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New Directions: Speeding Toward Urban Mobility Systems—Will The Industry Be Onboard?

Published: 4/23/2019 Author: Stephen Metzger Category: Market Insights

My company, Small Vehicle Resource, has just published its latest biennial report (ninth since 2000) which is entitled, “The Small, Task-Oriented Vehicle Industry:  At the Dawn of the Age of Lithium.”   In the report brochure, this (hopefully) challenging title—to all who have a stake in traditional golf cars and their PTV and utility vehicle derivatives—is followed by the assertion that:

“Lithium battery power is the foundation that underpins the entire vision of efficient, pollution-free personal and urban mobility.  Along with increasingly more efficient and less costly permanent magnet motors, the potential for transforming the mobility market is as great as what occurred at the turn of the 20thcentury with the introduction of the internal combustion engine.”

Lithium batteries are, of course, featured prominently is several golf car type vehicle models at this point, but the question remains, will the industry and the  companies we more or less identify with it, build on this technology to venture into the much broader personal and urban mobility market?

The pattern of complementary technologies

An array of complementary technologies are coming together to more clearly define the pathway from the golf cart to the UMV (urban mobility vehicle).

Permanent magnate motors, as noted above, are an important part of the mobility picture, but there are other components of urban and personal mobility that are complementary, and possibly, necessary for market growth—and are being developed at a rapid pace.  These include:

  • Development of small, versatile vehicles exceeding current model capabilities;
  • Self-driving features, including advances in both software and sensory system hardware;
  • 5G connectivity;
  • Mobility as a service (MaaS);
  • Urban transit policies, particularly in major global cities.

For purposes of this article, we will address the first of these aspects of urban mobility only, giving a sample of prototype models nearing production and tracing a possible evolution from PTV to a small urban EV.

From PTV to new vehicle concepts

Having recognized the non-golf market as an avenue for growth, the industry offers personal transportation vehicles (PTVs) and most importantly has identified a consumer channel for  product development, marketing, and sales.  Perhaps the best examples of these vehicles are the Onward from Club Car, the Sirius from STAR, and the 2Five from E-Z-GO Textron. So far, the companies have not implemented lithium battery power to these models, although that could change at any time.  (It should be noted, however, that E-Z-GO has lithium power in its Freedom RXV Elite series.) These are clearly “golf-centric” vehicles, not yet addressing the urban mobility market.

Probably the most exciting aspect of urban mobility developments is actually seeing a vehicle designed specifically for the urban environment.  It’s exciting because it brings together the host of systems from power source to AI in a single unit which promises clean, efficient delivery of persons or freight from point A to point B—that is to say, the urban mobility vehicle, or UMV.  Many of what are put forward as an “urban-centric” vehicle are in prototype stage now, but there are some up and running on a commercial basis.

Emergence of the UMV

At this point the UMV is defined as a consumer-owned, small, four-wheel vehicle that is battery-powered.  It could also have a commercial application, but basically designed to accommodate two-to-four persons driving to and from personally-chosen destinations.  This definition thereby is intended to exclude mobility as a service, which will be a topic for a future article.  Here are some examples of UMVs:

Uniti One --  A narrow-dimensioned vehicle with tandem seating, specifically designed for an urban environment.  The vehicle, built by a Swedish company, is in prototype stage but with a production site in the U.K. The company expects to have a production model in late 2019 and projects a 2020 market entry.  

Taken from the company website, these are the key target specifications:

  • 240km (150 mi.) range                                    
  • 130km/h (81 mph) top speed
  • Rear wheel drive
  • Dual motors output of 120kW
  • 26kWh battery pack, DC fast charging
  • 25min from 20-80% on standard charge
  • 900kg (1980 lbs.) gross weight

Baro One --  This is a deceptive golf car look-alike.  The Baro company put a golf car body on a platform that has only a faint resemblance to today’s golf car.  Essentially, the company provides a physical platform for an  array of software and hardware components that, together, delivers a self-driving vehicle.  As the company describes its objective, “To manufacture intelligent robots for the safe and secure transport of people and goods. We are aiming to bridge the gap between the standard cars and autonomous vehicles.”

Among the company’s component products is the RS-LiDAR-32, with main applications in autonomous driving, robotic environment perception, and UAV mapping. RS-LiDAR-32, is a solid-state hybrid LiDAR, integrating 32 laser/detector pairs mounted in a compact housing.  The autonomous car platform BARO CAV is a chassis with all technology needed to install stand-alone software to develop autonomous systems.  The platform can be used as base to manufacture low-speed autonomous vehicles. 

The following are the power supply/drive train specifications:

  • Motor: Permanent magnet axial flux DC
  • Output rating: 8.6kW
  • Batteries: Lithium-Ion pack with BMS
  • Transaxle: Oerlikon Graziano – Two step reduction

Note the vehicle is lithium powered and has a PM axial flux electric motor.  Axial flux motors are easily scalable, so the Baro One and its future derivatives could easily be more powerful and faster than the 24 mph for which the Baro One is currently designed.

Arcimoto FUV --  The Arcimoto, is a three-wheeled vehicle which is as much at home in a gated community, an urban environment and the roadways between the two.  It is classified for DMV purposes as a motorcycle and so, conveniently escapes NHSTA’s crash test requirements.  Other specs:

  • Top speed:  75 mph
  • Range:  100 miles
  • Battery:  Lithium ion
  • Charger:  120 V or 240 V
  • Charge time:   8 hrs. or 4 hrs.

Note the Arcimoto can be fully enclosed.  This vehicle clearly bridges the needs for suburban and urban environments—and the golf course, for that matter.

Smart for Two electric --   Finally, the UMV that’s in production and in dealers’ showrooms is the Mercedes-built Smart for Two electric.  The Smart for Two has been available for quite a while in ICE mode; the electric version is more recent, but among all UMVs, it is the most tested and the most reviewed—and most of the reviews, even from admitted skeptics, are quite positive.

The Smart for Two electric has all the accoutrements of the conventional vehicle, and can be upgraded with all sorts of gadgets.  The vehicle has also found a commercial market.  The New York City Police Department has recently replaced its meter-maid Cushmans with a whole fleet of Smart for Two electrics.

Daimler Benz has more in mind for the Smart for Two, namely the incorporation of self-driving technology and the ambition of, “Redefining the role of the automobile.”  As the website promo states, autonomous vehicles, “…will enhance safety and comfort, and allow travelers to use their time on the road however they wish.”

The challenge to golf car-type vehicle manufacturers

In a recent interview with the Augusta Chronicle, newly appointed Textron Specialty Vehicles CEO, Scott Ernest stated, “We’re taking that technology (speaking of lithium batteries) and really trying to push it back into other products…I’m not saying we’re going to get into Teslas or anything, but we are looking for some other opportunities.”  Would these “other opportunities” lie in the direction of the UMV?

The broader question is will the industry, particularly the Big Three from Augusta and Newnan become less “golf-centric” and more “urban-centric”?  It is clear they have the corporate resources and the core competencies to make this transition.  A global market is opening up that is many times larger than the markets in which these companies now participate.  Is there an Elon Musk in the house?

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