A road crossing in Japan

"Perception is crucial: consumers must feel safe in relying on autonomous vehicles", professor Giulio Salvadori says

Mobility  |  Interview  |  Transports

"Time to shift gears for connected and sustainable mobility"

From smart roads to autonomous driving, from MaaS services to the connected car: the digital transition of mobility offers numerous opportunities involving manufacturers, infrastructure, networks, administrations and users. But where do we really stand? We talk about this with Giulio Salvadori, director of Polimi's Connected Car & Mobility Observatory, which has just released research data

If we were to list the great global issues of our time, there would be little doubt. Climate change, energy needs, artificial intelligence. Simultaneously, no human activity affects them more than transport and logistics.

Mobility is undergoing epochal transformations, with enormous effects on the economy, the environment and our daily lives. For this to happen, however, it is necessary to accelerate. “Accelerate towards a connected and sustainable mobility” because “it is time to change gears”, as the title of the latest conference organised by the Connected Car and Mobility Observatory of Milan’s Polytechnic University urges.

From concrete applications of concepts such as Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) and V2X (Vehicle-to-everything) to autonomous driving in the context of innovative Smart Roads, via the commercial difficulties of the electric car and the threat of China to the European economic chain, we interviewed the Observatory's director, Giulio Salvadori, to find out where we stand.

What are the main issues addressed at the conference and their impact on the future of mobility?

“The research we presented at the conference covers three main topics: electrification, connectivity and autonomous driving. The data obtained is based on interviews with more than a thousand users, around 100 dealers and 200 car repairers. Regarding electrification, the focus is on the transition to electric and hybrid vehicles, exploring issues such as cost, battery range and charging infrastructure. Connectivity concerns the integration of digital technologies in vehicles. Finally, autonomous driving will be explored through the development of ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems).”

How is the connected car market evolving in Italy?

“Connectivity enables the development of new personalised services and business models, such as predictive maintenance and offers based on vehicle usage. There are 16 million connected cars in Italy today, representing 45% of the car fleet, with forecasts estimating 24.5 million connected cars by 2026. ADAS systems include technologies such as blind spot monitoring and lane keeping. These features will become mandatory on new vehicles from July 2024. They are crucial not only for improving road safety, reducing accidents by up to 20 per cent, but also for paving the way for autonomous driving.”

What are the main challenges we face in the context of the transition to e-mobility?

“In the first four months of 2024, only 6% of the cars registered in Italy are electric. Let's see if the situation will change with the incentives starting in June. The first limitation is the high cost of electric vehicles, perceived as prohibitive by 50% of consumers. Battery autonomy is another issue, with 30% of users concerned. Although some models offer ranges between 400 and 500 km, the actual duration may decrease with time and use. Twenty-two per cent of consumers also believe that the charging infrastructure is insufficient, although Italy has one charging point for every 8.9 electric vehicles, a positive ratio compared to the average in countries such as France and the UK, where there are certainly more vehicles. Recharging times, mentioned by 20% of the participants, are also an additional obstacle. Then there are the false myths. There are those who fear that the national electricity grid will not be able to support a large increase in electric vehicles, but a total increase of 4 per cent on the grid and 5 per cent on peak days is expected by 2030.”

With the arrival of Chinese manufacturers in the electric car market, what are the challenges and opportunities for the European industry?

“Chinese cars offer good performance at competitive prices. This will increase demand but puts pressure on European producers. But the problem, more than the individual manufacturer or vehicles, concerns the entire supply chain. China dominates battery production, with companies like CATL and BYD leading the way. And even if Europe were able to produce batteries internally, many of the necessary raw materials would still come from China. To remain competitive, Europe will, in my opinion, have to diversify its sources of supply and invest in alternative technologies, such as biofuels and, in the future, hydrogen. Then there is another issue, which concerns the data provided by connected cars. In the automotive sector, they represent a value, because they allow us to get to know our customers better and thus make product design and processes more efficient. The car will be more and more like a smartphone, which is why the market for vehicle software is appealing to so many. Manufacturers alone cannot manage them fully, so they team up with big technology players. Here, the Chinese are increasingly investing in this area, while Apple, for example, has discontinued its ten-year programme on autonomous driving.”

Can you tell us about the current state of smart road projects in Italy and how they can influence mobility?

“Globally, there are currently 258 smart road projects as of 2015, 19 of these are in Italy. In essence, they consist of installing sensors to monitor road conditions and communicate in real time with vehicles, making them ‘smart’. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of projects increased by 48 per cent, with 71 projects already running in 2023. Smart roads are essential for autonomous driving because they provide crucial data that allow vehicles to navigate safely and efficiently, and then to become increasingly ‘autonomous’.

So how do you see the evolution of autonomous driving, in particular that of robotaxis?

“Large-scale adoption will depend on public acceptance and regulatory development. Perception is crucial: consumers must feel safe in relying on autonomous vehicles. At the regulatory level, clear regulations must be developed to ensure the safety and reliability of these systems. In this context, robotaxis have enormous potential on the so-called ‘last mile’. They can connect passengers from public transport stations to their final destinations and significantly reduce the number of private vehicles on the roads, limiting traffic and pollution. Today, companies like Waymo, Baidu and Cruise are already testing their services in cities like San Francisco and Beijing.”

Federico Gennari Santori - Professional journalist specializing in technologies and economics of the digital world, he contributes to and also has contributed to Wired, Corriere della Sera, Fortune, Eastwest, Rivista Studio, Pagina99, Lettera43. He works on web marketing and content strategy, which subjects he held for teaching activities at la Sapienza - Università di Roma, Talent Garden and Digital Combat Academy.

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