Time to get moving on mobility — for the planet’s sake

We need to solve our mobility problems, both for our quality of life, and to combat the climate crisis. But achieving frugal mobility involves some serious complexity…

Nowhere is the interface between bits and atoms more critical than in mobility. With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that we have — at best — around a decade to address climate change, looking at mobility as a major driver of carbon emissions is critical.

Digital technologies have long offered promise of delivering more efficient — and therefore more sustainable — solutions to our travel needs. Multiple parallel streams are under development or in deployment — autonomous vehicles, digitally hireable bikes and scooters, and, of course, ride-sharing apps. Even simple measures like the grocery delivery service we use now picking up returns from associated shops with online ordering takes journeys off the roads, and adds to consumer convenience.

And yet, this is not yet transforming the way we live. Some of the current efforts are stumbling. Ride-sharing faces questions about its potential profitability. The scooter hire business is struggling in places, and withdrawing from others. Autonomous vehicles seem to have been 10 years away for five years now.

Perhaps we need to think bigger. Rather than having competing bits of tech and companies, maybe we’d get on better if we had a framework in which they could work in concert to deliver people’s varying transport needs.

The Future is Frugal Mobility

NEXT’s parent Accenture Interactive has been working on exactly such an idea: Frugal Mobility:

A frugal mobility solution is defined by a better mobility experience using fewer resources. The experience is improved because it is a more inclusive, safer and more secure experience that is faster and more comfortable. In addition, it uses less resources, such as natural resources, capital immobilization, financial resources, or even technical knowledge: ultimately frugal mobility ensures that the best solution should be easy to operate and easy to maintain and repair.

Certainly this will involve some of those micro-mobility solutions referred to above. While the negative stories about electric scooters get the headlines, progress has been swift, as the Accenture report makes clear, when talking about the scooter hire market:

Lime was deployed in San Francisco in early 2018 but unknown in Paris. Today, Paris has the highest density of scooters in the world and at least half a dozen brands are competing on the sidewalk of the city. And as this trend has gone from a weak signal to a widespread service, discussions on regulation (or safety risk mitigations) of these micro mobility vehicles are increasing and might become the next big thing on the mobility agenda of 2019.

Truly Connected Mobility Solutions

In June 2019, the future mobility world met up in Montreal for the Movin’On Summit 2019. While there was plenty of focus on electric vehicles and new design ideas to reduce transport waste, a key theme was how to move autonomous vehicles further faster. At the moment AVs work best in controlled situations, on pre-determined routes.

Moving that on has some challenges. As Jil Mc reported for AutoTrader Canada :

Almost every automaker is working on autonomous vehicles (AVs), as well as freight and transit partners, but there’s a lot more to it than just leaving out the steering wheel. I rode in Navya’s fully autonomous shuttle, which used a variety of cameras and sensors to determine what was around it (including me, when later I stepped in front to see if it would stop – which, of course, it did).

But they only really start working autonomously when they’re fed data from other sources:

For AVs to operate as personal transportation, they’ll need “smart” infrastructure that continuously communicates with them, and cities that use technology to reduce congestion and keep everything moving smoothly.

Last night, I drove home via the major motorway from London to the south coast, where I live. It’s in the process of being upgraded to a smart motorway, where sensors along the route detect traffic flow and congestion, and adjust speed limits in realtime to keep the traffic flowing. Right now, getting maximum impact from that requires human intervention: drivers doing what they’re told. But imagine that system was communicating directly with autonomous vehicles in real time.

Now apply that to a city, and not just to cars, but to micro mobility as well. It all starts to get very interesting, doesn't it?

The Parallelwelten of Mobility

Mobility can’t be discussed in isolation. This is about more than just bringing the Parallelwelten of bits and digital. Instead, we need to bring together transport infrastructure, urban planning, telecommunications and vehicle design, together with app interfaces to make all this work.

This, more than any other recent challenges, is not about building a unicorn business that will solve these problems with a single, breakthrough product. This is about doing the hard, co-operative work of bringing both the public and private sectors together, to build a range of options that change how we think about transport.

Time to get on with it — we’ve only got a decade to get this done.