If you have been traveling to the big cities in growing economies like India & China, you would agree that you don’t recognize the city every time you travel back, the vehicle flux is multifold, the routes are changed with ever-increasing flyovers/over/underpasses, etc. On the other end in the developed economies a new trend is evolving where millennials are now calling the downtowns home and are very happy with rideshare and use public transport.
In 2015, urban population surpassed that of rural. By 2050 roughly 2.5 BN more people will move to urban areas. The mix has just reversed in some of the countries like Canada, where 19% lived in cities in 1871, which is now at 81%. Asia and Africa are leading urbanization for now and into the foreseeable future.
The big challenge with city planners and management is around “sustainable growth”. As per The Global Footprint Network, population is growing at a rate that is consuming the earth’s resources far faster than they can be sustainably replenished. Currently, global growth is expending about 1.6 earths. This projection underscores the necessity for new approaches and innovative technologies that dramatically reduce or even reverse the effects of CO2 emissions to mitigate the upward trajectory of urban growth.
It is projected that by 2030, there will be 41 megacities.
For developing economies, sustainable urbanization is key to successful development. Especially in low-income and lower-middle-income countries, where the pace of urbanization is projected to be the fastest. With limited resources, it’s an opportunity for developing economies to innovate for themselves, and to offer the same products and services to other countries. The WEF’s Digital Transformation Initiative analysis reveals that half of the value that digital offers are in the form of societal benefits. Of the benefits of digitalization, 94 per cent could accrue to society and the environment, as opposed to industry.
Among others, urban mobility is right at the top of the chart with some cities at the brink of collapse if they don’t find a solution quickly enough. Travel solutions involving aerial routes, advanced technology coupled with resource sharing may pave the way. These solutions not only have less carbon footprint but also improve capacity utilization, therefore making urban travel more affordable, and at the same time lessen the burden on the environment.
Need for tech-enabled transport solutions
Major cities of the world have developed and invested in various modes of public transport, which include rail, metro, trams, subway etc. These transport networks are rapidly expanding as urbanization is peaking. However, there is still a lot of traffic congestion that exists on the surface transport. This is indicative of the existing infrastructure’s inadequacy to support the kind of scale that the population is reaching in urban cities.
One solution to the problem of surface congestion is ride share/carpool. Global travel solution organizations like Uber have introduced the shared model which is cost effective for riders and has improved capacity utilization. In 2017, 35 million riders opted for UberPool and Express Pool services. If these riders had instead driven by themselves, cities would have seen an additional 314 million vehicle miles and 82,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
How the future of transport will look like: Multi Mode Travel
Due to increased surface traffic congestion, the urban transportation system needs to include multiple modes of travel that are more sustainable and environment friendly. The travel solution of the future will comprise of alternatives that are more fuel efficient, affordable, and less noisy, which will be beneficial to both users as well as environment. In order to cater to an individual’s end-to-end travel needs more effectively, the various modes of travel from first mile to the destination needs to be synched on a seamless, integrated platform.
To alleviate transportation congestion on the ground and reduce travel time in the cities, the industry is moving towards eVTOLs, a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft that can hover, take off, and land vertically. It represents the next generation of travel solutions that are safer, quieter, cleaner and works on electric propulsion technology, thereby resolving the constraints posed by helicopters.
Not without a hitch
Despite the technological progress and efficiencies enabled by mobility aggregators, the roadmap to implementation of multi-mode travel is paved with myriad challenges:
- Infrastructure: The eVTOL travel solution will require construction of skyports i.e. takeoff and landing stations, charging stations, parking lots, etc., which is costly and time-consuming.
- Technological barriers: Electric propulsion technology is still in nascent stage and a lot of development is underway. Other technologies like on-board sensors, collision detection etc. are also yet to mature for this industry.
- Noise: This is the promise of the eVTOL industry as opposed to current rotary wing aircrafts. However, the technology is easier said than done.
- Safety: UAVs & Drones are already being used for goods mobility. However, they must cover a huge distance to be safe enough for people mobility.
- Regulatory: Certification agencies e.g. FAA and EASA are not ready yet to certify eVTOLs. They are developing their own understanding, awareness, processes and policies as the industry itself is maturing.
- Security hazard: With more systems being electronically controlled, cybersecurity will be a key aspect to address.
- Liability: In a capital-intensive industry like this, stakeholders are peeved with ownership liability conundrum for the assets involved.
- Affordability: In order to ensure that maximum population can benefit with this type of transport system, it must be made affordable.
- Air traffic management: The proposed solution would require a robust air traffic management system, integrated with all modes of transport.
- Psychological barriers: passengers may have reservations about opting for air travel, more so in pilot-less aircraft.
From Concept to Industrialization
Unlike other industries, the development life cycle in aviation is much longer. Most of the new-age technologies like eVTOL are developed by nascent startups, that lack deep pockets and require continued funding in the capital-intensive transportation industry. So far, clearly Uber has been a flag bearer for this industry and is trying to bring the eco-system together which includes Government/city authorities, technology providers, regulatory agencies, pilots and OEMs. Around the world there are at least 16 players that are developing electric aircraft:
Technologies develop so rapidly that companies must act quickly to take the technology to the market. Beyond proof-of-concept and demonstrators, organizations require engineering and manufacturing scale to quickly adapt and industrialize – and this is very capital intensive.
I believe three sub-trends will evolve as the proof of concepts (POCs)/demonstrators get approved and move to operations:
- Some of the OEMs building a strong eco-system of product and services companies, where partners leverage mutual balance sheets and technical capability to move from concept to production and aftermarket operations. Most of these partners would work on a risk-sharing partnership.
- Currently large OEMs are funding development work through their start-up-like subsidiaries to ensure they have agility and are not mired with the bureaucracies of large organizations. Once the technology matures, those parent OEMs will play more active roles and offer eVTOL products as part of their mainline portfolio to take advantage of scale of their manufacturing and aftermarket operations.
- Consolidation of smaller/other players
HCL brings the perfect blend of aerospace domain knowledge, experience in supporting customers through certification cycle, deep expertise into new-age technologies such as electrification, IoT, vehicle health management solutions, analytics, cybersecurity, model-based-enterprise & digital manufacturing. Being a large global technology services company, HCL can provide flexible engineering capacity, capability and solutions to current and future OEMs. Also being a very entrepreneurial company, HCL has been offering risk sharing business models to a lot of its key customers, which will be music to the ears of many players in this market.
Despite the current challenges, eVTOL is fast evolving as an efficient and sustainable travel solution for urban mobility. The skies in those big cities are bound to look very different in the decades to come. May be like a scene from Star Wars? Time will tell!