May 21, 2020 - From the May, 2020 issue

LAEDC E4 Mobility Future of Electric Transportation Forum

On May 6, 2020, the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation’s e4 Mobility Alliance hosted their virtual Future Forum: Future of Electric Transportation webinar. Moderated by LAEDC Sr. Director of Industry Development Judy Kruger, TPR excerpts presentations by panelists Alejandro Agag (Founder & Chairman, Formula E), Megan Prichard (GM & Launch Manager, Uber Air), and Giordano Sordoni (COO & Co-Founder, XOS Trucks) who share their expert insight into cutting-edge innovations in electric mobility solutions — Formula E electric motorsports, eVTOL aerial mobility, and XOS electric short-haul delivery vehicles. Watch the full panel discussion online, here.


"We live in a 3D world and we work in a 3D world, but our transportation grid is entirely 2D; it’s completely flat. We need to start thinking about how to use that three-dimensional space...to create a transportation grid that’s actually serving the cities that we’ve built as they’ve arisen today."—Megan Prichard, Uber Air

Alejandro Agag: Almost nine years ago, when we had the idea to create an electric car race, the world was completely different from now. The world was not so worried about climate change and wasn’t really into electric cars. Tesla was there of course, but the world was different; the industry was completely different. It was very difficult, but after these years—to the surprise of many, including myself—we’ve grown to create the Formula E and Extreme E Championship.

When we created Formula E, the objective was first to change the perspective about electric cars. The second objective was to make electric cars more suited for general adoption. Porsche and Mercedes are now going to start racing, but also Jaguar, Nissan, BMW, Audi, and Mahindra are using the Championship as a laboratory to improve their technology for their own electric cars that they sell to the public. Sports are an incredible way to raise awareness about climate change. That’s the reason that made me go one step further and create Extreme E, which I think is the most audacious type of motorsport ever.

The first question is why we do it. The answer is very short: to promote electric cars. The objective we have is that one day electric cars are the only cars. The second thing is that we need to improve the technology for electric cars, so motorsport acts as a laboratory where the big car manufacturers can compete and improve technology. Then, that technology trickles down to the road cars they sell to their customers.

We do that in two very different ways. First, we take the cars to city centers and do street races to show that electric cars are the solution for mobility in cities now. By the way, it’s interesting the connection between every kind of mobility in the electric space. Because at the end of the day, whatever we manage to improve on battery technology can be used then by any other means of transportation. In the end, we’re all depending on those batteries that are really the key but also the main obstacle to the adoption of electric cars.

The second way is through our Extreme E SUV electric championship. We immediately get the question, “Why are you going to take these electric SUVs to these remote places of the planets, which are perfectly fine like they are? Leave them in peace.” That’s not the case. I’ve been exploring the many different regions of the planet in the last year, and many places around the world are totally destroyed like the rainforest in the Amazon or the ice caps in the Arctic. There are areas in the Himalayas where there used to be glaciers and now the glaciers are gone. There are beaches in Africa that are completely full of plastic pollution. We want to take those cars there.

A car cannot actually break any rocks or sand, but the rocks and sand can break the car. We’re going to take the race there to highlight what’s going on in those places and to leave a legacy. And again, to showcase that electric cars are part of the solution. That is the whole philosophy behind our championship, and we use it to bring this message of electric cars.

Megan Prichard:  Right now, more than one half of the world’s seven billion people live in cities. By 2045, this number is expected to be six billion people. Six billion people living in cities, some of which were constructed hundreds of years ago, obviously creates a huge strain on the transportation infrastructure of these cities. As you know, it creates traffic gridlock and huge time delays to get anywhere.

While we’re on the tip of the iceberg of technology innovation in the transportation sector, I really think we’re about to have a moment with that compared to what we’ve seen in other areas of our lives. Uber wants to be at the forefront of that, making cities smarter, better, and more efficient.

Right now, we live in a 3D world and we work in a 3D world, but our transportation grid is entirely 2D; it’s completely flat. We need to start thinking about how to use that three-dimensional space—much like we have with skyscrapers in cities to create urban density—to create a transportation grid that’s actually serving the cities that we’ve built as they’ve arisen today.

