Assessing the personal mobility technology roadmap

Much has been said about the upcoming shifts in the global personal mobility trends. Transportation is the ultimate basis of the modern human civilization and personal mobility is the lion share of energy consumption within the transportation sector. About 40-50% of all energy consumed by transport systems is utilized by personal four-wheeled vehicles, which also happen to largely have private ownership. We can assume that the share of energy consumption by private four-wheel vehicles may change and that the operation model can cause the most radical disruption for this sector in terms of technology. However, one must also take into account other critical levels in the technology perspective in the mid and longer term - which are of course the fuel technology and road infrastructure materials.

Though there are already existing alternatives for personal mobility such as mass-transport systems and two-wheel vehicles, it is not likely those could entirely replace personal transport units such as cars, even though the ownership model can indeed be altered. Perhaps the most advancing technological revolution is coming on the system level of personal transportation and would both change the operational model and the energy consumption per capita. The technologies to affect the system level of private mobility are of course smart mobility technologies, such as real-time navigation, car-pooling, car-sharing and of course the autonomous drive. Those technologies obtain not only the potential to alter the existing movement concept (which is typically AA - going somewhere and returning later to the same place), but also to change the entire concept of vehicle ownership. This change has already begun and is due to continue for two or even three decades.

Another level of personal transportation technologies is the energy source, which is today mostly deriving from oil. The anticipated change in the coming decade or two will most likely be in the direction of electric mobility, which we already witness most aggressively in the two-wheeled vehicles sector and to some degree in mass-transit systems. The technology of Li-ion batteries has the potential to drive this transition to a large degree, though sometime in the next decade we would likely see the beginning of transition to more advanced electrochemical technologies. At some point some 30-40 years from now, Li-ion would likely become a niche technology in favor of something much more advanced.

The last, but not the least level of technology, critical for personal mobility, is the technology infrastructure materials. While taken for granted, one should point out that at some point in the not so far away future, the basic material for roads would be required for replacement. This is of course the asphalt and reason for its replacement is the eventual supply constraints of heavy oil. It is hard to provide a good estimate for the exact decade in which we might experience supply issues with asphalt, but it is very likely to happen sometime in the second half of this century. 

Figure 1. Private mobility technology roadmap with simplistic description of the three identified critical levels of technology for personal mobility - infrastructure materials (adhesion surface technology), fuel (energy source) and operation model (system).

As for what would happen later, there are large question marks. We may speculate that the personal transport operation mode could further evolve into something complex, or on the other hand rather move to single-unit transport on-demand. Though indeed system-level is the hardest to predict without looking at the basis technology level for energy source and infrastructure materials. Concerning the potential for electrochemical storage systems - there is a high probability of eventual breakthrough in secondary metal-air cell (rechargeable batteries based on metal-air interaction), which are theoretically capable to boost the energy capacity by an order of magnitude. By bringing the energy density of batteries close to that of gasoline, some very interesting possibilities would arise. Those interesting possibilities also have to do of course with the infrastructure materials and specifically with adhesion surfaces. As already mentioned, at some point in the second half of this century, we would be required to move from asphalt to some other adhesion material for roads. We do not yet even imagine what could it be and whether for instance the human race would obtain the technology to manufacture artificial asphalt (likely not). However, considering higher level technological advances there are two principle possibilities - both with no need of adhesion surface at all. One is that the personal transport units would become airbourne, which would be possible in case of a significant advance in energy density of batteries. The other possibility is relying on the advance in battery energy density in line with the development of "hot superconductors", which can in theory bring the possibility of "hovering vehicles", which would require some kind of metal wires to "hover" on. Those are of course very radical speculations, though we can already see a possible beginning with the utilization of drones for cargo delivery and some awkward superconductor "hoverboard" experiments.