Keynote: How Technology Radically Transforms and Innovates Mobility

By Emiel van Dongen

In his keynote at the New Energy Forum 2024, mobility expert Carlo van de Weijer outlined his vision for the future of mobility. People will always travel, he asserts. Therefore, mobility must be made sustainable, safe, and economically efficient—primarily through technology. His conclusions? The car remains important. The bicycle becomes even more important. And we will continue to fly, even more than we do now. He also discussed future mobility opportunities for Northern Netherlands. With a major focus on creating an attractive living environment.

People will always need mobility, stated Carlo van de Weijer on June 20 in his keynote at the annual event on (the future of) energy and mobility. After a long career in the automotive industry, he now mainly works at TU/e as the Director of Smart Mobility and General Manager of the Eindhoven AI System Institute.

“People have spent, and probably will continue to spend, over an hour a day on mobility on average,” Van de Weijer explains during a video call shortly after returning from a business trip to China. “Even in times of remote working and various delivery services, average travel time does not decrease. People travel not just to get from A to B, but because it is a deeply rooted need. Mobility is also a goal in itself.”

Innovations Can and Must Contribute

Technological innovation can provide completely new transportation possibilities. Think of drones, electric flying, the hyperloop, or—who knows, one day—teleportation. According to the expert, innovation can not only help make current mobility solutions more sustainable, safer, more comfortable, and more profitable. It must also do so.

The mobility we have now is unsustainable, Van de Weijer believes. “Especially regarding environmental impact and traffic accidents. So, we must innovate. If you look at current problems, solutions on the horizon, and the real needs of people, you can reasonably determine which solutions make sense and which do not.”

Personal Cars Remain Favored Even with Autonomous Driving

Van de Weijer recently rode in a self-driving taxi in China. “That was really next-level compared to what I’ve experienced in the US.”

The self-driving car is predicted to have a glorious future. A common dream is self-driving (shared) cars that arrive at the push of a button. Van de Weijer: “Theoretically, that would have many advantages, such as fewer parking spaces. However, I predict that we will never use these kinds of robot taxis. The car is so deeply ingrained in our reptilian brain that you cannot just abolish car ownership. At least, not in a democratic state. People simply want the freedom and independence they experience with their own car.”

Van de Weijer believes that technology will eventually mature, but autonomous driving will be limited to, for example, traffic jams and long highway stretches. “You can then work or read a book, just like on the train now.”

Sustainable Flying

Flying will become the most sustainable mode of transportation for long distances, predicts the mobility expert. “Flying currently has a terrible reputation and is not really associated with future mobility. But it will become much more sustainable, mainly thanks to synthetic fuels, but perhaps also through electric flights between regional airports.”

He sees little future for drones. “Transporting people and goods through the air is very energy inefficient. If you want to transport something substantial, like packages, they will likely just roll autonomously over the road. Drones would mainly cause a lot of noise pollution. The noise increases quadratically with weight. At most, you will see them in situations where we now use helicopters, such as emergencies and law enforcement.”

Airplanes, Cars, and Bikes as Big Winners

Van de Weijer expects that airplanes, cars, and bikes will continue to be the most popular modes of transportation in the future. “Flying will be the absolute winner for long distances, the car for medium distances, and the bike for shorter distances.”

“The main reason: they are not dependent on expensive and inflexible infrastructure. For flying, you only need a two-kilometer runway. And for cars and bikes, roads, which are relatively cheap and very flexible. Trains and buses will play a relatively modest but important role. To connect cities and keep rural areas well-connected.”

Opportunities and Pitfalls for Northern Netherlands

Finally, the expert zoomed in on the future mobility situation of Northern Netherlands. He does not see the future in faster connections with the Randstad or a hyperloop. But rather in cherishing the rural character of the region.

Van de Weijer: “The living environment and quality of life are much better in Northern Netherlands than in the Randstad. People are demonstrably happier there. This is partly because, contrary to what people think, the level of amenities is not worse than in highly urbanized areas. People who live in rural areas also experience more community spirit, a safer feeling, and more freedom. That should just be further strengthened.”

“One way is to set a much higher standard for road safety: the North should become the safest region in the Netherlands. If you separate cyclists and trucks on all roads, that is, for example, a very effective measure.”

Developing Regional Airports

Due to the favorable future prospects of flying, Van de Weijer believes it would be a smart move for Northern Netherlands to invest in the (further) development of regional airports such as Groningen Airport Eelde.

“This way, you create a connection to the rest of the world in a cost-efficient manner. I recently heard that Groningen Airport still requires subsidies annually. But with the investments needed for a faster train connection, you could subsidize the airport for thousands of years.”

That will not even be necessary, predicts Van de Weijer, as we will be flying more in the future. “An airport like that will become profitable. And it can even be of great economic and social importance for the region. For example, if more connections with other airports are established. A large part of those flights will be electric, I predict.”

The Uniqueness of the North

According to Van de Weijer, it would be beneficial for the northern provinces to focus on their unique advantages. “The region should behave less like an overflow area for the Randstad and instead showcase more ambition. Life is simply better in the North than in the hustle and bustle.”