Digitalization and the future of mobility

Welcome to the latest DNV GL Talks Energy podcast series. This series focuses on digitalization and the impact of technology and data. Each week notable industry thought leaders join us to discuss AI, data analytics and all the hot topics impacting the strategies of global businesses, communities and nations as we transition towards a more efficient energy system.

Podcast Formula E

Digitalization and the future of mobility 

With Formula E shining the light on the e-vehicle revolution it has never been a more exciting time for the future of transport.  We talk to Johan de Villiers Managing Director of ABB in South East Asia, about how digitalization, electrification and developments in battery storage are transforming how we get around.

In this forward-thinking episode, Johan shares ABB’s decision to become the series sponsor for the Formula E motor racing championship, and how this exciting new sporting series is helping to pioneer developments in sustainable transport. He explains how developing technologies are facilitating e-vehicles’ rise in popularity; the impact of digitalization through car sharing apps and autonomous vehicles; and the resulting challenges faced by the grid and e-vehicle users and gives some solutions. Finally, Johan gives us an insight into the developments in robotics, and how they are likely to impact on manufacturing and trade in the future.




Read the transcription here

NARRATOR Welcome to the DNV GL Talks Energy podcast series. Electrification, rise of renewables and new technologies supported by more data and IT systems are transforming the power system. Join us each week as we discuss these changes with guests from around the industry.  

MATHIAS STECK Welcome to a new episode of DNV GL Talks Energy. My guest today is Johan de Villiers, managing director of ABB in South East Asia, and we want to talk about Formula E, mobility, and smart cities this morning. So, first of all, good morning, Johan. Thanks for being here.

JOHAN DE VILLIERS Morning, Mathias.

MATHIAS STECK And before we start with this interesting topic, it will be great if you can introduce yourself as a person, as well as what you do in ABB and what is ABB is doing maybe with regards to the topics we discuss today.

JOHAN DE VILLIERS Yes, great. It’s my pleasure. Thank you very much for this opportunity. I’m South African. I joined ABB in South Africa about 21 years ago and worked in many different divisions and different parts of our organization covering robotics, utilities, process automation. And it’s been an amazing journey so far. And we ended up here in Singapore about five and a half years ago; at the moment I’m leading the South East Asia operations for ABB.

MATHIAS STECK Right, very good. So, as I said already, today we want to talk about Formula E, mobility, and smart cities. And being here in Singapore, one of the Formula 1 cities in the world, that’s an interesting topic maybe to start with is Formula E and to understand what that actually is. In fact, ABB is the title sponsor of the ABB Formula E Championship series, and it will be great if you can tell us a bit more about this and why ABB is engaging in that matter.

JOHAN DE VILLIERS Yes, with pleasure. ABB Formula E Championship is really a natural fit between two pioneering technology leaders at the forefront of electrification and digital technologies. And we really share a passion for innovation, for electrification, and for the environment. And all of this focused on transport. And that fits very well with ABB’s commitment to help run the world without consuming the earth.

And we find that Formula E is a great platform from which to communicate these ideas and these concepts. Formula E is really one of the most exciting developments in sustainable transport and in motor sport today. And as I said, it’s a great platform for manufacturers to come and test technology, to look at how batteries perform under these racing circumstances, how all the infrastructure that has to go behind electric mobility performs, and how all that works.

And very interesting is it also addresses a different audience. One of the differences to Formula 1, for example, is the main aim is not to attract large crowds at the circuit necessarily. But I, for example, read that after just two races this year, they’ve had 6.4 million views online. So, a large online following, and there’s also a part of the race where the audience is really engaged digitally and influences the outcome of the race by promoting one or the other driver and giving them extra kilowatts to use during the race.

And on the other end, ABB is the world leader in providing electric vehicle fast-charging infrastructure. We’ve got about 7,000 chargers installed already around the world, so, an exciting journey. And not just the fast chargers, we also provide all the infrastructure from basically connecting any point of generation up to these charging points and outlets. So, yes, I think it’s by joining forces we are well positioned to push the boundaries of mobility.

