Leggi in italiano

Aerial view of elevated road in Assago, Milan,Italy. Credit: Kim Long Le Hoang / 500px / Getty Images.

This is the second article on the five new research centres to be rolled out nationally with funds from the post-pandemic recovery plan. Read the first here.

The row that played out in Brussels last March over the future of European cars proves two things. A quick transformation of Europe’s transportation sector is inevitable, and that Italy has a lot at stake in it. The European Union stopped short of banning the sale of all internal combustion engines (ICEs) after 2035, allowing an exception for cars that run on ‘climate-neutral’ fuels. But adapting to new fuels would still require a massive innovation effort, and major carmakers have already decided they will go electric anyway. This makes many people in Italy nervous. The country’s automotive sector, from famed luxury brands such as Fiat, Ferrari, Lamborghini to an ecosystem of small and medium companies that provide components for all brands, employs about 270,000 workers. Most of those companies have little experience with electric vehicles, which is why the Italian government sided with Germany in opposing a 100% ban on ICEs. Italy also has important manufacturers of ships, helicopters, trains, tyres, buses – all industries that are even harder to decarbonize and will need to innovate quickly if the EU is to meet its target of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

All this makes the creation of a new Italian research centre on sustainable mobility very timely. A consortium of 15 public research institutions and 24 companies coordinated by Politecnico di Milano, the MOST center, as it is called, was first announced in the summer of 2022, and started working in early 2023. The funding, around €394 million, mostly comes from the European Union through the “New Generation Europe” programme launched in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Ferruccio Resta, former rector of Politecnico di Milano, and now president of the foundation that manages the centre, is adamant that “this is not a European project”. He means that it does not work like the typical consortium funded by the Horizon framework programmes, where groups get together for a few years to execute a research plan based on ‘milestones’, get paid upon reaching them, and then move on. “This is more similar to a startup,” he says, “it’s a new entity that will have to become permanent, sustain itself, and work at the intersection between research and the market”.

MOST federates existing research groups into a distributed, virtual centre. Resta explains that it includes “excellent” research centre that already had an important international standing in the field, as well as those that “have a potential but are not there yet”. One of the goals the PNRR plan is to reduce the gap between top universities and smaller ones, and between northern and southern Italy. And then there are companies, ranging from carmakers to infrastructure operators, from makers of aircrafts, trains and ships to the digital, banking and insurance sectors – all industries that will play a role in the future of transport. Resta says the project is “strongly driven” by the industry, whose stakeholders occupy half of the seats in the board of directors. The center appointed an industrial advisory board before it had a scientific advisory one.

MOST will rely on about 700 researchers already employed by partner institutions, and will hire 570 more, mostly PhD students and postdocs. The work is organized across 14 spokes, subgroupings of 3 to 10 partners working on specific aspects.

Unsurprisingly, many research lines have to do with electric vehicles. Dario Zaninelli from Politecnico di Milano, who coordinates a spoke on electric traction and batteries, says that while electric cars are already sold in the millions, “there is still a lot of room for extending the autonomy of batteries, reducing the weight and size of the components of electric motors, and improving recharging systems”. On a 1km tract that runs beside the highway between Brescia and Milan, for example, his group will test recharging coils placed under the road surface to recharge cars wirelessly as they go.

Another spoke, led by Politecnico di Torino, focusses on new sustainable road vehicles, and will be developing a prototype electric vehicle for personal transportation. Its coordinator, Andrea Tonoli, says that its main innovations will be consist in a modular low-tension system that would reduce the cost of the electric vehicle, and a communication system between the car and recharging network to automatically select the best time and place to recharge, or by making the excess energy in the battery available for other vehicles.

But there’s much more to MOST than electric cars. The Turin spoke will also develop a hydrogen-fueled lorry for delivery, looking for solutions to increase the efficiency and reliability of hydrogen fuel cells and push down their cost. Another spoke, coordinated by Politecnico di Bari, covers all potential applications of hydrogen as well as other alternative fuels. “For personal road transportation, electric mobility is the apparent winner,” says coordinator Marco Torresi. “But for heavy duty and ships, hydrogen fuel cells could be an interesting option, because storage and distribution of hydrogen is easier around ports”. As for airplanes, the hardest things to propel without fossil fuels, research in this spoke will focus on so-called SAF (sustainable aviation fuels), which can be biofuels based on biomass or synthetic e-fuels obtained by combining hydrogen extracted from water and carbon dioxide taken from the atmosphere.

Protecting Italian expertise on internal combustion engines was the main argument behind Italy’s request the European Commission to allow biofuels after 2035. But in reality, “it’s not that you can just change the type of fuel and keep the motor as it is”, says Riccardo Chirone from the National Research Council, who coordinates a spoke on innovative propulsion systems. “The physical features of the fuel change the process and the timing of the combustion” he says. “A fuel that emits less CO2 could still emit more toxic nitrogen compounds, unless there is a system that prevents them”. Even if Italian-made ICEs survive the 2035 deadline they will need to innovate furiously.

Set in the centre of the “motor valley” where Ferraris and Maseratis are made, the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia is a privileged observation point on the future of cars. “The value is going to come more and more from the electronic part, and less from the mechanical one” says Paolo Pavan who coordinates the university’s role in MOST. “Italy is not ready for this change, because too many companies see informatics as an accessory and a lack of investments has created a serious shortage in electronics engineers”. He sees a key role for universities in helping companies navigate the change. Modena’s spoke will focus on autonomous vehicles. “Not solely for cars, where it is difficult to match the investments of multinational companies” says informatics professor, and autonomy specialist, Marko Bertogna. “Autonomy matters also to tractors, airplanes, drones, robots, ships”. This spoke will collaborate with the Italian postal service on a prototype of an autonomous wheeled vehicle that would be a sort of moving, autonomous post office, and will use a small catamaran as a test bed for autonomous navigation at sea.

Overall, the spokes cover all transportation modes including air, road, water, rails, and light vehicles, plus transversal themes such as propulsion, materials, autonomy, sharing platforms, infrastructures.

About half of the MOST budget has already been distributed. The rest will be allocated later through competitive calls for proofs of concept of new technologies, spin-offs and startups, or more ambitious projects. For example, the Modena spoke will apply to create a ‘living lab’ where industrial and academic groups could test autonomous systems in simulation and in realistic scenarios, building a car-racing track with cameras, sensors and a wireless communication system in the city.

“These initiatives will be the seeds of the centre’s future after 2026”, says Resta. The spokes aim to become permanent structures that will sell research services, data, testing facilities on their respective themes. MOST will also develop a training platform and a think-thank to produce intelligence and data on worldwide mobility.

When 2026 comes, says Resta, “I will feel that we have done our job if MOST becomes the go-to place for ministries and industrial partners when they are making their strategic plans.”