the growing number of electric buses is encouraging, and supports the theory that mass transportation solutions, rather than private vehicle owners, will lead the drive towards greater electric adoption.

For household cars in rural areas, community and local energy schemes can have a vital part to play. The electric used to power houses can also power vehicles in remote communities, so for homes that don’t have their own built-in charging stations, community charging centres could be the answer.

A huge issue with charging is time, and while you could charge your car up overnight at home, charging times at communal points would have to be sufficiently short to entice mass adoption. Both Shell and BP are two companies advancing technology that would enable drivers to charge their cars in the same time it takes to fill up with petrol. However, until that’s rolled out universally, charging time will be an issue.

What will mass vehicle electrification mean for filling stations? Incorporating charging points into new homes will impact on their current role as quick energy providers and snack sellers. But, if people are having to spend more time on the forecourt charging up, it presents opportunities to offer better food and drink options, for example, or other services that can help motorists pass their charging time.

Electric vehicle recharging points can be found across the region – but there are still barriers to mass adoption. Picture: SPP
Electric vehicle recharging points can be found across the region – but there are still barriers to mass adoption. Picture: SPP

Filling stations could also be used as last-mile carriers or depots for goods, which can then be transferred to the end user. Imagine if your Amazon order was delivered to your local filling station, then transported by drone to your home. And before you scoff at the thought, similar ideas are currently on the table, and the first part is already happening with some delivery firms.

Another area to consider is the impact on population development. Around the world we see urban populations being swelled by former rural dwellers. Will the perceived greater ease of access to new mobility solutions in our urban centres – the lure of buzzing around Inverness in your autonomous vehicle – create a similar shift here?

The speed at which we do change our current ways of getting about will be determined by government policies and market demand, and there is a sense that the former may dictate the latter. And – let’s be clear – petrol and diesel will always have a part to play in the fuel mix.

But the era of widespread electric vehicle adoption is coming ever nearer, and we should all consider how we will respond to it.

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