Mobility in a Post COVID-19 World


The concept of “Smart Mobility” is explained the best with the help of a real-world example. In this case, we will look at the Dutch capital Amsterdam, the city which has been universally renowned for its love affair with bicycles. However, there’s much more to the mobility system of Amsterdam than just an extensive use of bicycles. Going by the tales of Amsterdam’s bicycle love, it’s not very unusual for people to wonder, why does the city need other means of eco-friendly transport? However, a deeper look reveals how Amsterdam has kept itself at the forefront of smart mobility for many years now. Even though Amsterdam is the capital of Holland, it’s not a massive European capital city like London or Berlin. The small surface area coupled with the dense population leads to a city where 90% of the people don’t have parking spaces for themselves. Luckily, the city government is very forward-thinking and the local population is extremely creative and enterprising. As a result of that, the entire city of Amsterdam is brimming with research, initiatives and businesses around smart mobility.

Boats, cars, buses and scooters are all going electric, as are all taxis going from the Schiphol International Airport. Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is a booming industry and firms like ViaVan, Felyx, Car2Go (among others) provide mobility options where the public transport system can’t deliver. Aside from that, Amsterdam also features one of the largest number of Electric Vehicle (EV) charging stations in the world. Users can locate these charging stations and available parking spaces with the help of numerous apps. The offices of Tesla Europe are in Amsterdam, along with charging station manufacturers EV Box and New Motion. Amsterdam’s smart mobility doesn’t end on its roads. It even extends to the city’s boats. At the forefront of that is the futuristic “Roboat”. The autonomous robot-boat can serve as a taxi, freight carrier, waste collector, floating stage, and even a bridge. The “Smart” part of Amsterdam doesn’t just end with incredibly clever mobility options either. The city recycles discarded but still operational car batteries to power football stadiums and smart office buildings which are world renowned for their sustainable and innovative architecture.

Now that you have a better idea of what Smart Mobility entails, let’s find out a little about its future in the post-COVID-19 world.

Despite the market challenges posed by the dreaded disease, many industry experts still believe that the long term outlook for Automated Vehicles (AVs) and Smart Mobility in general, is positive. The potential benefits to mobility and safety presented by AVs will eventually outperform the current situation of uncertainty.

When upstart Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and traditional makers joined forces in the field of smart mobility, it resulted in what the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) calls Level 4 automated driving systems. Don’t worry, that is just the technical name for what we commonly know as driverless cars, vehicles that are directed by computer for the entire duration of a trip without any human driving responsibility (with certain road and weather condition restrictions). However, the arrival of COVID-19 and the ensuing social distancing/work from home culture that it popularized, led to the developers take their foot off the gas when it came to AVs. The delays were a result of financial liquidity problems plaguing businesses, along with health-related business model risks, reduced ability to reliably train automated driving systems in real-world traffic conditions, and broad uncertainty surrounding post-Covid-19 travel demand. The following four factors are the reason behind the setback:

1. Investors are going to be more conservative until the pandemic passes and economy rebounds. This means risky, multi-billion-dollar bets on perfecting a Level 4 automated driving system over years with no revenue are less likely, especially for traditional automakers that can turn to more-proven business lines. Most companies are at least publicly optimistic about the limited impact of Covid-19 on their AV research and development activities, but investors will ultimately drive the outcome.

2. A lot of the developers in the AV field were building their initial AV business models around centralized fleets of self-driving taxis. However, in a world where social distancing is encouraged, shared mobility is a bit of a slippery slope. Will customers be willing to enter a vehicle that may have just transported an infected passenger? A deep cleaning following each use to ensure no viral transmission undercuts the economics of this business model. Also, who will do the deep cleaning if there is no person driving the car? A team of Swiss researchers highlighted cleaning as one of the uncertain costs that could make or break this prediction. Unless affordable cleaning technology is developed to automatically and quickly sanitize vehicle cabins after each use, developers will have to shift their focus to freight and cargo delivery options. The Level 4 vehicles from Nuro that deliver groceries in Houston are a great example of that.

3. Machine learning has also been adversely affected by the reduction in the number of people travelling on streets and sidewalks. Yes, machine learning algorithms are not super-advanced artificial intelligence out of movies like The Terminator, they are essentially technologies that recognize patterns. It makes no sense to teach an AV how to safely drive in the current scenario since it’s supposed to be temporary (hopefully) and normal traffic conditions should return soon.

Minimizing public health risks was the primary reason for Developers such as Waymo, Argo AI, and Cruise decided to temporarily suspend public road testing because of public health risks and a blanket ban on travelling. Driving simulators might help, but they are not a substitute for real world driving.

4. Uncertainty about near-term travel activity may depress short-term interest in AV development. How many people will just continue working from home because it’s more economical? Why would cities that had planned to invest millions of dollars in AVs, continue with their initial plan after a majority of the population shifts permanently to a work from home model? When will the health risks associated with shared transportation finally reach negligible levels?

Despite all these challenges, the future and long term outlook of AVs are still positive. The benefits to mobility and safety still remain the same. However, large scale deployments will definitely be delayed. Better late than never though.

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