Perpetual Motion

Imagine a city where nobody drives. All vehicles inside a defined metropolitan area run autonomously. Those vehicles are all shapes and sizes, from nippy little city cars to full-size articulated trams, they can be “just for you” or shared. They can be carrying people or goods. And there are no parked cars … anywhere.

Does that sound like a far-fetched Utopian vision?

One vision of future urban mobility: Video credit: Robert Bosch GmbH
A slightly different vision of future mobility from 1990: Excerpt from Total Recall starring Arnold Schwarzenegger

Well, it’s highly likely that neither of these depictions of the future will prove accurate – not least because the Bosch vision appears to work best devoid of human beings and Arni’s robocab looks like it was bought as part of a job lot from a fairground sideshow. Nevertheless, this idea of future mobility or Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is what is currently motivating vehicle makers, suppliers, tech companies and governments to rethink the products, services and infrastructures that transport us from A to B.

Diesel and petrol emissions are harmful to public health and the environment. Everyone is in broad agreement on that. The diesel emissions scandal sparked by Volkswagen in 2015 brought it into public focus and spurred national and local governments to slap a variety of bans on vehicles powered by fossil fuels. And, with 68 percent of the world’s population forecast by the UN to live in urban areas by 2050, the pressure is on to find more sustainable ways to keep people and economies moving.

The Volkswagen effect
The slog of urban congestion does not deliver freedom of mobility
Image credit: Audi AG

The bottom line is that individually owned cars are an extremely inefficient and expensive form of transportation. And the convenience aspect of being able to jump in your car is undermined by some very real inconveniences. These include the time, expense and stress associated with parking and the mind-numbing congestion that makes most day-to-day journeys a nose-to-tail slog with precious little of the freedom and open-road feeling once associated with good old-fashioned motoring.

In the new mobility of the future, a city’s self-driving vehicles would all “talk” to one another and to you as part of the Internet of Things (IoT). As a consumer, you would be able to choose the form of transport that best fits your needs and budget at any given time. At the most expensive end of the pricing system, for instance, you could hail a ride from a robotaxi that will take you (and your stuff) door-to-door. If you want to pay a bit less, you could book a ride share to pick you up from a nearby location and drop you off within a five-minute walk of your destination. That ride-share could look something like the Vision URBANETIC by Mercedes-Benz Vans or the Rinspeed SNAP – both ideas feature a motorised “skateboard” base that can carry interchangeable bodies suitable for transporting passengers or cargo, depending on time of day and demand.

The Vision URBANETIC concept by Mercedes-Benz Vans
Video credit: Daimler AG
VW SECDRIC autonomous school bus concept
Image credit: Volkswagen AG

Family-friendly ride-share companies could run vehicles with extra space, facilities (and time) for all the kit and caboodle that comes with travelling with young children. Others could focus on the needs of older travellers.

And you would book and pay for all of this via your mobile device as and when you need it.

The idea is to maximise vehicle utilisation and thereby drastically reduce the space occupied by parked cars, vehicles driving around looking for parking spaces and full-size SUVs carrying only one person.

But given that many cities struggle to finance and organise even the most basic of infrastructure improvements, how will this happen and who will finance it?

Boston is working on vision entitled “Imagine Boston 2030”
Image credit: Audi AG

Many cities around the world are already tackling this issue from multiple angles. In the US, Boston (Massachusetts) published a far-reaching transportation strategy to completely revamp its transit systems based on new mobility models such as self-driving vehicles, electric drive and ride-sharing services.

In China, government and city initiatives are fast-tracking electric vehicles and other new mobility models in its vast city infrastructures, driven by mind-boggling congestion and extreme air pollution.

And even Russia is providing a glimpse of a brave new motoring future with the sudden free-market proliferation in Moscow of car-sharing services that is precipitating a sharp drop in car ownership.

Russian car-share firm Yandex showcased its self-driving taxi at CES 2019 in Las Vegas
Image credit: Yandex

The driverless aspect of new mobility is probably what gives most consumers cause for concern. Most are convinced that it’s safer to have a human being at the wheel, despite the fact that human error is the cause of nearly 90 percent of all RTCs. Accident statistics notwithstanding, there remain major legal and ethical issues to be addressed before fully autonomous vehicles take to the roads in large numbers. As indicated by the fallout after the death of a woman in Arizona when she was hit by an autonomous Uber test vehicle with a human safety driver, one fatality involving a “robodriver” trumps hundreds of fatalities every day at the hands of human drivers. No vehicle brand will want to find itself top of the “autonomous deaths” leader board.

Nevertheless, we can expect to see growth in the short to medium term in the use of driverless vehicles in “controlled” environments such as factory sites, car parks and agricultural applications. Several authorities around the world already have in place regulatory frameworks that permit testing of driverless vehicles on public roads with human safety drivers. The UK government recently announced plans to permit testing of completely driverless vehicles (i.e. without a safety driver) on public roads by 2021. And Google subsidiary Waymo has chalked up 10 million autonomous test miles since 2009.

Waymo has more driverless miles under its belt than any other player
Image credit: Waymo LLC

There is no shortage of opposition to many new mobility ideas. With much of the technology facilitating it being based on ultra-high-speed data networks, cloud computing and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communication, there are concerns about data security and malicious hacking. The mass adoption of new powertrain technologies, such as electricity or hydrogen raises infrastructure, public safety and resourcing questions. And, of course, the mere notion of the driverless car sparks panic attacks among committed petrolheads.

At the dawn of the automobile, when actual horse power reigned supreme, the arguments presented by nay-sayers fell along similar lines of safety, infrastructure and lifestyle. But within less than a generation, the horse was supplanted as a driver of the economy to spend its well-earned retirement as a hobby.

Petrolheads and car guys beware!

Feature image provided by Robert Bosch GmbH

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