COMMENT: Bosch takes societal bull by horns

By Simon Warburton | 5 June 2015

Maybe 6bn of us will live in cities - how do suppliers and society make order out of chaos?

Maybe 6bn of us will live in cities - how do suppliers and society make order out of chaos?

For all the chatter surrounding the brave new world of autonomous driving, there is one supplier at least which is broadening the debate beyond the physics and the chemistry.

There's no doubting the German component manufacturer's expertise when it comes to the boffins and their wizardry, but the company is also taking a philosophical view of just where its myriad shiny new parts fit into society.

The thunder is roaring around the climate change throne - is it of urgent pressing concern or exaggerated for political convenience? - but there is one inescapable truth and that is the planet is becoming more crowded.

The world's population is expanding at an accelerating rate with all the concomitant pressures on resources, not the least of which are food, energy and water, but there's a strange phenomenon taking place, to which suppliers are increasingly turning their attention.

We're preferring to live in urban environments.

Bosch estimates between 5bn and 6bn of us will at some point in the future - maybe not even that far away - choose to live in densely-packed cities a world away from the country idyll perhaps imagined by former generations.

People are increasingly choosing to live in megacities - often through economic necessity - where commuters have to be herded on to metro systems and where the sheer weight of numbers makes competing for every inch of space a daily battle.

And that is presenting its own unique set of challenges - particularly in the future - which will witness urban immigration on a scale not seen the English industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century and which will clearly dwarf into almost insignificance that one phenomenon which gave rise to its own set of unique social challenges with huge numbers of people competing - perhaps for the first time on such a scale - for scarce resources.

The German supplier thinks very hard about this issue and recently took the decision to change the name of one of the key planks of its business from Automotive Technology to Mobility Solutions and it's easy to see why, having listened to its chairman, Rolf Bulander, outline just why the supplier is adopting such a holistic approach to component manufacturing.

Bosch - along with just about all of its competitors - is looking increasingly
at the big picture of how society is going order itself given the vast increase in population forecast for the future and the ever-greater infrastructure demands placed on how how people move around.

This is no pie-in-the-sky fancy thinking either. Established megacities such as Paris and London are rapidly seeing gridlock become a reality and while the UK capital has its congestion charge and Paris temporarily introduced odd and even number plate rules to try and halt an outbreak of smog last year - ever-more urgent solutions are needed to solve the problem.

I used to live in London and Paris and ditched my car in the former, while opting for public transport in the latter. For me it just wasn't worth stationing a vehicle in the narrow, zoned parking streets of London to occasionally use for venturing outside the suburbs, while Paris' cheapish and very good Metro made driving an expensive option, although that doesn't stop the city having what seem like vast motorways carving their way through often historic backdrops.

The emerging market behemoth cities are also starting to make an infamous name name for themselves as bywords for congestion. The megalopoli of Beijing and Shanghai apart, Indian cities such as Mumbai with its traffic crawling at 5kph, that's 5kph, are starting to present real headaches.

To that end, Bosch is rethinking the very nature of personal mobility, towards a multimodal concept which includes bikes, buses and trains. You might think that a bid odd for an automotive supplier, but it shows the lateral thinking most component producers are engaging in now as they spy new business opportunities in the fresh urban challenges.

Bulander cites China in wanting to build 170 new local public transportation systems such as light rail and Metro systems by 2030, so how can the remaining cars fit into that new mobility landscape?

Part of Bosch's mantra of "Beyond the Hood" is electrified, automated and connected; here the German supplier is clearly in its element, looking to see battery costs halved by 2020 and eeking out further fuel efficiencies in the order of 10% for diesel engines and a maximum of 20% for gasoline.

Powertrain hybridisation is a further area where Bosch is present, with the company completing 30 production orders for electrified driving, ten of them for premium plug-in vehicles, while it is also working on an entry-level hybrid with large-scale volume production orders.

"Bosch has the experience to turn an alternative powertrain into a success story; it's what we did with diesel and it's what we want to achieve with electric powertrain too," says Bulander.

Equally, automated driving is coming, with Bosch and its competitors laying the groundwork by dramatically expanding the market for driver assistance systems (DAS).

I had some first hand experience of that in Germany recently being in a taxi driving at what seemed like an unseemly hasty 150kmh average speed and several times the powerful German car's automatic braking system - thankfully - kicked in as drivers moved in and out of lanes at equally dramatic speed.

Bosch maintains its DAS systems sector is growing by a third each year, sales of radar and video senors will once again double in 2015, as last year, while it is providing new functions such as remote parking, traffic jam avoidance, evasive action and turning against oncoming traffic.

Partly this will be achieved through connected driving capability which has already moved beyond the pilot-project stage, but which can also be used to collect and transmit ECU data and driving profiles to trigger maintenance appointments or offer fuel saving advice.

But in the cheek-by-jowl cities of the future, maybe personal mobility, if it has to be a car, will effectively take the form of car sharing, or power-by-the-hour rental options, which can include many transport forms.

Bulander notes Stuttgart has a pilot project for instance, offering a single chip card, which can be used to access car and bike sharing services, trains and buses: "But it also serves as an entry pass for swimming pools or libraries - and we developed the software solution for it. It's a sneak peak at the transportation services of tomorrow," he says.

And as those transportation services themselves come under increasing pressure from population, they also need to be looked at in the round. In Oxford Street in London for example it's almost always quicker to walk, such is the plethora, maybe too many, of iconic red buses clogging up the capital's narrow streets.

Maybe entirely new cities will be planned in emerging markets where automated vehicles serenely process without accidents and are kept firmly apart from self-propelled mobility such as bikes, but in reality, it is existing urban areas which will expand and society, a word Bosch frequently employs, will have to rethink how its citizens move around.

Bulander again: "In big cities we have to rethink personal mobility. We know we are a systems supplier and that is more than selling just brakes and engine systems. We deliver solutions to connect the car, other modes [of] transport and infrastructure.

"When it comes to car driving we see a congruence between societal and technological trends. For example fuel efficiency is in the interest of climate protection.

"But forecasts can be quite uncertain - a truth the economic and financial crisis clearly demonstrated once again a few years ago. It would be negligent to believe market developments will be linear."

Increasingly, suppliers are becoming not simply technology providers, but agents of change, pulling levers which will both reflect and alter the nature of transportation in the decades to come.

They can't do this in isolation - despite the undoubted new commercial vistas being opened up with autonomous - Bosch prefers the word 'automated' - landscapes.

Suppliers will have to work ever more in tandem with governments and legislators to ensure this new transport world is one of order and not chaos.