This was the impetus for a 2016 white paper that really kicked everything off, the Uber Elevate white paper written by Jeff Holden, our then Chief Product Officer, and Mark Moore, a 32-year veteran of NASA who is a leading engineer in the urban aviation space. This [paper] really broke down the problem of, “What would you need to do to actually create this three-dimensional transportation network in cities?” Everything from what type of vehicle, product, or infrastructure you would need, and the vision was there.

Looking at Los Angeles, trying to get from LAX to downtown at 5:00 pm on any day of the week, you know it’s an hour and a half trip; it’s a terrible experience. But what if you could actually do that door to door—from your gate to your meeting in downtown—in half an hour, that was the vision and that’s really where we wanted to take it. The first path to this was, “Can we really do this with helicopters?” But the answer is—for a network at scale—no, you can’t just do it with helicopters. Helicopters are unfortunately loud, have a single point of failure (the main rotor), and are also very expensive to maintain.

The eVTOL was born. We realized we had to completely conceptualize a new type of vehicle that was green, quiet, and safe. eVTOL stands for Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing. This vehicle takes off vertically using multiple propellers that are each powered by a different electric battery. The propellers will transition, and then use fixed wings much like a small fixed-wing aircraft.

This also needs to be quiet. In addition to providing a decreased noise profile from the electric motor (i.e. your Tesla/Prius is much quieter than your standard car), we also have a lot of small rotors. Noise profile in a rotor is determined by the speed at which the rotor is spinning and also how big it is. When you have multiple smaller rotors, they’re spinning at a slower speed and you get a much quieter aircraft. We anticipate this to be about a quarter the noise profile of a current helicopter today. Imagine a Prius going 35 mph about 25 or 30 feet in front of you.

This configuration also allows us to improve the safety of this vehicle. Right now, if you have multiple rotors all over the vehicle and one of them goes out, the others are programmed to take over and you can land safely.

As I mentioned, these are all-electric. Ultimately, powering these vehicles using electricity is actually 3.5 times more efficient than a traditional turbine engine. It also lowers the energy cost, even when compared to a hybrid vehicle by about 30 percent, which is fantastic, because part of our vision here is to make this a very affordable product.

Additionally, we’re working a lot on energy storage. We actually have a division that’s looking at battery development and developing test practices for propagation rate and resistance testing. In addition to developing standards, ideas, and models around EV charging infrastructure, we have several partners that are working on that as well as in house.

When we look at the industry, we see it having four main pieces: Electric Aircraft, Connected Skyports, Multimodal Aerial Ridesharing, and Elevated Cloud Services/Airspace Management. At Uber, we partner on these first two—Electric Aircraft and Connected Skyports—and we’re really looking to build in house for Multimodal Aerial Rideshare and Airspace Management.

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We currently have eight vehicle partners who are all working off of our common reference model of an EVTOL aircraft—Bell, Boeing, EmbraerX, Jaunt Air Mobility, Joby Aviation, Karem Aircraft Inc, and Pipistrel—and many of them are quite far along in the process. Our most recent partners we announced were Hyundai and Joby. Lots of different OEMs here have different takes on this problem, we just ask that they be all electric and they meet certain mission profiles: being able to go about 150 mph, carry 4+ passengers, and have a range of 60-70 miles.

I often get the question, “Are these vehicles real, and how far along the process is this?” Jay Merkle is the FAA Director that is in charge of the division that will ultimately certify these new vehicles, and a few months ago he gave us a huge vote of confidence saying that he was very excited for what the urban air mobility industry is building. He also indicated that six of these OEM manufacturers are quite far along in the certification process with the FAA.

What do we do to start getting these off the ground? What does the product look like? We see it as a multimodal aerial ridesharing product, what does that mean? This means we’re not looking at individual aircraft that you can land in your front yard and park at a movie theatre; this is a pooled product. The idea here is that people will be using various different types of transportation—walking, e-bike, public transportation, and Uber—to meet at a skyport, where they’ll then be pooled together an eVTOL. The eVTOL will fly to their final destination’s skyport and another form of transportation will take them that last mile.