MATHIAS STECK Wow. Yes, so, actually, you just mentioned the charging stations which I think, when we talk about using electric vehicles not only for racing but in a normal city environment, is one of the big challenges. So, what do you see? What’s the future of the mobility and the technologies really driving that becoming the normal type of transport for us?

JOHAN DE VILLIERS Yes, well, in the world that we live in and the industries that we work, we see two huge driving forces. One is the energy revolution where you talk about the renewable power sources that are intermittent and then storage and then the whole way that loads are changing and becoming more dynamic. And on the other end, there’s the industrial revolution driven by digital technology.

And both of these have a great impact on the way mobility is shaped and going to be in the future. And if you start with electrification and storage, electrical mobility is not a new thing. Rail networks have been around for a long, long time, and if you think about a rail network, it’s really just a very big power supply network; electrical rail network. And because of storage becoming so much more affordable, we can now do that with road networks.

So, you basically see road networks getting electrified. Fortunately, we don’t have to do it with continuous wires because we got stories and you got all these points of electricity available on road networks. And Electrify America is a very good example of this, where there’s a very large project.

ABB is providing numerous DC fast chargers that’ll be installed around all the main corridors across the US to provide this electricity infrastructure on our road networks. And that’s happening in cities all around the world as well. And it’s not just cars. You see that with buses, with motorcycles. Just look at all the e-scooters or e-bike factories being built in South East Asia at the moment. There’s some large investments in Vietnam and Indonesia. So, you see it across the sectors.

ABB is involved in a very interesting project with [Nanyang Technology University] NTU and Volvo to basically have a pilot project for the first autonomous e-bus in Singapore and maybe in Asia. So, a lot of interesting developments there. And it doesn’t stop there. Even sea and air transport are topics for electrification. There’s a very interesting project called SeaBubbles, which is a very futuristic sea taxi that has been tested in Switzerland. I think they’re building five units now, which is a zero-emissions vehicle that transports people over water. That uses very smart digital technologies, some of which our company provides.

And then, on the other side, you get that digitalization is having an impact on car sharing. It enables the sharing the economy, so you see privately owned cars being utilized much more productively and also autonomous vehicles. And digitalization is making that possible, and you already see solutions where cars can park themselves and maintain a distance to another car quite reliably. And on highways, we will probably quickly see autonomous driving, and in cities, that’s a little bit further off.

MATHIAS STECK Yes, I want to come back to that point. But because you just mentioned also renewables, the problem we hear a lot about are still the charging stations at the moment. Would you think that’s a transition technology? Because we also find, for example, the airplane which can go around the world with solar just one or two persons on board. Do you see these races with solar cars? There’s a Dutch team also quite successful doing this. So, will we have cars which are powered by solar in future?

JOHAN DE VILLIERS I have no doubt that further into the future we will see this. I have no doubt that technology will develop and continue to evolve. I don’t see that as a solution in our lifetime, or maybe the lifetime of our children, on a commercial basis. So, we will have this phase of charging batteries in vehicles, but I think we should dream beyond that, and you already see. It was fantastic to be part of the Solar Impulse programme, which was a real pioneering effort to fly a plane around the world only powered by solar energy.

MATHIAS STECK So, Johan, you talked about the intelligence of, the smartness of cars already. But we can of course also look in other areas where digitalization, which you just mentioned, or the connectivity gives us advances in how we operate things. And ABB is also active in the smart city environment. So, can you talk a bit about how we can use these technologies or how we can leverage these technologies to help development of smart cities?

JOHAN DE VILLIERS Absolutely. A very interesting example is exactly this challenge of providing charging infrastructures into cities. Because in many of these cities, the electricity grids are not designed for these kinds of loads. And you can imagine today we are selling charging stations that can charge at 350 kW. And if you’ve got five or six of these installed in a building, let’s say in the bottom of shopping mall and all of them start charging at the same time, that could be a load equivalent to the whole building.

