Big and Small Revolutions: The Future of Mobility

“Vehicle autonomy is definitely the most intriguing and promising option. But is it the solution to all our problems?”

In response to the question, “What will be the main changes in mobility over the next few years?” one participant at the LA CoMotion NewCities Cities in Motion leadership conference responded, “Everything’s going to change!” while another added, “Everything, and very fast.”

Most players in the mobility ecosystem agree that the coming years will bring many profound changes in transportation. The vast majority of people will be affected, especially those who live in big cities, but also those in smaller ones. In the long term, the goal of this transformation is to facilitate the transportation of goods and people.

Mobility is a universal challenge. For example, just think of traffic congestion or the inadequate number of alternative modes of transportation to private cars. For some time now, many public and private companies have been seeking to implement solutions that can improve mobility and, in turn, the quality of peoples’ lives.

Currently, there seem to be three major drivers of change: electrification, shared mobility and autonomous transport.

Vehicle autonomy is definitely the most intriguing and promising option. Although it may not be the solution to all our problems—some even think it could lead to an increase in the number of vehicles on the road—it’s one worth considering.

According to the vast majority of speakers at the LA CoMotion conference, autonomy will be a widespread reality in a few years. One of the biggest advantages of autonomous vehicles is safety. Because roughly 95% of traffic accidents are caused by human error, bad decisions and inappropriate behaviour, systems that support this type of vehicle should be able to eliminate virtually all accidents.

Until vehicles as we know them today are eradicated, autonomous vehicles will have to interact with human drivers (and their flaws) on most of the roads across the world—even if we create fully dedicated lanes or areas to maximize their efficiency and safety.

The fact is, autonomous vehicle technology has yet to master active interactions with humans in their driving environment. Whether on foot, by bike or at the wheel, we interact with one another every day—from eye contact to make sure we’ve been seen, to a smile or a wave to let a pedestrian or motorist go by. In short, there is still much work to be done before systems can understand the signals humans use to communicate with each other.

Autonomous vehicles aren’t just cars—they are a promising type of vehicle for freight companies or public transit corporations, like trucks, shuttles or buses. The city of Dubai is even set to launch a series of tests on autonomous air taxis. Taking the form of large drones or small electric helicopters, these flying taxis will be able to transport two passengers to their destination, without a pilot!

Unsurprisingly, autonomous transport should rapidly extend to small package delivery services. Although the idea of drones delivering parcels to your doorstep was the stuff of science fiction until very recently, today it seems like it may become a reality in the not-so-distant future.

In fact, autonomous buses and shuttles are already in use. Transdev has these kinds of vehicles on roads all over the world. Waymo, a division of Google, offers an app-based service with self-driving cars in Arizona. Members of this community have said that Waymo cars are by far the most polite drivers on the road!

In Canada, one can’t help but wonder how these vehicles will fare with the cold, snow and ice. Our extreme weather conditions are definitely of concern to companies responsible for developing and testing these systems, but for now, no one has a clear answer to these questions. In any case, a battery of tests is underway. And the innovations over the coming years will have a real impact on the mobility of goods and people, here and elsewhere.

Luc Arbour