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Keeping People Moving through Innovation

Increasing mobility demand is creating an array of tough challenges for the sector, including fuel scarcity, greenhouse gas emission concerns, and consumer preferences. Innovation is the answer. Read more here about the remarkable solutions being developed.

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From nomadic early civilizations to today’s continent-hopping air passengers, people have always wanted or needed to travel. In 2014, the number of people who journeyed internationally–more than 1.1 billion ─ was roughly the number of people on the entire planet 150 years ago.¹

Those numbers are growing. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) World Tourism Barometer estimates international travel will rise between 3 and 4 percent in 2015, marking the sixth consecutive year of above-average mobility increases. And with worldwide population growth on track to top 10 billion people within two decades, the trend is likely to continue ─ powered in part by the huge emerging middle class in countries such as China and India.

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Globalization, migration and technological innovation are driving the mobility megatrend, says Franz-Josef Radermacher, Ph.D., head of the Research Institute for Application-Oriented Knowledge Processing and professor of computer science at Germany’s University of Ulm and member of the Club of Rome. He has completed ground-breaking research into how population growth, international trade and travel, urbanization, and migration are driving tremendous demand for transportation and increased mobility. However, that research also highlights a number of critical challenges that must be addressed.

Solving Mobility’s Big Challenges

Moving so many people around the planet is a complicated matter. In addition to the obvious strains on transportation services and infrastructure, universal issues such as scarcity of fossil fuel and growing concerns over greenhouse gas emissions are creating demand for more efficient and environmentally sensitive technologies, Radermacher says. Mobility-sector companies and organizations must also contend with evolving government regulations related to safety standards and consumer preferences with regard to convenience, comfort and safety as the number of experienced travellers grows.

By 2020, the internal combustion engine will likely be challenged by hybrid drive systems, fuel cells, natural gas or electric motors. In the meantime, innovation is necessary to make automobiles, buses, trucks, airplanes and other vehicles and vessels more sustainable, while answering the demands of a growing and more sophisticated customer base. Radermacher believes massive technological innovation is necessary to solve the multifaceted problems facing a mobile population: “I think the most important innovation we need is a new energy system that is available everywhere, that is cheap, climate-friendly and environmentally neutral. Then, many of the problems we have today will not be problems anymore.”

Improving Efficiency

Innovation can solve mobility challenges by making vehicles more efficient ─ sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, while it may not seem that a surface coating one-tenth the thickness of a strand of hair may have much impact on fuel efficiency, hard coatings, such as those done by Oerlikon Balzers, can improve engine performance. By adhering to a surface and changing its properties, coatings can reduce friction and facilitate the use of light-weight materials, and in doing so, reduce fuel consumption and improve durability.

Advanced coating technology can apply a thin plasma spray coating directly onto an engine’s aluminum alloy cylinder bores, eliminating the need for cylinder liners. Prototype engines using this coating system by Oerlikon Metco kept operating for up to 400 000 km (250 000 miles) without need of repair. The same technology can be applied to jet engines. Coatings extend the lifetime of engines by protecting turbines against oxidation, hot gas corrosion, erosion and wear, and can lead to savings of one million liters of fuel every hour.

Better drive systems can also improve efficiency. For example, when a lightweight four-speed electric drive system has two drive shafts, each powered by its own electric motor, the result can improve energy efficiency by 15 percent, compared to an equivalent power single electric motor and single-speed. When transmissions optimized for hybrid vehicles, otherwise known as hybrid powershifting automated manual transmission, the electric motor is integrated more closely with the main drive shaft, making the unit 20 percent lighter than hybrid dual-clutch transmissions with comparable performance values. The first such powershifting model, created by Oerlikon’s Drive Systems Segment, has shown that such transmissions can improve overall fuel consumption by 4 percent. These are just a few ways how innovation can improve fuel efficiency.

Increasing Safety and Comfort

As consumers travel more, they seek greater safety and comfort. One area holding promise for innovators is the textile sector, since the average automobile has roughly 30 kilograms of textiles, according to the German Institutes of Textile and Fiber Research Board of Trustees. High-performance and intelligent fibers, yarns and compound materials deliver comfort, safety, acoustic and fuel-saving functions hold great promise for innovation. For example, high-modulus, low-shrinkage (HMLS) polyester yarns are extremely tear-resistant, but are also elastic as well as temperature and dimensionally stable. These industrial yarns can improve the strength and reliability of everything from seatbelts and airbags to vehicle tires. Other industrial yarns can improve durability and cleanliness of seat and other interior upholstery.

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Other developments in textile laboratories are even more exciting, focusing on innovations in comfort, convenience and safety. Electrically conductive fabrics will facilitate heating and cooling systems in seats, while panels may convert hand movements into gear-shifting signals. Biometric sensor systems are being designed to detect driver fatigue and stress. Some researchers are even working on special fiber compound components able to repair themselves after impact, much the same way broken bones heal in the body.

The drive for greater efficiency has also meant a move toward more lightweight construction, often using plastic instead of metal when possible. However, consumers often prefer the aesthetics of shiny metallic accents. Electroplating ─ the long-preferred method of applying such finishes ─ creates wastewater contamination and uses chromium derivatives that are limited in the European Union. Even establishing new electroplating plants in countries like China and Brazil, which are voluntarily adopting the stricter European environmental regulations, is no longer an option. However, cleaner solutions exist, such as embedded physical vaporization deposition (ePD™) by Oerlikon Balzers, which is an innovative coating process that achieves the same look without involvement of hazardous substances. As innovation continues to focus on cleaner processes, harmful environmental impact will be minimized.

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Reducing Environmental Impact

According to Radermacher, the innovation we are seeing in autonomous vehicles, which merge automotive and information technologies, have the potential to meet today´s mobility level with half as many cars. Google has been a leader in autonomous passenger cars and, in 2014, Daimler introduced its  Mercedes-Benz “Future Truck 2025”, a tractor-trailer with autonomous driving technology designed to assist, rather than replace, truck drivers.

But the professor’s cautionary concerns extend to the potential rebound effect of such breakthroughs. While technology can improve resource efficiency, it can also increase resource needs and environmental burdens in other ways. Specifically, when innovation drives down prices, more people can travel, which may result in greater fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and stress on travel infrastructure. Radermacher also notes that without better technology, broad prosperity and sustainability for humankind will be out of reach.

The need for mobility innovation is great and also holds significant promise in finding solutions. Such technology developments must be clearly paired with global governance and a commitment to green, inclusive technologies. The pursuit of innovation with a holistic approach is essential to realize the best possible outcomes of each potential breakthrough while contributing in totality to sustaining the environment.

By Gwen Moran

¹United Nations, “The World at Six Billion,” 1999. p.5.http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/sixbillion/sixbilpart1.pdf

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