So, you really have to think about the impact on grids. And that’s where we need to be smart in the way that we use technology so that we don’t have to redesign and have massive investments rebuilding entire electricity grids. And digital modelling helps us with that. Storage helps us if you place it in the right places. Adding renewables that can charge storage is a great solution to help make that more sustainable.

So, cities can really only be smart when all the systems of the city are truly integrated and come together to provide a city that’s more efficient, that’s more sustainable, and that’s more liveable. We have an example of this kind of integration from the marine industry that maybe illustrates how this can work. For many years, ABB has been supplying equipment that goes into ships, marine vessels, of all kinds, and we’ve started to equip that with communication capabilities. So, now we have the possibility.

We call it collaborative operations, where we can have specialists behind a desk monitoring what’s happening on the ships and then doing fault-finding or even optimization in real time. And we’ve taken that another step to say, well, let’s combine that with weather data, with the tilt sensors on the ship to know how it’s loaded, to look at wave patterns, and then where the ships need to be by what time.

And then, in real time, we can tell the whole fleet of ships one by one in which direction and what speed to sail to minimize overall energy use. And we have a case with Maersk where we have saved them 5 % of their energy bill, which is for them that’s a significant amount. And that’s the same way we should think about cities integrating these systems and using the data from one to inform the other to really make cities smart.

I think this whole idea of smart cities, they’re never built in one go, and I think it’s very similar to how we become smart. You keep learning, and then you experience something and then you learn and then you adjust. And I think that’s the way we need to deal with cities, is we will… It’s an evolving picture that increasingly becomes smart as we make these systems talk each other better and better.

MATHIAS STECK Yes. And that’s actually an interesting perspective also from the sense that we fear that different cities are developing differently with needs. Looking into our region, South East Asia, sometimes it is not these technologies far out there; it’s some very basic problems they try to solve today. And so, yes, your statement, I agree, like learning, it’s a very individual thing to become smart also for cities.

But your ship story sounds a little bit at least even like a digital twin. You do something, simulate and then find the best solution, and do it in the real world. Talking about a twin, we could also have a digital companion, and I’m trying to lead to the robotics, which you are also in. And so how did that work? There is a fear, of course, the world is taken over by robots at some point and by artificial intelligence, whatever that word really means. But how can robots, how can robotics help us in future?

JOHAN DE VILLIERS Well, I think it has a big influence and a big impact. You can look at Singapore. One-fifth of Singapore’s economy today is the manufacturing industry, and this industry can only be in Singapore because of advances in advanced manufacturing and driving productivity: combining digitalization and automation from robotics to really make the quality standards to a place where people pay a premium and to drive the productivity to a point that you can have this in a fairly expensive city.

I think there’s another very interesting driver there, is consumers’ behaviour are changing. Adidas is building these Speedfactories. I don’t know if you’ve seen what that is. But it’s such a good example of how our behaviour changes. They manufacture shoes, of course. And their goal was that they have in one season the design of the shoe and the manufacturing of the shoe and the delivery of the shoe, and that they can be adjusting these batch sizes depending on the demand for the different models and working towards a point where a user can customize his shoe online.

And then the shoe gets printed in a very advanced factory and delivered to him with a very reduced delivery time. So, this mass customization is driving manufacturing to come closer to the consumers, and that has an impact on cities. So, that’s where I think we will see a lot more of this robotics and digital technology coming to cities to firstly meet consumer demand and also to drive the economies of these cities. So, I think that’s very interesting. 

To address the comment about the fear of robotics, are robots taking over our jobs and artificial intelligence replacing human intelligence? The one comforting fact is that the countries and the cities that are most automated in this world also has the least unemployment. So, there’s a very, very close correlation, and Singapore is one example of that. So, what I think we’ll see in the future is humans working much more closely with technology, and already today we are working with lots of digital technologies that’s powered by artificial intelligence. And I think that is the near future is, where we’re going to work closely.

