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There are so many questions about the future of urban transportation (now called mobility). Most of them are focused on “when.” When will fully driverless vehicles be mainstream? When will cities figure out how to manage dockless scooters and bikes? When will full mobility as a service (MaaS), where you can book any door-to-door trip with a single click, be available?



These questions are difficult to answer, especially in light of how some recent predictions have turned out to be overly optimistic.

But some answers are coming into focus. These are questions about the “what” in new mobility services. What will urban mobility look like in the coming decades? How will it work? Traveling the world, speaking at conferences and talking with other experts, I see growing consensus around four characteristics. Mobility will be shared, hybrid, eventually autonomous and electric.




It is increasingly clear that the single-occupancy vehicle, autonomous or human-driven, is unsustainable as a primary mode of urban transport. This unsustainability is due in part to the fact that cities are expected to grow by 15% to 20% by 2050, and the infrastructure can’t accommodate a corresponding growth in traffic. Congestion is already at record highs, and multiple studies have shown that algorithmically optimized carpooling can cut traffic by up to 90% and even make shared trips more convenient than driving.

The issue of congestion is so critical that cities like London and New York are introducing congestion pricing, similar to a toll, for vehicles entering their most congested areas. That is the stick approach to congestion — punishing undesired behavior. Meanwhile, Los Angeles is piloting a low-cost, on-demand micro-transit service that takes people to and from transit hubs. This is more of a carrot approach — rewarding people for the desired behavior. Autonomy alone won’t solve congestion unless delivered as a shared service. Some researchers studying the impact of autonomous vehicles (AVs) on traffic have called for personal ownership of AVs to be illegal.




Yes, autonomous vehicles are coming, but the transition to ubiquitous AVs will be gradual. This means that human-driven and autonomous vehicles will have to coexist. I have always believed that it doesn’t matter who or what is driving the car when it comes to making urban mobility more efficient. What matters is that we can move more people with fewer vehicles, which requires getting the right vehicle to the right place at the right time, even as hundreds or thousands of trip requests are made.

The primary difference between human-driven and autonomous mobility is the driver. Yes, AVs promise to have some fancy infotainment, but there are no reasons human-driven vehicles can’t have the same features as they become available. The same goes for safety features like obstacle detection and collision avoidance. Those features are already making their way into today’s vehicles. When it comes to sending optimized missions to fleets offering shared services, the missions will either be sent to a self-driving computer or to a driver’s mobile phone.



Integrated With Public Transportation

Plain and simple, there is no way to significantly reduce urban congestion without some form of mass public transit. Public transportation is essential to economic sustainability in cities, and in most cases, it excels at moving millions of people in and out of urban centers every day. Where it does not excel, especially in the United States, it is because it usually has been underfunded for decades.


It is common in the U.S. to criticize public transit as a money-losing fiasco. Far from it. Every dollar, euro or yen invested in public transportation sets off a domino effect of economic activity up to four times the initial outlay. In the U.S., 71% of this four-times return benefits the private sector. Cities subsidize public transit to foster this kind of economic growth. Where public transportation often fails is in the so-called last-mile: getting people to and from transit centers. That’s where we need shared services like the one Los Angeles is testing.




Virtually every automaker in the world is marching toward an electric future, just as they are marching toward an autonomous future. The two go hand in hand in many ways. Electric vehicles require less maintenance than gas-powered vehicles. The fuel is less is expensive. And the vehicles are easier to refuel without human intervention.


The cost and range of electric vehicles are seen to be a barrier to adoption by some. The costs of electric powertrains are expected to come down dramatically as batteries become more efficient and less expensive. Range is an issue for personal vehicles, but shared vehicles in regional fleets will be replaced while being recharged, and range should not impact service availability.



Are We There Yet?

There are significant technical and regulatory hurdles to overcome for this future to become a reality — hurdles that businesses should keep a close eye on as they continue to advance the autonomous vehicle industry. Growing cities are looking at policies to incentivize shared services and disincentivize single-occupancy vehicles to reduce congestion and emissions. What level of safety is acceptable — there will perhaps never be a 100% safe vehicle — is another thorny policy issue. Directly related is the subject of the safety and reliability of self-driving technology. It is taking longer than many thought it would to “perfect” autonomous vehicles. This is where policy and technology intersect, and it’s important for technology professionals to be aware of their role in this progress.


Market forces are also driving the adoption of shared, integrated services. Generations that eschew ownership of just about anything except their phones are fast becoming the chief consumers of mobility. These consumers also expect access to goods and services with the tap of a finger, and they want cleaner air and clearer streets. Technologies and services that enable shared, electric, integrated, door-to-door transit will be the winners in the new mobility services market.



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