Smart and networked up to the last mile

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Text: Oliver Schönfeld
Photos: iStock, BPW

The mobility of tomorrow is smart, networked, electrified and automated – and the implementation is already much further along than some would expect: This is how the findings of the 13th Mobility Science Forum at the University of Duisburg-Essen can be summarized.

“The transformation of mobility has accelerated greatly, especially in terms of customer benefits from new business models and enabling through data platforms and technologies,” explained Heike Proff, Head of the Mobility Science Forum and Professor at the Chair of General Business Administration and International Automotive Management at the University of Duisburg-Essen. NRW Transport Minister Hendrik Wüst is also convinced: “Mobility must become better, safer and cleaner. Digitization and networking offer opportunities for this that we could only dream of ten or 15 years ago.” How these opportunities can be turned into new mobility concepts was discussed by the participants of the 13th Mobility Science Forum in June 2021 over the course of a day of numerous presentations and sessions. Among other things, on-demand transport, intermodal mobility and new ideas for the last mile in logistics were highlighted – from e-scooters to cargo bikes and delivery robots.

»Mobility must become better, safer and cleaner.«

Hendrik Wüst, Transport Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia

Smart solutions for the last mile

Platform solutions and cooperation between different logistics service providers could make smart last mile logistics possible, explained Dr. Ani Melkonya from the Center for Logistics and Transport at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Another significant future trend in her view is “silent night logistics”: it will reduce noise and emissions during deliveries in inner cities. Dr.-Ing. Katharina Glock from the FZI Research Center for Information Technology shed light on how realistic fully autonomous logistics on the last mile is. She reported that there are currently 17 pilot projects worldwide for fully automated, robot-assisted delivery processes – some of which are being driven forward by major players such as Amazon or Alibaba. However, there still seems to be a long way to go before they are ready for practical use, especially the interface from autonomous transport to handover to humans has not been fully clarified, according to the expert. For the time being, emission-free alternatives such as cargo bikes or compact, non-autonomous electric vehicles will therefore find greater acceptance, according to Glock.

Hyperloops and their function in intermodal transports

Thomas Schüning, Professor of Materials Science, Joining Technology and Laser Materials Processing at the Emden/Leer University of Applied Sciences, spoke about completely different transport routes and distances with speeds beyond 600 kilometers per hour. He emphasized the importance of a European Hyperloop test track, such as the one being planned in Lathen in the Emsland region over 31.5 kilometers. According to Schüning, the high-speed hyperloops can play an important role in intermodal, networked transport: “They have the advantage of being able to cover long distances with freight using relatively little energy. At hubs, automated distribution can then take place all the way to the last mile.” Ten to 20 years of development are certainly still needed, Schüning admitted: “Then systems are conceivable that can make a significant contribution to sustainable transport in the sense of the EU’s Green Deal.”

More security and efficiency through strong data networks

Networking and digitalization in mobility and logistics are inconceivable without high-performance data networks. With a view to the mobile communications standard 5G, Michael Reinartz, Director Consumer Service & Innovation at Vodafone Germany, showed promising perspectives – from optimized parking space management via vehicle-to-vehicle communication to new safety functions. For example, high-speed data networks could enable better protection of pedestrians and cyclists on the road: “Communication networks have a bird’s eye view of narrow and poorly visible intersections,” Reinartz explained. The idea: in the future, vehicles will be able to warn each other on ultra-fast 5G networks, thereby preventing accidents when turning. The technology is already practical for such services, but the latency times of the 4G standard are not sufficient for many services. For collision warnings to arrive on time, for example, latency times well below 30 or 40 milliseconds are required, he said. “5G is the decisive step on the way to this goal,” said the expert in his keynote.
Networking and digitization will advance rapidly in the coming years, as all the participants at the conference are likely to agree. The 14th Science Forum on Mobility on 23 June 2022 will therefore deal with the “new normal” of mobility – after a digital event in 2021, it will hopefully again be a face-to-face event in the CityPalais Duisburg.
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