Hyperloops, Shared Autonomous Planes, and More in Paris

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 25, 2017

PARIS—The very first full-scale Hyperloop project is breaking ground in Toulouse, France. I got the news directly from Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) Chairman Bibop G. Gresta at the Autonomy/Urban Mobility Summit here.

The shared bikes can be parked anywhere--and they were everywhere at the Autonomy/Urban Mobility Summit in Paris. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I was moderating a panel, and Gresta was here to deliver a super-caffeinated spiel on the manifold benefits of Hyperloop—inspired by Elon Musk’s white paper vision, and taken up by tech entrepreneurs and engineers around the world. Last month, I met with university students in the Netherlands who’d won Musk’s student competition to build a workable Hyperloop capsule.

HTT's hyperloop station of the future. The company has sales in 20 countries, $100 million investment--and a bonafide project in Toulouse. (HTT graphic)

HTT is one of the biggest and best funded of the startups, with sales (for feasibility studies and such) in 20 countries, and $100 million in investments. In Toulouse, he said, “The tubes have been ordered.” A second big project is in Abu Dhabi, whose government is a big HTT investor. A tube is to connect the capital city to Al Ain, covering the more than 100-mile distance in something like nine to 12 minutes. “It’s not even two cities anymore,” Gresta said. The trains (if we can call them that) travel at 745 miles per hour, using magnetic propulsion in a sealed tube.

Hyperloop's Bibop Gresta makes his pitch in Paris. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A rival group wants to run a Hyperloop between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. They’ve got the money, and it’s kind of ironic that it comes from oil. Gresta claims the Abu Dhabi Hyperloop operation will be net energy positive, thanks to solar panels along the desert route.

The gas-powered Tender Lib is a range extender you tow to give your electric car more range. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The conference was exciting, in part because it had some of the most interesting exhibitors I’ve seen at these events. They included a cool new city EV (with the one door doubling as the front of the car, like the BMW Isetta), bike and car sharers, mobile bike repair, range extenders for electric vehicles (a small gas engine in a towed trailer), solar cars, and a whole lot more.

Airbus is advancing the concept of urban air mobility, using autonomous electric-powered planes that resemble a cross between a drone and a helicopter. Trials are starting in Oregon soon. (Airbus graphic)

Paris is a good location, because (like New York) it is majority (63 percent) car free. City bikes (many with electric motors) and scooters are everywhere, the Metro connects to the airport, and there are streetcars on every corner. It’s also full of entrepreneurs interested in starting sharing businesses.

I got a ride in this tiny Renault Twizzy electric car. It's on the market in Europe, but deemed too small for America. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Still, the traffic in from Charles de Gaulle airport was terrible. So it’s fitting that Paris is also where Uber made another big announcement. Some panelists spoke up asking that big companies like Uber, Lyft and Google be more transparent with their data, and Adam Gromis, public policy manager of sustainability and environmental impact at Uber, said the company is doing just that.

The Addax electric truck is already making short-range deliveries around Europe. Cute, isn't it? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Uber announced Engage, which is a website offering historical travel-time data (based on its own travel) in seven cities, Paris plus our fair city of Boston, Washington, D.C., Bogota, Johannesburg/Pretoria and Sydney, Australia. It was, as Gromis admitted, a bit wonkish, but still useful for journalists like me, who can actually dial in the traffic impact of major news (such as big sports events) or weather on traffic patterns. Still, we are going to want more than just travel times, and Gromis said he would deliver more.

Bollore's electric Blue Buses are hitting the road. The company runs the highly successful electric car sharing operation in Paris--and Indianapolis. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Those were the big gun announcements, but there was lots of fascinating information and start-up news in Paris. Sture Portvick, EV Project Leader in Oslo, said that Norway is continuing its leadership ways. Close to 46 percent of new car sales in Norway are now EVs, the world record. More electrics are sold than diesels, which is saying something in Europe. I wanted to ask what effect lifting the massive subsidies might have (in Denmark, sales dropped like a stone) but didn’t get a chance.

Mobile fix-your-bike operations. How cool is that? I told them it might work in Boston. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A big problem in Norway is lines at the 240-volt charging stations, which other countries will face as EVs attain their majority. If there was anything everyone in Paris (including my panel on the future of on-demand mobility, featuring Uber, the French drone agency and Airbus) agreed on, it is that tomorrow’s cars will be electric, autonomous and connected.

Airbag bicycle helmets: What will they think of next? (Jim Motavalli photo)

You may not have heard of TravelCar, founded in 2012, but you will. I sat down with North American CEO Gui Bulaty, who outlines a rather innovative business plan that has taken off in 40 countries. Essentially, it’s long-term parking but with a big difference. Your car doesn’t have to just sit while you’re in the friendly skies—it can be working for you in a car-sharing operation.

