Researching tomorrow’s mobility

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With more aircraft flying to ever new destinations, rising numbers of cars on our roads and online platforms for car sharing and taxi services, we are more mobile than ever these days. This comes at quite a price, however: our cities are becoming increasingly congested, and more energy in Germany is consumed by transport than by industry or domestic households. Vehicle emissions are polluting the air and accelerating climate change. Nowadays, transport is about a lot more than simply getting from A to B, and consequently we face problems that urgently need to be resolved.

A shift towards sustainable mobility

Many researchers in Germany are exploring possible solutions that will enable a shift towards sustainable mobility. One of the pioneers in this field is Weert Canzler. He does not believe there is one magic formula that will solve all the problems, however. "There are several aspects that will play a crucial part in any mobility revolution", says Canzler, a political scientist and transport researcher at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. First and foremost, these include alternatives to the use of private cars, such as public transport, car sharing and bicycles. In Canzler’s view, the second step is to move away from combustion engines which produce emissions that harm our climate and our health, replacing them with zero-emission electric engines.

Not only technical but also social solutions are needed

Various groups of researchers in Germany have been hard at work for years to find alternative drive technologies that do not require fossil fuels. Established in 2011, the Helmholtz Institute Ulm (HIU) is researching new battery concepts, for example, while scientists at Forschungszentrum Jülich are further developing fuel cells. Their goal is to improve the electrochemical processes and materials used in fuel cells such that they generate electricity in the most efficient way possible, allowing vehicles to keep running for longer periods.

"The problem is no longer the technology, however", explains Weert Canzler. "What is more important is how we organise the shift to a more sustainable transport system. How can the mobility revolution be regulated by the state and organised at the municipal level?" The Innovation Centre for Mobility and Societal Change (InnoZ) in Berlin, where Canzler likewise conducts research, is therefore trialling technical possibilities that are already available today.

All in one: vehicle and energy store

One example is Olli, a minibus that runs autonomously using electricity generated from renewables. It shuttles staff and visitors around the 5.5 hectares of the campus in Berlin where InnoZ and other research institutions and companies are based. What is special about this driverless minibus that can carry twelve passengers is that it can be ordered via an app, and is also connected to the campus energy network. As part of this smart grid, Olli not only consumes electricity, but can also store it when for example strong winds mean that more electricity is being produced than currently needed. And Olli is proving very popular: more than half of the 2,300 passengers surveyed (only in German) during a nine-month trial said that they considered the use of autonomous shuttles in local public transport systems to be a good idea.

Looking at the bigger picture

While it is great that individual countries like Germany are coming up with a whole host of innovations, the mobility revolution is in fact a global challenge in the long term. This is why the "Shaping the future – Building the City of Tomorrow" campaign run by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is creating a network of scientists, city planners and architects, municipalities and businesses from all over the globe so that they can learn from one another. For example, experts in the Sino-German GIP2China network have jointly developed a system for monitoring traffic flows in Chinese cities.

Mobility revolution to save jobs

Besides climate change, sustainability and health, transport is an issue that is also relevant to employment and prosperity. More than 800,000 jobs depend on the automotive industry in Germany, for example, and a quarter of German industrial turnover is generated in this sector. That is why it is also important not only to explore new technologies such as electric mobility, but also to look at their potential for creating new jobs. Employment and prosperity thus provide another reason for Germany and its scientists from different disciplines and countries to come up with ideas for a global mobility revolution, and to actively help shape the entire process.


WZB Berlin Social Science Center

More than 200 scientists from disciplines such as sociology, law, economics and political science work together at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. The WZB conducts basic research into the developments and problems of modern societies. Focal areas include the dynamics of social inequalities, markets and choice, the dynamics of political systems, and migration and diversity.