WRITER: Akshay Vij
PHOTOGRAPHER: Shane Reid
The invention of autonomous vehicles, the rise of shared mobility, the commercialisation of electric vehicle tech, and the development of unmanned aerial vehicles, mean we are about to see significant changes in how humans travel. So what does this mean for the everyday driver?
The future of passenger transport is predicted to be electric, autonomous, and increasingly shared. With transformative and far-reaching economic, social and environmental ramifications both nationally and internationally, adaption will be key if they are to compete in this rapidly changing ecosystem.
When the sci-fi DeLorean sports car first hit movie screens in Back to the Future in 1985, audiences delighted in the time travelling antics of Marty McFly and Doc Brown. Thirty years on, and futuristic transportation-tech continues to feature in many a blockbuster, raising the question: what will transport look like in the future?
Right now, we’re on the brink of a new era in transportation. The invention of autonomous vehicles, the emergence of shared mobility services, the commercialisation of electric vehicle technologies, and the development of unmanned aerial vehicles, promise to revolutionise how humans travel.
Not since Henry Ford invented the Model T in 1908 has the transport sector seen this much disruption. And while many of these technologies are still in their infancy, when they’re market ready, the implications are likely to be profound.
Shared electric autonomous vehicles promise to be cheaper, safer and more energy efficient than any existing mode of transport. Fifty years from now, most urban regions across the world will likely not allow humans to drive. In a hundred years, we’ll look back at this period and ask ourselves how we ever allowed humans to drive in the first place! Like the horse-drawn carriage that came before, interested enthusiasts may be able to take human-operated cars for rides on protected and supervised roadways away from the city. But for most people, present day cars will be nothing more than quaint objects from a distant past.
So what does this mean for the everyday driver? We’re likely to see lower car ownership, but more people that depend on cars; fewer fixed route and fixed schedule mass public transport systems, and more flexible ‘micro’ public transport systems that offer adaptive routes and schedules; and improved safety, but greater protective legislation.
Undoubtedly, these new systems and services are poised to deliver unprecedented economic, social and environmental change, and how we deal with this will be critical for our future.
The rise of the sharing economy
The emergence of autonomous vehicles is unquestionably linked with the rise of the sharing economy. Web-based services—such as e-commerce platforms, video messaging services, digital health services, and online distance learning portals—are all changing the need and desire to travel, with more people valuing the experience over ownership.
Many of the same information and communication technologies underlying these online services are leading to new forms of shared mobility. Short-term carshare services like GoGet, rideshare services like Uber, and public bikesharing services such as OFO are each changing how consumers use transport.
In Australia alone, carshare services have 66,000 members and offer access to 2200 vehicles; ride-share services employ 20,000 active driver-partners, and bike-share services offer access to 7,000 bicycles. In comparison, the taxi industry operates 21,000 taxis nationwide.
The rise of collaborative consumption and the growth in business and consumer interest in shared mobility services reflects a broader transition from an ownership-based economy to an access-based economy.
"A single carshare vehicle could take up to 10 private vehicles off the road, and a fleet of 9,000 carshare vehicles could reduce Sydney’s private car ownership by 90,000 private vehicles." – AECOM report, 2016.
The shift has been aided by concurrent economic and demographic shifts, such as a recessionary global economy, rising oil prices, rising higher education enrolment rates, an increase in the average age of entry into the labour market, and the decision to start a family at a later age.
The last two decades have been witness to stagnant or declining levels of private car use across much of the developed world. For example, between 2001 and 2016 in Australia, per capita vehicle kilometres travelled decreased by six per cent nationally, with licensing rates for people under 25 dropping by more than 10 per cent in Victoria and New South Wales. The sustained fall in private car use is a phenomenon observed around the world, and has been referred to as ‘peak car’.
Self-driving cars are the future
Autonomous vehicle technology, in conjunction with shared mobility services, could accelerate ‘peak car’, helping households downsize from two cars, to one, or potentially none at all.
