Roads that generate electricity, solar-powered planes that stay up for weeks at a time and electricity storage that is a part of a structure are the types of things that Dr. Peter Harrop sees in the not-too-distant future.¹ Harrop, the Chairman of the Board of IDTechEx, brings a unique, informed and practical perspective to how the world is changing, as his experience includes being the former Director of Technology of Plessey Capacitors Scotland and Chief Executive Officer of Mars Electronics.
To the naysayers of mobility electrification and alternative power generation, he suggests that they are acting like those who suggested the cell phone could never replace the landline. He makes the point that what those earlier critics missed is that the smartphone didn’t just replace one device (the telephone), but replaced many devices by providing greater utility and new functionality. Similarly, he believes that smart materials will serve multiple functions, reducing overall cost.
And speaking of cost, he points to China is driving down the cost through volume production of things like electric buses. He points to BYD and their holistic view of how the electrification of mobility ties to the grid and renewable electricity generation.
Beyond the functionality, smart materials and new production techniques effectively collapse many individual components into a few, greatly increasing reliability. He cites Tactotek as an example of a producer of smart molded structures that was able to replace the 65 discrete switches and components of an overhead control of a car with one molded component. In addition to the cost and reliability benefits, this approach also shaves weight, which is an important element in improving efficiency in transportation. He calls this new approach, “Fit and forget.”
These new materials are spurring the development of electric aircraft that are already finding specific use-cases, such as the Bye Aerospace Sun Flyer 2. According to Bye Aerospace founder, George Bye, the equivalent energy use of their electric airplanes is approximately one dollar per flight hour (YouTube) (another publication suggests $3/hour), which is significantly lower than aviation-fuel-based airplanes and is much cleaner and quieter. The first generation, which is due out in 2020, is optimized for training and will fly for 3 to 3.5 hours at 135 knots/hour (approx 155 mph).
Using Bye Aerospace as the benchmark for the energy cost per mile for what drones might cost, it is no wonder that Harrop is so enthusiastic about the potential for low-cost flights in urban areas. For example, using the $3 per hour figure cited by Bye, the operating cost of his plane translates to about 2 cents per mile. It’s not a reach to think that electric drones might have similar operating costs, which are much less than what has been projected for autonomous vehicles. Perhaps the Jetson-like future of flying buses over the I-405 might not be too much of a stretch as those per mile costs are even less than what has been projected for autonomous vehicles.
And Harrop talks about the possibilities of shared autonomous shuttles; what he describes as sort of fishbowls on wheels that are a cross between a taxi and bus (he jokingly says they should be called TaxUs). Again, he points to the smart materials, such as screens integrated into glass that will help provide enhanced experiences (as demonstrated by video clips of Accessible Olli).
These technology developments in mobility, along with new forms of efficient electric transportation, such as low-cost electric vehicles and drones that serve as virtual cell towers, will not only change how we get around but where we live. Harrop suggests that the resulting cost reductions in mobility and communications might spur a move back to rural areas.
¹ That a traditional construction company is writing about integrating IoT and electric charging into road infrastructure, it is a sign that times are a changing.