This means we’ll have to think about skyport infrastructure as well. In the beginning, they’ll probably use existing infrastructure such as heliports and parking structures that are underutilized today. In the future, we are working with many real estate partners—Hillwood, Related, MacQuarie, Oaktree, Signature—to develop skyports that could handle up to 1000 landings a day. This obviously means having very advanced charging infrastructure that’s able to charge a vehicle in a matter of a couple of minutes.

What do the economics of this look like? Right now, a helicopter mile is about $10 per seat, and we expect that at launch we will be at around $5 or $6, which is comparable to an Uber Black. We will use our pooling technology and the power of our platform to really increase utilization of that aircraft to drive down the price to something more similar to an UberX. Ultimately, when we get to autonomous scale manufacturing, we could get it even cheaper and get it closer to the cost per mile of individual car ownership.

Our first three launch cities are Los Angeles, Melbourne, and Dallas-Fort Worth. Bringing it all together, what you have is a multimodal ridesharing solution that utilizes a new type of aircraft known as an Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) Aircraft in a pooled and shared way to create a very fast, efficient, and clean transportation solution that combats urban congestion.

The COVID situation has not really changed the long-term planning or long-term mission.

For us, in the urban air mobility sector, as this isn’t an active business today, we still see our partners on track to deliver on our timelines we’ve announced—roughly by 2023—to start launching some of our cities. I think what we’ll see is really looking around use cases that could be interesting for civic and medical uses: courier services and medical goods.  

Giordano Sordoni: XOS is a Los Angeles-based and Long Angeles-headquartered electric mobility company. We help fleets become more efficient and more sustainable on the ground. We build electric last-mile delivery trucks for fleets like UPS and Loomis, who are already using our trucks to deliver packages in Los Angeles today.

The reason we started XOS a few years ago is because we were fleet operators who ourselves were dealing with the pains of keeping diesel trucks on the road. Diesel trucks in the fleet environment tend to be very expensive to maintain, the fuel cost is constantly fluctuating, and it makes it difficult to plan for your business. We’re also dealing with an intensifying regulatory landscape, not just in California and more progressive environments, but globally people are waking up to the air quality and climate impacts of diesel vehicles. So, we’re focused on the segment of the market which are medium and heavier trucks that are a major contributor to pollution in our cities.

Electric short-haul delivery vehicles are a place where we can deploy that technology and have a massive impact right away. We’re focused on what we view as the low hanging fruit of electrification in the transportation system, which are predictable routes, relatively short ranges of 200 miles or less, and vehicles that return to their home base at night so they have an easy opportunity to plug in and charge. UPS is a great example of that. They do less than 100 miles on average in their fleet, they always know exactly where they’re going, their routes are mapped out ahead of time, and they’re typically sitting at a depot for 8-12 hours overnight, which is a great opportunity to charge.

Fleets are making the switch both because fleet regulations is intensifying and they’re seeing the need to become greener and more efficient, but also to save money on their total cost of ownership. This is something we heard from both Uber and Ampaire, but it all comes down to the TCO (total cost of ownership) for fleets, they’re thinking about saving money on fuel, maintenance, and all the regulatory compliance costs that come along with diesel.

Judy Kruger: Where do you see the future of your particular innovative technology in the coming years?

Alejandro Agag: I think the technology is all connected. The battery technology that we use in racing is going to be used in the trucks, the eVTOLs, and the planes. At the end of the day, it’s storing energy. What’s going to be the key is how we can take to the extreme the performance of those batteries. One important thing is how fast we can charge them, and fast charging is going to be a huge part of the equation on how quickly electric cars are deployed. If you have to go the ‘electric fuel station’ or supercharger network and just have to wait 3 or 4 minutes to charge the car, it makes a huge difference than if you have to wait half an hour.

Those technologies are all coming, some of them from racing, some from much better cell technology like lithium ion; that is going to create a huge jump. I’m talking to a lot of car manufacturers at Formula E, like Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Nissan, etc., and I ask them, “Now, with COVID, are you going to slow down the electrification path, and go back to old technologies because they’re cheaper?” Luckily, the answer is the opposite. Everyone, because of the current crisis, is changing their mind and realizing we need to go towards a much more sustainable system of mobility, and these car manufacturers are going to accelerate electrification. I only see positives in the car situation.

  

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.