The future of vehicles is becoming well rehearsed: electrically powered, available on-demand via smart devices, and self-driving using artificial intelligence. Less appreciated is how this can encourage the transition to a circular economy through better asset utilisation and smarter systems. Yet the transformation of mobility needn’t stop there: these technological advances open up avenues for designing new types of vehicles, from autonomous mules and aircraft to mobile office pods. To understand how these innovations will affect the planning of transport systems and help make cities more circular, it is worth unpicking what roles the different  technologies are playing.

Making cars and roads work harder

On-demand access to shared cars as part of a circular economy mobility vision is already a reality. Information technology has allowed Uber to offer its app-driven ride-hailing service in hundreds of cities worldwide, attracting the attention – and often ire – of incumbent taxi providers and their regulators. BlaBlaCar connects, also through an app, drivers of cars with empty seats making inter-city trips and people without cars wanting to travel in the same direction. It is now worth more than $1 billion. In Stockholm, Audi is testing a ‘micro-sharing’ plan where a few friends or colleagues – even strangers – share ownership of a car, splitting monthly bills according to usage and arranging scheduling using an app and a keychain beacon. For the non car owner, such services reduce the cost of mobility by offering a lower cost alternative to car ownership (or inter-city train travel). For the car owner they offer an extra income stream. Together they serve to increase usage of the average car, “the world’s most underutilized asset” according to Morgan Stanley, which in Europe is parked 92% of the time.

Image: jenlund70 / CC BY-NC-ND
Image: jenlund70 / CC BY-NC-ND

Such intensification of use has design implications. Making vehicles that can be disassembled and remanufactured is even more attractive when they are long lasting, high usage, and often leased rather than owned. The propulsion most suited to such high mileage is electric vehicles with battery swapping during off-peak hours. Electrification has the significant added benefit of cutting tailpipe emissions of harmful chemicals such as particulates, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that contribute to respiratory and other health conditions. Every year 53,000 Americans die – on average 10 years prematurely – due to the effects of vehicle pollution. Generating the necessary electricity to power these vehicles from renewable sources such as solar or wind cuts greenhouse gas emissions. Together, such a vision of a new generation vehicle fleet adheres to the three principles of a circular economy: restoring natural capital by managing stocks and flows of resources; circulating products, components and materials at their highest utility at all times; and revealing and designing out negative externalities.

Tesla's autopilot functionality
Tesla’s autopilot functionality

However, on-demand access enabled by IT is only half the story of the technical revolution overtaking vehicles. Tesla now makes vehicles that combine autonomous steering, braking and lane guidance. By 2020, Nissan expects to sell vehicles with these features plus autonomous throttle and gear shifting and unoccupied self-parking. By the same year Volvo has committed to combining sensing and automatic control technologies to produce cars in which, unless they are setting out to do so, no occupant will die or be seriously injured in an accident. Such advances in artificial intelligence impact not only cars, but also roads. Vehicles driving much closer together in ‘platoons’ by using car-to-car communication, and optimising their routes by using car-to-infrastructure communication, increases the efficiency of road use. So, while vehicle sharing technology increases the circularity of mobility by increasing vehicle utilisation, self-driving technology can increase road utilisation and thereby reduce congestion (assuming any rebound effect that increases distances travelled is modest).

Autonomous control technology also opens up the possibility of designing out further externalities – it has the potential to save lives. Cars do not just kill people by producing emissions harmful to their health, many of their occupants die in road traffic accidents: since 2001 more than 400,000 people perished on U.S. roads. Volvo says most accidents are caused by the four Ds: distraction, drowsiness, drunkenness and driver error, drawbacks from which self-driving cars would not suffer (nor would they drive more recklessly in cars fitted with enhanced safety features as humans have been shown to do). Design implications extend further. Once a car no longer has to be built around a driver, its form can escape today’s four-door, driver-at-the-front-holding-the-steering-wheel paradigm, and can incorporate features such as entertainment systems possible only in a car not being driven by its occupant.

Together, these two streams of technology – sharing and self-driving – allow cars to transport us towards a more circular mobility system. They not only increase the utilisation of vehicles and roads, but also allow for greater flows of mobility services and materials. Most significantly, they encourage us to change our mental model of what mobility could look like, altering the way we interact with vehicles and expanding our conception of what a vehicle could be.

