Independent market research and business intelligence provider IDTechEx has presented insights on mobility trends to clients in over 80 countries for more than 20 years. In this time, electric vehicle start-ups have moved from obscurity into some of the world’s most valuable companies. Luke Gear, a principal analyst at IDTechEx, explores six key future mobility trends, drawing from the company’s research.

Electrification is global and happening in all sectors. A decade ago, IDTechEx’s 2011 report “bullishly” predicted 1,5 million battery-electric car sales by 2021. This turned out to be a vast underestimate. In 2021, electric vehicle sales more than doubled to 6,6-million. The successes and sheer volumes of electric vehicles in the automotive market are driving down costs, in turn creating opportunities for many other mobility sectors.

On the waterways, electric ferry deliveries have boomed to approximately 80 MWh yearly as battery pack costs fell below US$600 per kWh, energy densities improved, and thermal management innovations vastly increased safety.

Similar drivers are pushing forward investment into electric air-taxis, with American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, United Airlines, and UPS having all placed pre-orders. Electrification is not so much unstoppable as inevitable and will continue to play a dominant role in the decarbonisation of mobility.

Autonomous vehicles will transform the automotive industry – again. Just as the industry grapples with massive changes in powertrain technology, IDTechEx expects commercial autonomous cars, or robotaxis, to be market-ready and match or exceed human safety by as early as 2024. Projecting forward current safety data, the implication is that autonomous cars will be capable of fulfilling the world’s mobility needs without a single collision before 2050.

As a result, autonomy will have a profound impact on the travel habits of consumers: having removed the highest cost of current popular ride-hailing services – the driver – robotaxis will enable affordable mobility services, driving the market to grow rapidly at 30% compound annual growth rate. Private car ownership will become a relic of the past for new generations and, since one autonomous car can serve multiple people in a day, fundamental demand for new cars is expected to fall even as global passenger-miles increase.

Lithium-based batteries will continue to be the great enabler for electrification. Without the popularisation of the Li-ion battery by Sony in the 1990s, electric vehicles would still be the horse that lost the race to the internal combustion engine. Battery technologies are evolving rapidly and there are many important market developments taking place.

As battery costs level out, a key focus for the industry will be to increase the sustainability of raw materials and supply chains whilst ensuring there is still enough supply to meet the huge demand. Later in the decade, a move beyond Li-ion towards the holy grail of solid-state and lithium-metal batteries will be critical for a step-change in safety and performance, and to open the door to new applications such as electric long-haul aircrafts.

Advanced motors and power electronics are key to lowering cost and increasing range. Improving the efficiency of power electronics and electric traction motors is key to either increasing range or downsizing batteries, which will reduce costs. An important trend here is the market convergence on permanent magnet motors.

Due to their high performance and superior efficiency, permanent magnet motors are the default technology for traction applications and their market has naturally grown with the runaway success of electric cars. However, magnets make end-of-life recycling difficult and raise concerns regarding price volatility and sustainable mining practices, with most material mined and sourced in China.

Long-term reliance solely on permanent magnet machines is looking increasingly unsustainable, with warning signs starting to show in high prices for neodymium

– the primary ingredient of rare earth magnets. Magnet-free and even copper-free motor solutions are gaining interest and momentum. While motors are not as materially diverse as batteries, in a similar way we expect automakers to diversify their strategies to adopt several technologies in order to balance performance, sustainability, market demand, and cost.

Powertrain safety via thermal management will be critical as the market matures. As original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) scramble towards electrification, battery safety is sometimes missed or not fully realised. This was publicly highlighted in a big way during 2020-2021 by the safety-related recall of GM’s Bolt, at a cost of approximately US$1,9 billion; this wasn’t the only automaker that had EV recalls relating to potential fire risks.

The way that batteries are being designed is evolving at both a cell and pack level. Battery chemistry is adopting higher nickel cathodes, lithium iron phosphate batteries are making a resurgence, and more attention is being paid to solid-state batteries. These changes are profoundly impacting the requirements around thermal management and materials in EV batteries.

Outside the cell, we see OEMs transitioning towards cell-to-pack designs, with announcements from the likes of Tesla and Volkswagen. This fundamental change in battery pack structure leads to changes in how thermal strategies and materials are incorporated, including thermal interface materials, coolant channels, and fire protection.

Whilst much attention is focused on the battery, electric motors and power electronics are literally the driving force behind EVs and present their own challenges when it comes to thermal management and materials. Permanent magnet motors require a specific operating temperature to avoid damage, while allowing the copper coils in a motor to get too hot can reduce efficiency or damage the winding insulation.

Hydrogen fuel cells are the last piece of the puzzle to decarbonise land transport. While the race is being led by battery electric vehicles, battery solutions cannot always deliver for use cases requiring significant range, high loads, brief downtime, and/or high operational flexibility. Examples of this include long-haul trucking and high-milage city bus operations.

In addition, batteries will be prioritised into light-duty sectors, where they are most profitable, so long as demand is high and outstrips supply. This is creating opportunities for fuel cells; giants like Toyota, Hyundai, GM, and Daimler are continuing to pump millions into improving fuel cell system technology and wider hydrogen infrastructure. Fuel cells have many weaknesses compared with batteries but to help meet climate goals they should not be discarded in heavy-duty segments.

Although most traditional automakers have committed to an electric future and flying electric taxis have started to emerge from the realms of science fiction, there is still a long way to go as the industry strives to close the performance gap with internal combustion engines, increase safety, lower costs, and overcome regulatory barriers.

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