Air pollution and air quality in cities have become topics of public concern worldwide. Multiple diesel scandals, and the subsequent mindset shift with regard to sustainability, have acted as a catalyst for policy change. The drive to keep cities clean and free from emissions has become both a global and a local movement.
One of the most common measures taken by city councils to reduce air pollution is the implementation of environmental or emission zones. Two major types can be found. First, low/ultra-low emission zones enforce restrictions for specific vehicles depending on their emission level (e.g. EURO 6). Cities like London, Stuttgart, and Stockholm started implementing low emission zones as early as 1996, and today there are a total of about 250 across Europe. Second, zero emission zones represent the ultimate goal; they only allow access for zero emission vehicles (e.g. battery electric vehicles). As of today, zero emission zones are still a rare phenomenon although implementations are planned in the UK (Oxford and London).
As mentioned above, municipal and local governments are leading the field globally in pushing forward with restrictions and bans on vehicles in inner-city areas with the goal of achieving emission-free mobility (see Figure 1). Yet the establishment of fully CO2-neutral cities looks very hard to achieve in the near future. Many cities do not have sufficient public infrastructure nor a suitable pedestrian or cycling landscape, making the use of cars inevitable. Thus, cars will remain (at least during a transition phase) a major element of inner-city traffic and mobility. The question that needs to be answered is: How can this transition be achieved in the most sustainable and emission-free way possible?
Major OEMs are already supporting and collaborating with cities on their road to zero emissions
Many OEMs have already realized and acted upon their crucial role in realizing emission-free inner cities. The most obvious solution to this challenge is battery electric vehicles (BEV), which do not produce any emissions while driving. However, the adoption of BEVs is lagging behind the ambitious targets of both policy makers and OEMs. Besides BEVs, plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) are often considered to be the perfect solution and a core contributor to sustainable mobility (assuming they are used as intended). Some OEMs have already recently launched concepts or projects to decrease inner-city emissions with PHEVs through a new technology: geofencing. This enables PHEVs to automatically switch to electric mode within predefined zones. This means that, in those zones, the car runs exclusively on electric power from the battery without using the internal combustion engine (ICE). Geofencing zones are marked with an invisible digital border (the “fence”) that triggers the switch to electric mode when a PHEV crosses the border – an event that is identified using GPS data. In most cases, these zones correspond to the environmental zones set by city authorities and local governments.
In the calculation, annual CO2 emissions emitted by Munich inhabitants who drive their PHEVs fully in ICE mode vs. those driving in electric mode within the environmental zone have been compared. The resultant annual CO2 savings amount to 0.3 kt CO2 (worst scenario), 1.9 kt CO2 (medium scenario) or 9.6 kt CO2 (best scenario). The savings in the medium scenario equal around 9,000 domestic flights within Germany.
Calculation approach and assumptions: Munich has an environmental zone that covers an area measuring approximately 5 km from east to west and 9 km from north to south. For the calculation, we estimated an average driving range in the environmental zone of 3-9 km per day (return trips). We assumed that the PHEVs are used every 2nd to 4th day leading to an annual average of about 100-200 driving days. As a basis for our calculation, we used the stock of vehicles registered in Munich (around 730,000 in 2020), added a percentage surcharge to consider commuters, and estimated the future PHEV share of vehicles in each of our three scenarios.
Three innovative market solutions show how OEMs can apply geofencing technology for PHEVs
We have conducted an in-depth competitive analysis of PHEV initiatives with regards to geofencing technology and electric driving. Three major OEMs have started to actively pursue the topic, each adopting its own approach and scope (see Figure 3).
BMW – eDrive Zones
BMW has implemented geofencing technology for all PHEV drivers with a concept called eDrive Zones. Here, a PHEV automatically switches into electric driving mode whenever it enters an eDrive zone. These zones correspond to the environmental zones defined by a city authority or local government. Customers can see whether they are currently located within an eDrive Zone as they are highlighted on the in-car navigation map. BMW combines the eDrive Zones concept with its recently launched loyalty/bonus program, BMW Points. The latter enables PHEV customers to earn points for electric driving that can be redeemed for public charging credit. These points are doubled whenever customers drive in electric mode within eDrive Zones.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) – Turin Geofencing Lab pilot program
FCA has partnered with the city of Turin (Italy) to develop a concept for the integration of PHEVs with the city’s traffic management platform for emission zones. This is initially being implemented for a small pilot fleet. When a vehicle enters a low emission zone, sensors inside trigger a switch to electric driving mode. If the driver decides to manually switch back to combustion engine while in the emission zone, the system responds with recommendations and triggers an alert in the city traffic management platform. This technology allows the city to detect PHEVs’ driving modes and compliance with local traffic restrictions. In the future, this might enable policies permitting PHEVs to enter zero emission zones, by giving them the same status as BEVs, provided they are driven in electric mode.
Ford – PHEV Vans Project
Ford has launched a pilot program in selected cities (London, Valencia, and Cologne) incorporating geofencing and blockchain technology into commercial PHEV fleets to ensure electric driving within environmental zones. The project is intended to demonstrate and analyze the advantages of electric vans for the environment, city traffic, and commercial fleet operators. In this program, the PHEVs of local fleet operators (e.g. RheinEnergie) are equipped with an on-board modem (called FordPass Connect) and a plug-in location device. Once the vehicle enters an environmental zone, geofencing technology triggers a switch to electric mode, while blockchain-enabled technology accurately measures distances driven and emissions saved.
Besides BMW, Fiat, and Ford, other OEMs are also working on concepts to help municipalities to influence and monitor driving behavior within local emission zones. One example is the blue LED light, located at the top of the windscreen, that Peugeot has integrated into its PHEV models (e.g. Peugeot 3008). The LED lights up when the vehicle is in electric mode, making it visible from outside which engine is used. Thus, external parties can check if the driver is complying with restrictions imposed in a given area, such as a requirement for electric driving only.
Implications of geofencing technology for emission-free cities
Based on the insights above, we have derived three compelling predictions about the future implications of geofencing technology with PHEVs for emission-free cities. These can serve as food for thought for both policy makers in municipalities as well as decision-makers within the automotive industry:
Most cities have ambitious plans to cut emissions through innovative, sustainable mobility solutions. At the same time, OEMs are facing increasing pressure to comply with both global and local emission regulations to remain part of the city scene. Geofencing could be a vital tool in achieving both sets of objectives.