Mules, drones and mobile offices

Innovation in new vehicle types has already begun. Google has registered a patent that suggests it is looking into developing self-driving delivery trucks, fitted with a series of lockers to be opened with a PIN or near-field communication (NFC) reader sent to the person receiving the delivery. IDEO’s 21st-Century mule is a similar concept that also includes biometric scans of the receiving customer. After the package drop, such a mule would continue to its next delivery point or return to the depot to restock, prioritising delivery of packages during off-peak hours to reduce traffic congestion (though presumably requiring the nocturnal fingerprinting or iris scanning of package recipients). Groups of such mules could use route-optimisation and fleet-integration software to ply intelligent routes when the roads are quietest. While the system would not do away with warehousing entirely, it would further extend the benefits of just-in-time delivery.

To escape traffic entirely when delivering parcels – at least until others start doing the same – one must take to the air. Amazon is already advertising its concept of airborne drones delivering orders at high speed without having to negotiate any (road) traffic. The company has said that whenever the US Federal Aviation Administration incorporates commercial drones into national airspace regulations it will be ready to set up its service. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has also been working on an airborne drone delivery program – Project Wing – that it hopes to launch in 2017, and Wal-Mart has applied for permission to test drones for home delivery, curb-side pickup and for checking warehouse inventories. It is not just Silicon Valley entrepreneurs exploring the potential. Finland’s national postal company, Posti, has successfully tested a robotic helicopter to deliver parcels containing online purchases weighing under 3kg between the capital Helsinki on the mainland and the island of Suomenlinna, 4km away.

A robo-mule on a pilot project Image: Starship Technologies
A robo-mule on a pilot project Image: Starship Technologies

These new vehicles offer circular economy business opportunities. Operators of self-driving mules would avoid the cost of transporting drivers and the features that attend to their comfort, reducing delivery costs for products bought online and expanding the range of lower price goods that are economic to deliver. At the other end of the goods delivery market, airborne drones could offer a premium hyper-express service. Both open up new market segments in online retail, further lowering the sector’s need for physical shops and other outlets, thereby increasing its dematerialisation and resource efficiency. Of course, the fuel efficiency savings of not transporting drivers are eclipsed by not having to pay their wages: 75% of the cost of trucking a full payload across the U.S. is labour. However, in the U.S. alone there are 1.6 million truck drivers, representing 1% of the workforce. Clearly, while automation presents a large efficiency opportunity, it also poses a profound challenge to ensure its introduction is achieved in a socially just way.

Moving goods and people around, albeit in novel ways, is a standard concept. More innovative is to move an office to an employee. IDEO’s concept of inverse commutes allows working spaces to come closer to where people live instead of people commuting to the inner-city. A self-driving pod could be sent to a quiet area close to a residential area. There it would join other pods, one for each team, with extra, configurable, pods ordered from the hub to cater for larger gatherings. The pods would be climate controlled, with a high-bandwidth connection, sliding smart-glass panels, and furniture that has interactive work surfaces and is secured by industrial magnets when the pod is moving. Food delivery vans, laundry services, mobile dentistry, and other services could come to such a ‘Work On Wheels’ or WOW site to cater for those working there. Commutes could reduce dramatically by allowing the flexible WOW sites, which could provide a different view from the window every week, to be sited closer to where people live. Parking lots and other real estate otherwise empty during the day could be utilised, opening up areas previously closed to development due to their lack of transport connection.

Image: IDEO
Image: IDEO

Such vehicle concepts have wide-ranging implications. They enable planners to rethink cities by helping to break down the traditional distinctions between business, residential, retail and leisure zones. They open up the possibility not only to create a more circular mobility system, but to make cities themselves more circular, increasingly designed as decentralised ecosystems where physical assets are smart, flexible and connected. Their potential to increase resource productivity and improve the quality of life of inhabitants merits careful exploration.

Our collective understanding of the circular economy has not yet been entirely explored and we can draw a parallel with ‘a 16th century map’ of the world, more than an exact account of the complete economic benefits. Whilst this map has certainly become more detailed in recent years, territories still need to be charted anew to foresee what a circular economy would look like and how it would function. In this Future Of… series, we aim to highlight the opportunities, challenges and impacts that widespread adoption of the circular economy framework could bring to different sectors, using insights from current trends, policy signals and technological advances.

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The Author

Ian Banks

Ian Banks

Ian is an editor at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, where he was part of the teams that prepared 'The New Plastics Economy’ and ‘Delivering the Circular Economy - A Toolkit for Policymakers’ reports. Previously he worked at a consultancy largely on climate and energy economics.