Stack and tow: portable electric vehicles good for environment and traffic flow
Lightweight electric vehicles capable of being stacked together are to be trialled in three cities by a ground-breaking EU-funded project. The objective is to distribute car-sharing vehicles more effectively at low operating costs and to promote intermodal public transport. This would cut congestion and reduce environmental impact.
One-way car sharing in cities continues to grow in popularity, enabling people to pick up a car and drop it off at another location. This can mean however that vehicles are left in inconvenient places, far from where demand is highest. The three-year EU-funded ESPRIT project was launched in May 2015 to develop a custom-built fleet of electric vehicles that can be towed for efficient redistribution. The concept will be trialled in three different locations: Glasgow, Lyon, and L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, south of Barcelona.
Functional solution to efficient car sharing
“A key functionality of these electric cars will be their ability to stack,” explains ESPRIT project coordinator Valery Cervantes from the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, France. “Rear wheels will interlock with front wheels much like a supermarket trolley. This means that a line of, say, seven cars can be driven like a road train by a single operator at the front, who can then redistribute them to points where they are needed.”
This will address a current issue for car sharing services, where some stations can become saturated while others lie empty. Shared urban bike services face the same problem, and often have to be redistributed by truck early in the morning. “Our thinking was: what if we could redistribute shared vehicles in an efficient and cost-effective way?”
A second key functionality is that the cars can be connected electrically as well as mechanically, which means that only one charging station will be needed.
Road testing in three cities
Two distinct user scenarios will be trialled in Glasgow, Lyon, and L’Hospitalet de Llobregat (just south of Barcelona): a one-way car-sharing system within the city centre; and an efficient means of connecting commuters with existing public transport infrastructure – such as the rail network – in suburban areas.
“In each case we aim to address a specific mobility problem,” says Cervantes. “L’Hospitalet is one of the most population-dense cities in Spain, so here we will be looking to improve classic urban city centre car sharing. In Lyon we will be focusing on a suburb 10km from the city centre connected by a high capacity tramway, while the situation in Glasgow will be somewhere in between.”
The project hopes to find ways of prioritising the redistribution of electric vehicles in a way that complements existing modes of public transport. The suburb in Lyon for example has a low population density served by a high-capacity tramway line. “We will address this by feeding high-capacity transport lines with first and last kilometre transport with our fleet of electric vehicles,” explains Cervantes. “We will then assess whether this leads to an increase in public transport uptake, takes cars off the roads and reduces congestion. We certainly want to show that our concept is market relevant.”
The first consolidated results from preliminary studies are expected by mid-2016, while a fully developed electric vehicle fleet is expected within two years. Six months later, the project plans to initiate demonstrations in the three target cities.
“We believe that our concept is a pragmatic one,” says Cervantes. “We are not yet at the point where we have fully autonomous driverless cars for use in urban areas, but we are heading that way. And for complex smart cities targeting integrated transport solutions, we think that our solution will be a positive step forward.”