By LUCY YU
The startup world likes to celebrate exciting new technologies, such as AI and autonomous vehicles. But these are newcomers to the party compared to the electric motor, whose precursor technology celebrates its 200th birthday in 2021. Yet today, mobility overwhelmingly runs on fossil fuels. Electric-powered vehicles have been confined to the wealthy, the geeky and the green – not sufficiently affordable, accessible or practical for everyone else. In 2021, startups and industry disruptors will proliferate, heralding a new era of e-mobility for all of us.
The driver for this is, of course, climate change. Over 77 countries and more than 100 of the world’s biggest cities have committed to achieving net-zero emissions. Globally, transport is one of the largest sources of CO2 and other greenhouse-gas emissions. Governments have imposed future bans on the sale of petrol and diesel-powered vehicles, incentivising more electric-vehicle purchases and taxing the most polluting vehicles, but investors are also keen to accelerate the global shift from pump to plug.
In January 2020, London-based startup Arrival became an electric-first unicorn, attracting sizeable funding from established automakers. Its light commercial vehicles, including buses, vans and delivery robots, will be assembled by a planned network of 1,000 global “microfactories”. In July, Tesla overtook Toyota to become the world’s most valuable carmaker, and Chinese electric-vehicle startup Li Auto raised over $1bn from its IPO.
Though cars of the future may be captivating markets and the media, the electric revolution won’t be limited just to our roads. In June 2020, the Velis Electro, made by Slovenian aviation startup Pipistrel, became the world’s first type-certified electric aircraft. France has earmarked €1.5 billion in R&D funding for the development of electric and low-emission aircraft. And the UK government has announced the creation of a new Jet Zero Council, whose goal is making zero-emission flights a reality within a generation.
In 2021 we will also see a huge increase in the number of electric micro vehicles on our roads. Powered by green energy and with shared fleets, e-bikes and e-scooters will transform urban mobility. City leaders have declared their commitment to a “green recovery” from Covid-19, prioritising enhancements to infrastructure to welcome these modes as new, sustainable elements of local transport systems. While many modes have suffered loss of ridership during the pandemic, McKinsey is forecasting a rapid recovery for e-micromobility, returning to pre-crisis levels of travel. Infrastructure changes will only increase its penetration of the market.
Challenges remain. E-mobility networks require continuing investment in infrastructure and multi-agency co-operation. Greater use of clean energy is essential to guarantee system-wide emissions savings. Improved battery energy density will open up the auto market, but the prospect of long-haul battery electric flight remains some way away.
But while these issues and others, such as future models of ownership and use of vehicles, and how these will dovetail with technologies such as autonomy will take time to resolve, 2021 will be the year that e-mobility finally enters the mainstream.
Lucy Yu is director of public policy at the electric-scooter startup Voi