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Global Ideas

What will traffic look like in tomorrow’s cities?

New drive technologies, political decisions, consumer spending habits - many factors influence the automobile market. Researchers are using simulations to find out what’s going to be happening on the streets in 40 years.

Vehicles are stuck in a traffic jam during weekday rush hour in Beijing Monday, Jan. 10, 2011. (ddp images/AP Photo/Larry Downing, Pool)

Verkehr in Peking

Every morning, George Jetson drops his family off in town. But not by car – at least not a normal one. The year is 2062, and George flies a green aerocar. He lives in Orbit City, and once he’s navigated his way through skyscrapers to the kids‘ school, he heads off to the landing strip outside the building where he works. There, he folds up the aerocar into a briefcase and heads into the office.

Foto: A model of a flying car dating back to 1968

A model of a flying car dating back to 1968

The popular animated sitcom “The Jetsons” originally aired in the US 50 years ago. It might not be 2062 for another 50 years, but it seems unlikely we’ll all be flying aerocars soon. Butwhile the show’s writers might have been let their imaginations run away with them a little, they were right to predict major changes in the way we travel.

For the time being, most of the cars on our roads are powered by combustion engines, but there are now more alternatives on the market than ever before - from fuel cells and lithium batteries to hybrid motors. In its White Paper on traffic, the EU Commission proposes halving the number of conventional vehicles by 2030 and completely phasing them out by 2050. If this happens, which technology will serve as the best replacement? And what sort of infrastructure will be needed? Will we need plugs and recharging points, or will we still be using good old gas pumps?

Simulation-aided predictions

In order to try answering these questions, traffic researchers at Germany's national research center for aeronautics and space (DLR) in Stuttgart have developed a computer model. Vector 21 creates a vision of tomorrow’s traffic by assessing consumer buying patterns, the various driving concepts currently in circulation and potential political factors.

“The model’s strength is that it provides a detailed depiction of various technologies and their respective cost while involving the user,“ Stephan Schmid, who leads the DLR project, said.

What makes that possible is that the model is not static but dynamic. “For example, one can test what would happen if a particular technology is subsidized,“ Schmid explained. He and his colleagues have seen what would happen were electric cars, fuel cell cars and range extender vehicles (a range extender is an internal combustion engine in the front of an electric car that kicks in once the battery pack loses its initial charge) to be subsidized for five years upon their launch.

They established that alternative technologies would appear on our roads for as long as the subsidies were in place, but disappear as soon as they became too expensive.

In 2030, 75 percent of new cars would still be hybrid vehicles – i.e. cars with both a combustion engine and a battery that can store braking energy that helps power the engine and reduces CO2 emissions.

The need for long-term subsidies

A second simulation suggests a CO2 saving of 54 percent rather than the 29 percent target set by the EU.

In this version, the researchers factored in higher and longer-term subsidies for fuel cell cars. They calculated it would have a major impact - by 2030, consumers would stop buying new cars with hybrid motors.

Instead, fuel cell and battery powered cars would account for 25 percent each of the automobile market. Electric cars with range extender functions would make up the remaining 50 percent.

Foto: An electric gas station at the side of the road

Will we soon see electric gas stations on the roads?

But whether or not CO2 emissions are reduced depends not only on political decisions to support e-mobility on the one hand and on the other penalize breaches against CO2 reduction targets. Equally crucial is the sustainable implementation of such measures and the rate of technological development.

The DLR researchers‘ simulation model is not only useful in predicting developments on the German car market.

"Our calculations are for Germany but it is not developing in a vacuum but in a global context,“ explains Schmid. "Basically the local application depends on whether the automobile market is saturated- in China, for example, the market is still developing so it‘s impossible to predict how many cars there will be on the roads in 10 or 20 years. Moreover, political decisions could also put the brakes on growth there.”

A question of changing habits

Foto: A charging point for an electric car

Recharging electric cars - a distant vision for the future or soon reality?

"Basically we can expect 75 percent of cars in 2040 to still have combustion engines, if you include hybrid vehicles,“ Schmidt said. He does not expect electric cars to dominate the market, given their limited driving range. "Ultimately it’s a question of how easily we can change our habits and get used to plugging in our vehicles,“ he points out. The writers of The Jetsons never envisaged a plug-in car, but it’s more realistic a prospect than an aerocar.

Author: Caroline Ring /jp
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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