Features editorAutomotive innovation isn’t just about electric drivetrains and light-weight bodywork. The sector might find that it has to get more closely involved in its customers’ lifestyles than ever before.

The automotive sector is in the middle of one of the greatest periods of change in its history. The possibilities of new materials, manufacturing methods and computing power — both in the car itself and as an aid to design and manufacture — have come together at a time when the internal combustion engine is facing the first serious challenge to its dominance with the development of electric drive trains.

But alongside the developments in car technology itself, the automotive sector is starting to try to anticipate some of the lifestyle changes that new styles of vehicle might induce in owners. Some of these were discussed at this week’s Innovation in Automotive seminar at the Royal Academy of Engineering. Alongside sessions on lightweighting, technology transfer from motorsport and technology roadmaps, Tony Douglas of BMW gave a presentation which looked like it was going to be about the German premium car company’s new BMWi electric range, currently being advertised under the tag ‘Born electric’ to make the point that they’re designed as electric cars from the chassis up, rather than being conventional cars with an electric drive train swapped in. However, his talk took a sudden swerve into unexpected territory: parking.

Everybody realises that charging will be the biggest change in lifestyle involved in switching to an electric car, Douglas said. ‘We’ve made the connection that charging is very closely associated with parking, and we’re finding ways to help drivers to make parking easier.’

This has involved partnering with smartphone app designers to develop a range of products which are useful to drivers of any kind of car, but will be particularly handy for electric car drivers. ParkNow allows driver to search for parking spaces near where they want to end up before they start their journey, reserve them and pay for them, removing one of the biggest headaches for a trip into town. ‘Nobody wants to spend ages driving around looking for a parking space, it’s a complete pain and it can take longer than it takes to actually get where you’re going,’ Douglas said.

In a similar vein, the company has co-developed an app called ParkAtMyHouse, which is the name implies allows people to rent out their own home parking spaces when they aren’t using them. Douglas described it as ‘eBay for parking places’, with spaces close to amenities fetching a higher rate than those further away.

Both of these services take on another dimension when the parking places have charging facilities attached; they allow electric car drivers peace of mind that their vehicles can safely charge while they’re parked, and ease any range anxieties over being able to get home. It’s actually a major move for BMW into commercialising driving services, so to speak. ‘BMWi is a city mobility company,’ Douglas said. ‘We can’t just keep offering bigger and heavier cars, and we can’t just be a supplier of premium hardware.’

The closest equivalent to this might be if car companies, in the early days of the automobile, had owned stakes in oil companies to set up petrol stations to encourage people to drive; something which, as far as I know, never happened. Some readers might know differently; please let me know. But this close association of city lifestyle with cars — and the car companies themselves taking an active part in it — is certainly a new innovation for the automotive sector, although not one that might be immediately apparent for engineers.

Taking this one step further is the new models of ownership that city living, and by extension electric cars, might engender. Mark Walker, the managing director of ZipCar — the ‘car club’ that’s now flourishing in the UK, US and Spain — explained that his company is tapping into a ‘pay-as-you-live’ generation. ‘These are people who value experience over ownership,’ he said. ‘They really aren’t interested in owning a car, with all the expense and hassle that involves, but they appreciate the convenience of being able to use one when they need it. And we’ve found that people drive less when they don’t own a car, even when if they have access to one.’

This might spread panic among car manufacturers. A whole generation who aren’t interested in owning cars? What would that do to their sales figures? However, Walker was happy to admit that this seems to be a phase in people’s lives. ‘It might last for ten years or so,’ he said. ‘As people get older, move away from cities and have families, all these things could act as trigger points for them to decide to own a car.’ But with more and more people living in cities, especially during their younger years when they have disposable income, this ten-year lifestyle window provides a big enough market for companies like ZipCar to earn a profit, and that’s fine for him.

ZipCar and BMWi’s take on innovation might seem like a strange one for a sector more used to nuts and bolts, not to mention sheet metal presses, machine shops and engine bays. But it’s actually more closely allied to the goals of more mainstream automotive innovation that it first seems. Nearly all of the sector’s engineering efforts are aimed at cutting emissions, whether to reduce greenhouse gases, improve city air quality or to use resources more efficiently. Helping people reduce the time they spend driving around by guaranteeing them a parking space, or giving them the convience of driving only when they need to, is a step in that direction.

Meanwhile, The Engineer has also taken a step in a new direction. Our first podcast, in which you can hear the denizens of Engineer Towers talking about graphene research, the new safe containment at Chernobyl, autonomous vehicles, electric motor racing and carbon capture, can be found here. We’ll be producing a new podcast every month, and it’ll soon be possible to subscribe via iTunes so you don’t miss an edition.