The technology that drives autonomous vehicles will enable on-demand, door-to-door transport services as a new form of micro public transport, combining the benefits of existing mass public transport services and private modes of motorised transport, but without the same drawbacks.
Compared to mass public transport services that require large catchment areas in order to be feasible (and consequently suffer from first and last mile connectivity problems) micro public transport can offer door-to-door services. And, compared with private modes of motorised transport, where high parking costs and frequent congestion can limit access and use, micro public transport is expected to be cheaper, faster and more convenient.
This technology is already disrupting existing practices within the transport, automotive and insurance industries, and already traditional public transport service providers are being forced to consider new models of provision.
For example, Transport for New South Wales is currently trialling on-demand transport (ODT) services that allow commuters in suburban parts of the state to book transport from or near their home to a local transport hub through a phone call, website or smartphone app.
Metropolitan regions in Northern Europe have tested the related concept of Mobility as a Service (MaaS), where consumers can plan, book and pay for travel using different transport modes and services through a single digital platform. Our research has found that there is unmet consumer demand for both ODT and MaaS in Australia, especially the latter. Additionally, many transport service providers are exploring the provision of these services with a view towards future integration with autonomous vehicle technology.
To bridge the pending gap in car sales, traditional automotive manufacturers are looking to take on the role of transport service providers themselves. For example, BMW already operates carsharing services in North America and Europe, and General Motors plans to commence its own ridesharing services in 2019 using self-driving cars developed in house.
"Shared mobility service providers are investing in the development of autonomous vehicle technology, so as to hold on to their current market advantage."
The insurance industry is also bracing itself, as reduced private ownership and increased safety will likely push down car insurance premiums over time. Consequently, insurance providers are also looking for opportunities to enter the transport market. For example, the Royal Automobile Association (RAA) of South Australia is extensively involved in ongoing self-driving car trials; the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV) is a private partner in Melbourne Bike Share; and preliminary discussions are underway at the Royal Automobile Club of Queensland (RACQ) to develop a business case for a MaaS service for South East Queensland.
Electric cars, unmanned aerial vehicles and other potential disruptions
Parallel with these developments, electric cars are becoming increasingly commercially feasible. While high costs, low driving ranges, long charging times and limited public charging infrastructure continue to be major impediments to adoption, most experts agree that the electrification of our transport infra-structure is not a question of if, but when.
"Electric cars have the potential to provide cost effective emissions reductions, address issues of fuel security, as well as benefits to air quality."
While they pose threats to the oil industry, they will create new business opportunities in the construction and maintenance of public charging infrastructure.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are another potential disruptor. Large drones have the ability to displace existing long-distance air, rail and freight shipping industries; smaller drones could similarly displace existing urban delivery services.
Companies like Google and Uber have even been testing pilotless planes as flying taxis. However, most variants of unmanned aerial vehicle technology are still under research and development. And, while the commercial benefits are not clear at this stage, many experts continue to view them as ‘technologies in search of solutions’.
The way forward
The future of passenger transport is predicted to be electric, autonomous, and increasingly shared. Each of these changes by themselves are potentially disruptive, but together, will be transformative, with far-reaching economic, social and environmental ramifications both nationally and internationally.
In the past, industry and government have failed to anticipate the rate and scale of change of new technologies and services. For example, the rapid diffusion of rideshare services such as Uber in Australia caught both taxi providers and transport planners by surprise. As a result, state governments have been forced to introduce expensive bailouts to keep local taxi industries afloat and compensate taxi plate owners for their losses.
Legislation has had to be amended to allow rideshare companies like Uber to operate legally, following pressure from consumer advocacy groups. Now, new regulations are under review to address concerns around unfair employment practices, inadequate insurance coverage, and lax security measures with regards to the provision of these services. Some of this disruption could have been avoided had the public and private sectors been appropriately prepared.
The case of ridesharing in Australia serves as an excellent example for why businesses in transport and related sectors need to be aware of transformative technologies and new service provision models.
Adaption is key if they are to compete in this rapidly changing ecosystem.
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