There is a First Nations legend, told in several variations, of a magic canoe that could change its size to seat any number of people from one person up to an entire village. All the canoeist had to do was make a wish and plunge the paddle for one stroke in the water, and they would appear at their desired destination. Like so many legends, this story reveals what it is that people desire.
We’ve seen throughout history how our needs and desires are reflected by how we move people and things around. The Romans, masters of improving every concept and technology they decided was crucial to their empire-building, created a network of roads that were designed to be wide enough for two wheeled vehicles to pass one another. They understood that empires required reliable means of travel and trade between their cities and far-flung provinces. The Roman empire was largely shaped by these magnificent stone roads, which stretched over 80,000 km! Their success speaks to the Romans’ ability to maximize the technologies available to them while at the same time aligning their application with the needs of both the people who use them and the empire that governs them.
Today we sit on the cusp of a handful of transport technologies that promise to profoundly alter not only the way we travel, but the way we see travel. This is made possible by having access to the myriad of data sets that we’re able to collect as our populations move around in our cities. Rather than looking up multiple schedules, checking for traffic congestion and trying to align all of these factors so that we can arrive at our destination on time, we’ll be able to simply ask our mobile devices to tell us how to get where we’re going. “I need to arrive at Lonsdale Quay by 12:30pm today” could trigger a response like “Take e-scooter at Main and 15th Ave now to Main and Broadway. Board 11:42am Broadway bus westbound to Broadway Station. Board 11:58am Skytrain to Waterfront Station. Board 12:14pm Seabus to Lonsdale Quay. Arrive at 12:29pm.” Agree to this plan, and both a micromobility pass and transit pass (or perhaps a unified pass) are issued to your mobile device instantly, with payment already made with your credit card.
But for this to occur, to have a world of transport options that flex themselves to our minute-to-minute needs, industry and regulators have to align. Marcus Welz, president of Siemens Intelligent Traffic Systems, offered this insight: “[W]e in the industry need to think more holistically – not just focused on our individual product and how it might address the comfort and convenience of the individual drivers or consumers – but towards solutions that will integrate all of the different technologies into a working platform – a ‘mobility operating system’ that would support a multi-modal ecosystem with an emphasis on safety and effectiveness of road mobility as well as on consuming the existing infrastructure most efficiently.”
At the end of the day, self-driving cars on the road are still thousands of cars, and a traffic jam with no human driver is still a traffic jam
The concept of a “mobility operating system” isn’t a new one, but it has never been more relevant than now in our digital age. The Romans arguably had a rudimentary “Mobility OS” in their system of rules and laws and taxes, with that infrastructure diligently enforced by the Roman military. As trade and transport services developed on this mighty network of roads over time, industry cooperated (sometimes just barely) with imperial regulators each step of the way. The Romans understood this to be a very long-term project.
There remains considerable mainstream doubt regarding the usefulness and usability of these new transport technologies. Micromobility (Lime, Bird, etc.) is viewed by many with disdain and questions about unit economics in pilot cities. Ride-hailing (Uber, Lyft, etc.) is facing mass frustration, struggles with profitability and constant litigation. Autonomous cars are at the receiving end of considerable distrust by the public. In response, all of these transport solutions are evolving in how their deployed, in their price-finding, and perhaps most importantly, how they integrate themselves with how people need to move around. This is all to say that the new mobility space isn’t close to being settled. Industry is well aware of the challenges that currently exist, and those that are lurking ahead.
“At the end of the day, self-driving cars on the road are still thousands of cars, and a traffic jam with no human driver is still a traffic jam,” said Welz. “I think companies like ours need to stay focused on improving the efficiency of effectiveness of our cities’ mass transportation. To that end, more than just individual self-driving vehicles, I think a self-driving fleet of buses driving on-demand on dynamic routes could solve first and last mile needs in a very efficient way. Currently, we are deploying technologies to help improve throughput for public buses. We’re also developing the first single-payment mobile platform to be managed by public agencies (as opposed to run by private companies like Uber) and helping cities build up a working connected vehicle infrastructure, through its ongoing work on several DOT Connected Vehicle Pilot projects in Tampa and New York.”
Failure is the crucible where only the best ideas and practices survive to the next iteration.
It’s safe to assume that multinationals like Siemens comprehend the vast and complex opportunities represented in new mobility. The tasks before the enterprises in this space are monumental, but the goals are crystal clear, and have a well-defined if bumpy path to reach them. This is a familiar refrain of new and disruptive technologies: give consumers what they want, satisfy the regulators, and expect failures on the (long) road to success. Failure is the crucible where only the best ideas and practices survive to the next iteration. This happened with the Web, is happening right now with blockchain, and will continue to happen with new mobility. We’ve stumbled several times, but we’ve also made serious headway in the last few years, headway that will lead us to the transport system that we desire: one that allows us to wish for our destination—and with one stroke of a metaphorical paddle, we’re there.