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On the road to e-mobility

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In the 20th century, when a designer talked about cars, you’d hear about their form, material and features. These days, a shift towards e-mobility and the adoption of personal electric vehicles (EV), requires consideration of the individual and contextual factors that facilitate EV adoption, whilst remaining conscious of reducing our carbon emissions. Replacing petrol with electric cars in a linear fashion, without considering wider human behaviours, services, supply chains and infrastructure, risks compromising the success of a transition towards a sustainable future of mobility. This article aims to explain the value that both individuals and organisations can deliver during this mobility transition, through both design and systems thinking.

The present paradigm

Cars are both a product and a symbol of a post-war, high-energy mode of life which offered new promise of freedom, independence and comfort, reshaping cultures, cities and the global economy. Today, EVs exist in a system built around the American dream; the wide-open road, a car as a symbol of beauty, unlimited resource and gas stations as an abundant source of energy.

Fast forward to 2023 and we are increasingly counting the cost of this exuberance through climate change, air pollution, urban congestion and more subtle effects on communities. Provisional data suggests that an increase in CO₂ emissions over recent years has been driven mainly by transport emissions, making a compelling case for more sustainable substitutes. EVs are both economical to run and aspirational, as combustion tech comes to be seen as old-fashioned and harmful. However, the proposition to the individual consumer does not provide a complete picture.

A new system in which EVs are dominant depends on many things; the right regulations, a resilient supply chain for raw materials, customer confidence and behaviour change. As researchers and designers working with a variety of clients in the automotive and energy sector, we have investigated car drivers’ daily issues, mobility routines and workarounds, discovering several factors affecting readiness for the adoption of personal electric vehicles:

  1. The green paradox
    Price and practicality come first when purchasing an EV, however sincere their environmental values. There’s a ‘green inequality’ risk, too, as those who can’t meet steep up-front costs are gradually shut out of e-mobility.

  2. From range to charge anxiety
    Drivers need charging points to be widely available to fit daily or occasional trips (destination charging). Confidence in the price, availability and reliability of charging has replaced concerns about range. Renault, for example, offers its French EV/HP clients a petrol car to swap out as required, to reduce this anxiety.

  3. Dealing with 10 million apps
    People face a confusing, complex EV ownership experience – many apps to deal with navigation, EV charging location providers, charge tracking and different public energy providers, making it complicated to manage an EV.

  4. Integration of home and car energy
    EV drivers on the leading edge often improve their home energy infrastructure, installing solar panels or night storage. They may want to integrate their EVs into the home energy ecosystem but are left to research how to do so on their own.

In summary, EV owners expect a seamless and consistent experience in the future. They want more integrated networks to manage charging and payments. They want to charge their EV everywhere, rapidly and reliably, in safe environments.

New widgets, same old system?

By phasing out combustion engines and simply reproducing a ‘high energy’ lifestyle through EVs, we risk missing bigger opportunities to tackle our impact on the environment. They use the same infrastructure, feeding roughly the same value chains and consumption patterns.

As EV production ramps up and initial government incentives help to drive adoption, we can expect to see huge growth in EV ownership across Europe in the next decade. Car makers such as Stellantis and BMW are investing in technology and commodity start-ups to secure the delivery of materials such as lithium and silicon, critical for battery manufacture. Meanwhile, the UK government believes it can bring the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles to an end by 2030.

The benefit of this shift however, rests on better lifetime emissions only relative to regular combustion engine cars – EVs remain ‘high energy’ goods in their own right. Deploying EVs into an otherwise unchanged UK system which still depends on combustion for grid energy, may have negative outcomes that outweigh the expected benefits. In the below system map, we highlight the barriers that could slow down this transition if not addressed. To reach the scale of change we need, we will have to avoid tackling these areas of tension in isolation from each other.

Opportunities for clients, designers and the climate

In our work with regulators, OEMs, EV charging companies and willing consumers, we uncovered three opportunities where design can accelerate the systems level change that will be required for this new future:

  1. The energy opportunity
    The strategic boost to renewable or nuclear electricity production and development of decentralised micro-grids or mobile energy storage will help to remove reliance on the central grid. For energy sector organisations or car manufacturers, a tangible opportunity relies on helping to facilitate home & car energy management for more experienced users. What role might their batteries play in wider energy storage challenges, for example? What might decentralised energy management services look like?

  2. The EV driver’s experience opportunity
    The improvement of services at forecourts, networks, and payment models will improve customer experience. Network and navigation providers could make it easier for drivers to get real-time information on the status of the charging network to reduce charge anxiety and optimise destination charging. Booking systems can also be improved by more intelligent detection of each charge point’s usage or state. user research can also be employed to understand the barriers to EV adoption, for a range of potential users – e.g. reluctant drivers, enthusiasts buying again, lease and HP (hire purchase) customers and shared EV fleet users testing ground for purchase.

  3. The wider climate and behaviour change opportunity
    The deeper restructuring of our demand for mobility to avoid a rebound effect: for example, making EVs for bigger distances means bigger batteries, more rare metals and other resources, increased air and water pollution at the production site, and a larger recycling burden for coming generations. As many lifestyles depend on cars, only a ‘whole system’ approach can make real change. Implications for urban planning, allocation of public services, architecture, bus and rail, systems of shared or community ownership, automated vehicles and new governance principles all come into scope. Privately-owned, personal transporters may yet go the way of the horse.

The case for systems thinking

A common glitch for humans is that we pay attention to individual or group interventions rather than systemic factors or circumstances. However, fragmented improvements detached from the influence of external factors, put us at risk of underestimating the levers which could help to affect a system in a positive way.

Innovation leaders, designers and researchers should thus develop a balanced way of thinking that considers both the individual and system in order make more accurate decisions, not only for clients’ business activities but also for society and the planet. Using tools and templates to visualise interactive maps (e.g. Kumu is a valid tool to play with), diversifying teams to stimulate contextual thinking and pooling collective knowledge from different parts of an organisation are all useful ways to catalyse understanding of, and strategic discussions about, a complex topic such as mobility.

E-mobility is a rapidly changing topic, yet crucial to building a sustainable future. By practicing system thinking and systems visualisation, we can help clients see their sphere of impact and discover their growth opportunities. Could they form new partnerships or alliances? Can they anticipate unintended consequences of an action on the other parts of the system? Join us in this transition by sharing your views, approaches, and experiences!