ChargePoint's 480-volt fast charging will get your car to 80-percent capacity in 30 minutes. (Jim Motavalli photo)

In April, TravelCar (in partnership with Free2Move, a mobility arm of the French car giant PSA) announced that it was starting its sharing operations in Los Angeles, its first U.S. program. San Francisco is next, then other U.S. cities.

The TravelCar team with CEO Gui Bulaty at right. They'll make your car work while you're traveling. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Kiosks (with operators thousands of miles away) will take travelers through the process in the off-hours. Your parking becomes free, even if your car isn’t shared, and you get a 15 to 20 cents per mile fee if it is taken. Don’t worry, you’re insured—as you are when using personal car sharing.

Bike delivery is big in Europe, and in hip U.S. cities like Portland, Seattle and (of course) Boston. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I also talked to Simon Lonsdale, vice president for business development at ChargePoint, which has 70 percent of the U.S. public charging stations. We agreed that the U.S.—still the major innovator in the space—has nonetheless lost its throne as the electric vehicle sales leader. Last year, the U.S. saw 130,000 EV sales, but in China it was 300,000, and the disparity is likely to grow.

A Tesla taxi outside my hotel in Paris. Amsterdam has them, too, as does Oslo. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Unless, of course, the Tesla Model 3 fulfills its sales promise. Lonsdale said that one model is “helping pull the industry forward.” The U.S. is still showing signs of life. Lonsdale lives in Los Gatos, California, where 20 percent of new car sales are electric now.

These electric Espirit city cars can convoy together back to the central station. These are models; the real ones weren't much bigger. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A key to making EVs work is extending their range, and that process is well under way. A company like Nawa Technologies, based in Aix en Provence, France, can probably help. It makes state-of-the-art ultracapacitors, which have some similarities to batteries but charge much faster, and also discharge quickly. In EVs, they're good for quick bursts of power, and CEO Ulrik Grape (who I know from his days at EnerDel, making batteries for electric Volvos) thinks they can work in concert with packs to extend range.

Paris traffic can be brutal at rush hours. Uber says it can help.(Jim Motavalli photos)

Lonsdale also acknowledged Sweden as a major new EV market. Sweden’s environmental minister wants to ban gas cars by 2030, and the country wants to go carbon neutral by 2040. Norway, a big oil and gas producer of course, wants to see the end of tailpipes by 2025

A phrase I hadn’t heard before, widely used here in Paris, is the concept of “free floating” car and bike sharing. That means uncoupled from stations—you can leave them anywhere, and the apps will find them for the next renter. Many of the bikes and scooter startups showing in Paris are “uncoupled” in that way.

That interesting contraption is a Citroen. Do you miss French cars? (Jim Motavalli photo)

A solar car would also be “uncoupled”—from any kind of charging. The Dutch startup Lightyear, which I’d earlier seen in the Netherlands, was also in Paris. They’re talking about wheel motors in a very lightweight chassis to make a five-passenger car that could actually run on solar when the sun is shining. Another key is a very wide roof for the panels, which means a tapering design.

Lightyear really does think it can build solar-powered cars. (Lightyear photo)

In Hawaii, Lightyear says you could cover 20,000 kilometers per year, powered only by the sun. It does mystify me why sun-friendly places like Hawaii don’t switch to 100 percent solar and wind power, and electric cars.

Wunder Carpool, based in Germany, is a neat idea. Lukas Loers told me, “Two hundred million people are stuck in traffic today in the world's most gridlocked cities.” You’ve probably heard of the 12-day jam in China, well there was one in France that lasted even longer. Wunder is addressing that by offering carpooling via smartphone in legendarily crammed cities like Jakarta and Manila (where commuting is four or five hours per day). Unfortunately, there’s not much money in the small commissions, so they’re looking at using advertising on the app.

I loved the little Addax electric truck, which is being used to move goods, food and parcels in Belgium, Sweden, Portugal and France. With an 80-kilowatt-hour battery, the Belgium-sourced truck can go up to 100 miles on a charge. It’s strictly for in-city use, a “last-mile” delivery solution.

It was good to see a bit of New York energy from Jannette Sadik-Khan, transportation chief when Michael Bloomberg was mayor. She called her book Street Fight, because that’s what was necessary to transform New York’s boulevards to be more people friendly. There are now 60 pedestrian-friendly plazas in the five boroughs, including the iconic Times Square. And New York is now vastly more cycle-friendly, thanks to Citibike and hundreds of miles of bike lanes.

The Isetta-like car I mentioned earlier is from the Swiss company Micro, which is famous for kick scooters. The Microlina car started as an attention-getter for shows (with a prototype made in China) but it got people so excited they decided to actually produce it. The two-seater weighs only 800 pounds, with a fiberglass body.

The Microlina can travel 60 miles on a charge, and hit 60 mph. It’s a city car, not likely to hit American highways. The car will be built in Italy, and goes on sale in Switzerland next year, priced at 15,000 euros ($17,600). Here’s a look at it on video:

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