We’re living in an exciting time for smart mobility. Buoyed by recent developments in transformative technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and fifth-generation wireless communications (5G), the vision of fully-sophisticated smart mobility seems closer than ever.
With one eye firmly fixed upon a future where everyday processes and services will become increasingly interconnected, data-driven and autonomous, it’s hard not to feel a sense of excitement at the utopian ideal of a seamlessly integrated, intelligent transport network and the corollary benefits that such a system will bring – to the economy, to passenger safety, to the health and wellbeing of both people and the natural environment.
But while a future-thinking perspective is all well and good, it’s important to remember that innovation cannot be built on blue-sky thinking alone. While future smart mobility will certainly comprise an array of exciting forms of transportation – wide scale electrification of vehicle fleets, autonomous vehicles, fully-connected travel experiences and more besides – we must not lose sight of the practical steps that need to be taken in the here and now to step change transportation for tomorrow. This starts with a fundamental shift in attitudes to travel – namely, away from the singular and towards the shared.
An inconvenient truth
For close to a century, the car has been considered king when it comes to convenient transportation. In that time, demand has been both fulfilled and fuelled by ever-cheaper models produced on a hyper mass-market scale, with private car ownership per-capita rising year-on-year in virtually every nation on earth. But while current rates of ownership still far exceed the proportion of one car for every two persons across much of the developed world, a report on disruptive automotive trends from McKinsey & Company suggests the beginnings of a global downward trend in private car ownership. In the face of growing global frustration at excessive congestion on inter-city highways and in busy urban centres, and the resulting environmental concerns that such high levels of traffic bring, there is a growing acceptance that private vehicles aren’t necessarily the way that people will move in future. Some are already beginning to break the habits of a lifetime and transition towards smarter shared mobility services – though the rate at which this is happening is perhaps slower than it ought to be.
The problems faced by societies on a global scale as a result of excessive car ownership are intensifying. Congestion is getting worse, costing an estimated $305 billion in economic impact in 2017 in the U.S. alone, an increase of $10 billion from 2016. Excessive carbon emissions from traffic are polluting our air to dangerous levels, with the World Health Organisation claiming that transport accounted for almost a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2010. In addition, people are spending longer than ever commuting to and from work, regardless of how they travel, while the overwhelming need for more car parking spaces is limiting our ability to expand and grow smarter cities in the way that we want to. The fact is that while cars have long been seen as the ultimate symbols of convenience, the global overreliance on them means that these efficacy benefits are not only being outweighed by the negatives, but are simply ceasing to exist altogether. Solo travel is starting to seem less like a route to convenience and more like a roadblock.
Sharing the spoils
The idea of travelling together is certainly nothing new, but today’s innovative shared mobility services are unlike the communal travel models of old. Because of technological innovations, shared travel experiences are becoming better than ever – though this, of course, means that expectations are similarly increased. An influx of well-funded ride-hailing startups has disrupted the transport market, while the level of on-demand expediency offered across a range of other industries has fundamentally raised the bar on what customers expect from the services they consume. People want services that are made for them, designed and developed around their wants and needs – and they not only want them immediately, but they expect them to be affordable. For the status of smart mobility to be truly accelerated, propositions must meet the skyrocketing demands that consumers have now in terms of ease and efficiency.
To do this, we can start to focus on a number of things. Firstly, transport operators and providers can invest in better onboard experiences to help solve the wellbeing and productivity challenges associated with stressful journeys. By improving communal travel experiences, whether for work or leisure, operators give people the chance of actually making the most of their travel time. Secondly, transport providers and planners must work together to bridge the current gaps in the network, as the current reliance on personal car transportation is primarily driven by a lack of genuinely compelling alternatives. Gaps in the transport network can be quickly and dynamically filled by new, connected and data-driven mobility services, which are a precursor to the ultimate goal of seamlessly connected travel experiences.
Finally, and where feasible, we must look to interlink existing travel options, with a particular focus on solving the challenge of the first and last mile. If people cannot get exactly to where they need to be via shared transport, they will often begrudgingly turn back to the private vehicles they are trying to leave behind. Local municipalities and regulators have a key part to play here, as it is only by enabling the provision of data between all parties in the overall travel experience and ultimately beginning to break down the existing barriers between public and private transportation that we will start to see real progress made.
Facing the future
Improving the performance and viability of today’s shared travel options will lay a bedrock upon which to start seriously building the smarter travel networks of the future. True smart mobility isn’t here yet, and there are many hurdles to overcome as we progress towards the ultimate goal – including building the infrastructure for electric and automated vehicles, working out how these next-generation vehicles will properly interface with the human world and solving synonymous challenges in other sectors such as mobile networks. We will eventually overcome all these hurdles, and the dream will one day become reality, but hurdles do, of course, come in sequence. We cannot scale them all at once, and without overcoming the challenge of making shared mobility more attractive than solo travel, we run the risk of the remaining hurdles seeming increasingly insurmountable.