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Can Europe’s aerospace capital reinvent itself as a future mobility hub?

Toulouse is positioning itself as a centre for mobility talent, investment and innovation, writes Megan Lampinen

If Israel is known for its entrepreneurs, then Toulouse has to be known for its engineers. The city has established itself as Europe’s aeronautics and space centre of expertise, with roots stretching back to the establishment of Aéropostale and the airborne postal service nearly a century ago. The city is clearly proud of its links to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and you can’t go more than five minutes without seeing some sort of reference to his piloting feats or his famous children’s story Le Petit Prince.

Today, Toulouse is home to Airbus HQ, a pioneer in everything linked to aerospace products and solutions, from satellites and crewed spacecraft to helicopters and commercial airplanes. Walk into any park, any restaurant and you are bound to find several Airbus employees, or students bound for Airbus in the near future. With several major engineering schools, Toulouse has the third largest student population in all of France and actively nurtures its future talent pool.

Toulouse B612
B612 is just one of the mobility innovation campuses in Toulouse

But satellites and spacecraft alone won’t cut it—the city has bigger mobility aspirations, particularly around artificial intelligence and autonomous transportation. SAE Level 4 self-driving shuttles, green hydrogen production, hyperloop networks, eVTOL services, drones, software-defined passenger vehicles, and a multi-modal ecosystem that links together bikes, metros, buses, and more recently cable cars—these are all either in place today or under development in the city.

The activity is coming from a mix of traditional automotive giants and innovative start-ups, and the combination could prove dynamic. Renault Software Factory has hundreds of software developers positioning the automaker to thrive in the age of the software-defined car. Continental Digital Services France has its HQ in Toulouse, working on projects like eHorizon for safer connected and autonomous vehicles. The same location is also developing essential next-generation products like an electric vehicle charging robot, high-performance computing units and Intelligent Antenna Modules for 5G applications. Both Continental and Renault work from well-established campuses supported by a large workforce, but over at the abandoned military base in Francazal it is another story.

Here, on what looks like the movie set for a dystopian horror film, some of the most innovative mobility technology is under development. Abandoned, paint-peeling buildings and untamed thistles are enough to keep out all but the most curious, but those that make it inside can see autonomous test shuttles from EasyMile tooling down the empty roads. In some cases these vehicles run right up to the HyperloopTT system and R&D Centre. With tubes assembled and vacuum pumps installed, HyperloopTT is running full-scale tests to establish safety and insurance certifications, and optimising and fully integrating all of the system’s technical components. One day, a network of tubes could extend from one city centre to the next, revolutionising the movement both goods and people.

HyperloopTT Toulouse
HyperloopTT has set up a stretch of test track in Toulouse

Other companies in this urban reconversion project area are working on drone and aircraft-related solutions. They will soon by joined by innovators looking into green hydrogen, a fuel that could prove game-changing in the push for clean mobility.

That’s just one of the city’s technology campuses. Down the road at the B612 innovation centre, other start-ups are also testing aerospace and embedded system innovations, many of which could one day add a new twist to the city’s strong roots in the third dimension. B612 is all about collaboration among public and private laboratories, enterprises and start-ups.

Most promising, perhaps, is the flood of young talent in the region. As Automotive World explored the workshop of an upcoming hybrid eVTOL from Ascendance Flight Technologies, elsewhere in the building local university students had gathered to show off their latest innovations in a sort of engineering Olympiad. Separately, a lone engineer from a robotics company had shown up to present an update on the company’s technological progress to investors. The broad mix of players, the hive of engineering activity and enthusiasm, wasn’t a show put on for media. It’s par for the course in Toulouse, and should prove a successful future-proofing strategy for this particular city moving forward.

In the coming weeks, Automotive World will be taking deep dives into many of the technologies under development in Toulouse. Watch this space

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