Injecting innovation into our busy cities

Frank Hansen, Co-Founder of the Center of Competence Urban Mobility, BMW Group, tells Alex Kreetzer what has to be done to improve private and shared transportation in cities around the world.

As a former mobility researcher, Frank Hansen has seen a great development from ideas to realisation, such as renewable energy, electrification, connected car technology and, of course, urban mobility services. Now positioned as Co-Founder of the Center of Competence Urban Mobility, BMW Group, he reflects on the automaker’s evolution into the new world of mobility, identifying the need to lead future transportation. “20 years ago, a part of the seeds for the current transition process of the automotive industry was already sown,” he says. “Back then, automotive think tanks were dealing with substantial uncertainties in the context of long-term oil supply, globalisation and accelerating urbanisation. At that time, many economists predicted peak oil to happen in the upcoming years. This unchallenged forecast became mainstream and had a huge impact on research and development departments. Since then, we have experienced a multilayered surge of innovations in powertrain technologies such as electrification, downsizing and renewable energy sources.” 

The realisation of what the world of transportation was to become drove the automotive industry into a new era of urbanisation. This meant that inefficiencies such as rising emission figures and congestion in cities became top priority, which identified future mobility solutions as the answer to these dense urban environments. “The observed impacts of accelerating urbanisation caused another substantial transition process within the automotive industry. Not only emissions caused by the usage of fossil fuels, but space consumption of individual mobility also became an issue in dense urban areas,” Hansen adds. “On the other hand, mobility researchers observed indications of changing mobility behaviour towards more multimodal, pragmatic mobility patterns of urban dwellers.” These reasons alone were enough for the BMW Group to implement a new pillar within its strategy review in 2007, striving for the vision of becoming the leading provider of premium mobility services. 

From performance to enjoyment

BMW has always been known as a premium performance brand, with potent petrol and diesel powered vehicles that created an unparalleled driving experience. Now, the automaker is involved in electrification and mobility services, which may seem like a big shift. However, Hansen tells me that no matter the vehicle, BMW’s brand promise still centralises around sheer driving pleasure and joy. “We maintain these promises throughout everything we offer, no matter if you drive a BMW M, an i3 or if you choose an on-demand mobility service like DriveNow without even owning a car.” Modern EVs have changed the perception of being a bit boring and less-abled than their petrol and diesel counterparts. They now boast further range than ever, instant power and, overall, a completely new experience. “Electrification does not only contribute to reduction of fossil fuels and CO2-emissions, but also matches perfectly with a joyful driving experience, when it is engineered and implemented accordingly,” adds Hansen. This was first depicted with BMW’s revolutionary i8 sports car, which showed the world that electrification - in this case, hybrid - is the future.  

Much like other automakers, BMW has been used to a linear buy-to-sell business model up until recent years. It has now completely changed its mindset and processes with the introduction of its mobility service DriveNow, able to deal with every facet of transport. With this, BMW can look to capitalise on the mobility sector, as well as serve its customers who also want their own vehicle. “We currently experience a differentiation of mindsets and structures within the BMW Group that reflects the complexity of global mobility markets,” Hansen explains. “We maintain that, to further improve the processes, we need to develop reliable mobility hardware like BMW cars or motorcycles. On the other hand we build up additional structures and processes to develop mobility services and holistic urban mobility ecosystems.” 

In the world of mobility services, it is essential to release new offers and ideas very quickly, often introduced as so-called minimal viable products, in which developers offer sufficient features to satisfy early adopters before releasing the complete set after customer feedback. “Our early adopter customers expect very close and fast feedback processes to further develop our services,” adds Hansen. “On the other hand, a car or motorcycle has to be as bulletproof as can be when it is released for the very first time.” 

Realising individual and shared mobility

To Hansen, the highest potential for making urban mobility more efficient lies within individual transportation modes. “While public transport often already shows high utilisation and occupancy rates in most densely populated cities, especially rail-bound modes during peak hours, the use of private motorised transportation modes is mostly characterised by cars with low occupancy rates and accordingly high specific space consumption.” Most of the time, many of these private cars are parked somewhere in the city, taking up a lot of space. The most obvious way of overcoming this is by utilising car sharing services, which can contribute to a more efficient use of public space. “Through car sharing we can substitute private cars and free up public space,” states Hansen. “To have a significant impact we not only need scaling and more use cases to come closer to the individual benefits of a private car, we also need a substantial adjustment of framework conditions in urban areas.” This means that city authorities must ensure support for both individual and shared mobility, but allow these mobility services to thrive, which will provide further incentives for car owners to switch over. “For these reasons, we are starting to cooperate with municipalities to define the right framework conditions for a more sustainable and demand-oriented local mobility supply,” continues Hansen.    

On top of this, car sharing and e-hailing services are causing more consumers to experience EVs, which have become a much cleaner, quieter and more comfortable alternative to before. In parallel to the adoption of mobility services, EVs will start to be embraced a lot more, adding to the overall vision of cleaner and more efficient transport in urban ecosystems. However, it needs to have the appropriate infrastructure around it to grow sufficiently. “Indeed, car sharing with electric cars is currently a major driver of EV adoption in cities,” Hansen agrees. “We have a share of BMW i3s in each of our 13 DriveNow cities. The number of i3s we use is according to the existing public charging infrastructure. We offer to increase the electrified share when the city commits to scaling public charging infrastructure.” In Hamburg, BMW has signed a Memorandum of Understanding so that it can contribute to solving the typical chicken and egg problem that cities are facing today, such as improving charging infrastructure. Through this, Hansen and his team can increase the profile of EVs. More importantly, it is essential for automakers to collaborate with cities to develop mobility services and support cleaner transit. “We are looking for more agreements such as we concluded with Hamburg so that we can contribute to the transition of public urban space towards more livability,” says Hansen. “Together with municipalities, local stakeholders and residents we change the framework of local mobility supply to better match local mobility needs.” 

Breaking the mould

To predict the future of mobility, you need to look at the frameworks and processes in place today that will pave the way for prime transportation. Cities will continue to grow and to become even more dense and complicated, so it is important to work out how mobility will fit into this cycle and simplify the environment for those who live in it. Hansen believes that the best way to cope with this stress is to focus on a holistic solution to urban mobility. “Cities will continue to grow, even in already densely populated urban areas. Hence the issue of scarcity of public space will be aggravated. I expect and hope for an increasing integration of municipal development and transportation planning to cope with this challenge. We are ready to contribute to a more sustainable urban mobility.” The most obvious resolutions to this problem are electrification and ridesharing services, which will reduce stress on the road and relieve emissions. “Some promising solutions are already at hand like sharing, electrification and connected driving. If we manage to scale this evolving ecosystem together with cities, we will head towards more sustainable urban mobility with less emissions, less space consumption and more livable inner urban areas,” continues Hansen.  

This is starting to happen in cities such as Amsterdam, although many global cities are trailing behind in this respect. No matter what a company like BMW does, it is down to the cities and their respective authorities at the end of the day. Whether it is the understanding or the lack of preparation in the past, these cities need to prioritise urban mobility. Hansen explains that these authorities need to work with automakers and mobility service providers to ensure the growth and development of electrification and future transportation. “In cities with good framework conditions for electrified cars, we observe significant shares within new car registrations like in Oslo or Amsterdam. I do not see any reason why this should not be applicable to other cities, except for a lack of political willingness. We currently try to foster the transition process by offering our car sharing service DriveNow to more cities.” Once this mutual respect has been achieved, cities can start to work towards the ultimate goal of efficient, clean and safe transport within their ecosystems.  

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