We have collaborative robots that we’re developing now where in some manufacturing processes there’s parts of it that’s very difficult to automate. But other parts can easily be automated, and now you have robots that can work really side by side with human beings. So, I think that’s more of the future that we’re seeing at the moment; is new jobs will be created because of advanced manufacturing, and a lot more where humans and technology work closely together.

MATHIAS STECK You briefly mentioned retail. You talked about shipping. So, what will digitalization do on trade and on the user routes of trade we see today?

JOHAN DE VILLIERS Yes, it has already got a massive impact. If you think about it, this example that I had about the shipping industry is only possible because there’s digital communication infrastructure and data centres somewhere that can securely handle this flow of communication and data. And I think this whole Belt and Road Initiative is a very interesting infrastructure development programme that has, at the core of its objectives, infrastructure and connectivity. So, it’s obviously physical infrastructure, so, land and sea and road infrastructure, also electricity grids.

But one key part of it is communication and digital infrastructure. I think the third highest area for investment in Belt and Road is telecommunications and first in China but then obviously also along these economic routes that program is aimed to open up. So, yes, I think digital technology is absolutely key to enable a lot of the value that you can get from digitalization.

MATHIAS STECK Right. We are slowly coming to an end of this episode unfortunately already. But maybe you can give us a bit of a summarizing statement of what we’ve just discussed. So, when we look at the digitalization industry, 4.0, artificial intelligence, robotics, they’re all making headlines these days. But what of this hype or what of this is hype and what is going beyond that and will really bring us value?

JOHAN DE VILLIERS I think there is a lot of communication and a lot of information that floods our senses on these topics. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t get emails in my inbox telling me about the next thing in artificial intelligence or what robots are going to do or not going to do. And I think, as companies, we have a duty to be responsible, to be clear about what’s possible today and what is for the future. And I think those basic principles of business don’t change, that you have got to bring value to your customers.

And if you can’t demonstrate how you solve a problem or how you make things better or more efficient, then you really don’t have something to offer. So, we try and do that as a company. Trust and integrity is very important to us, so, I think that’s very important. I believe that today there is a massive potential for making things better, more efficient, and more sustainable from digitalization and from robotics and artificial intelligence specifically.

Just our offering, which we call ABB Ability, we have about 280 different solutions ready today, proven solving problems and making things better, and bringing value to customers. And we’ve got good examples there. I give you one example. We’ve got this small little smart sensor that comes from mobile phone technology that you can literally stick on a side of an electric motor. Now two-thirds of all the energy consumed in industry is consumed by electric motors. And the maintenance and the management of these motors is a big expense and a big topic.

And with this little sensor, we can now digitally communicate things like vibrations and temperature profiles. And from the electromagnetic field, we can read all kinds of things of the performance of these motors. And we’ve evolved that to a point where we now can sell reliability of motors to a customer. So, the whole business model has changed because of digitalization, because of the way we can do transactions. And this can happen across continents.

So, this is not just one plant at a time. This is sets of plants. For example, in the pulp and paper or the mining industry, we can take on the management of all these motors around the world; so, something that is available and ready today. And we are doing it right here in Singapore, which is great. And then, on the other end, we’ve got several pilot projects, which we’re running with our customers, where we’re trying technology for tomorrow and where some of that will work and some of it won’t work.

This autonomous e-bus with Volvo and NTU is one example like that that’s not commercially available, but it’s a pilot project and we’re gaining experience and learning on what will happen there. So, I think, yes, the future is good. This is a very interesting future. We see, with this new technology, a whole new workforce available to us: people that were not interested in electrical engineering and the kinds of segments that we worked in. Suddenly, there’s a whole new interest, so. I think it’s a very exciting future.

MATHIAS STECK Yes, very good. I like this positive outlook and embracing the change. Johan, thank you very much for these really great insights you gave us in this episode. And to the listeners, thank you very much for listening in. That was Johan de Villiers, managing director of ABB South East Asia on Formula E, mobility, and smart cities.

NARRATOR  Thank you for listening to this DNV GL Talks Energy podcast. To hear more podcasts in the series, please visit