Future mobility, electric cars, inner city congestion

What is the Future of Mobility?

Nicholas Hill, Plextek

By: Nicholas Hill
CEO

13th March 2019

Home » Insights » Future Mobility

Recently, I found myself on the Shell booth at the MOVE 2019 event in London. The event was all about the future of mobility, so there was an eclectic mix of talks and exhibits on car sharing, electric cars, charging infrastructures, cycling schemes, autonomous taxis, smart parking and the like.

Anyway, I was speaking to a person who was canvassing for opinions on future mobility, and how we might meet our commitments in the Paris Agreement on climate change. She summarised my answer to the latter as “just do it”, as I had suggested making progress was very much about political will and vision, and rather less about enabling technology.

The Problem

The solutions to many of the problems in this space need big, bold, joined up thinking that market forces alone will not deliver. In many cases, the supporting technology needed exists or we know how to create it, such as digital platforms for vehicle sharing or parking management, roadside charging facilities for overnight charging of electric cars, light rail systems, advanced traffic management systems and a low-carbon electricity infrastructure that supports mass charging of electric cars. What is definitely in short supply is the vision to imagine what an effective, efficient and integrated low-carbon transport system would look like in any given city, and the political will (and cash) to encourage its rollout.

It’s always striking to see how easy it is to get around London without a car, given that a bus (with a dedicated lane), tube or DLR train is never more than a few minutes’ walk away. Simply discouraging car use doesn’t seem unreasonable in that environment. In the city where I live, cars clog up almost every main road, and for the most part, public transport alternatives are insufficiently attractive. The train is fine if you are travelling from a distance, but the regular buses and park and ride buses all share the same clogged up roads as the cars. The city is too dense to allow for any meaningful widening of the roads. Indeed bus travel has got worse due to the expansion of cycle lanes, which have eaten into the few short stretches of roadway dedicated to buses. A solution to this is going to require some radical thinking, not tinkering at the edges. Perhaps closing some major roads to through traffic altogether and installing light rail or dedicated bus lanes?

Parking is a nightmare, with many streets clogged with cars circulating, trying to find a parking space that simply doesn’t exist. Simply making parking more and more expensive isn’t fixing this problem. Much of the housing in the city centre comprises narrow streets of terraced houses, with very limited on-street parking. If I lived in one of these houses and wanted to buy an electric car, I’d want to know that there was a charging point close by my house, and that the space next to it wasn’t occupied by a petrol or diesel vehicle.

The Solutions

The push towards autonomous cars is mostly about enabling car sharing or ‘cars on demand’, and as such may have a very positive impact on our street parking issue. However autonomous cars certainly won’t help our rush hour traffic congestion because the same number of people will be in the same number of cars, albeit not in the driving seat. They might even make the situation worse, as people abandon fuel- and traffic-efficient buses and trains for the privacy of a temporarily hired car.

It was interesting, and reassuring, to hear from Shell about their work with other major players on solutions to some of these problems. Listening to a set of partners with sufficient scale and impact to make a difference, the holistic solutions discussed offered to join up electricity generation from renewables, improved electricity distribution and e-car charging systems, and pushed for the use of e-car batteries that are plugged into the network to assist with demand smoothing.

As a technologist, I went to the show looking for examples of how new tech was going to drive us to meet our future mobility needs and climate change goals. For the most part, I came away thinking about the policy, business and market problems that need to be solved first, rather than the technology.

By the way, the most thought-provoking tech at the show was an interesting application of ground penetrating radar (GPR) from WaveSense. Their system builds a reference map of the terrain underneath the roadway, using the GPR returns to map the subsurface features. A vehicle equipped with a GPR can use the sensor and its reference map to provide improved positional accuracy than a standalone GPS, or can assist with location when GPS is degraded in built-up areas. It’s a fascinating example of innovation through technology transfer across markets.

Also worthy of note is system from NIRA Dynamics, which can detect road surface conditions in real-time by using standard telematics equipment. The NIRA solution collects data from a cohort of telematics-enabled vehicles, applying custom fusion algorithms to build up a real-time picture of the roughness and friction of the road surface. The friction maps can be passed back to the vehicles, providing alerts on potential danger areas and reducing the potential for accidents.

These examples may not open the door to the brave new world of future mobility, but both offered real improvements to issues facing us in the here and now.

Recently, I found myself on the Shell booth at the MOVE 2019 event in London. The event was all about the future of mobility, so there was an eclectic mix of talks and exhibits on car sharing, electric cars, charging infrastructures, cycling schemes, autonomous taxis, smart parking and the like.

Anyway, I was speaking to a person who was canvassing for opinions on future mobility, and how we might meet our commitments in the Paris Agreement on climate change. She summarised my answer to the latter as “just do it”, as I had suggested making progress was very much about political will and vision, and rather less about enabling technology.

The solutions to many of the problems in this space need big, bold, joined up thinking that market forces alone will not deliver. In many cases, the supporting technology needed exists or we know how to create it, such as digital platforms for vehicle sharing or parking management, roadside charging facilities for overnight charging of electric cars, light rail systems, advanced traffic management systems and a low-carbon electricity infrastructure that supports mass charging of electric cars. What is definitely in short supply is the vision to imagine what an effective, efficient and integrated low-carbon transport system would look like in any given city, and the political will (and cash) to encourage its rollout.

It’s always striking to see how easy it is to get around London without a car, given that a bus (with a dedicated lane), tube or DLR train is never more than a few minutes’ walk away. Simply discouraging car use doesn’t seem unreasonable in that environment. In the city where I live, cars clog up almost every main road, and for the most part, public transport alternatives are insufficiently attractive. The train is fine if you are travelling from a distance, but the regular buses and park and ride buses all share the same clogged up roads as the cars. The city is too dense to allow for any meaningful widening of the roads. Indeed bus travel has got worse due to the expansion of cycle lanes, which have eaten into the few short stretches of roadway dedicated to buses. A solution to this is going to require some radical thinking, not tinkering at the edges. Perhaps closing some major roads to through traffic altogether and installing light rail or dedicated bus lanes?

Parking is a nightmare, with many streets clogged with cars circulating, trying to find a parking space that simply doesn’t exist. Simply making parking more and more expensive isn’t fixing this problem. Much of the housing in the city centre comprises narrow streets of terraced houses, with very limited on-street parking. If I lived in one of these houses and wanted to buy an electric car, I’d want to know that there was a charging point close by my house, and that the space next to it wasn’t occupied by a petrol or diesel vehicle.

The push towards autonomous cars is mostly about enabling car sharing or ‘cars on demand’, and as such may have a very positive impact on our street parking issue. However autonomous cars certainly won’t help our rush hour traffic congestion because the same number of people will be in the same number of cars, albeit not in the driving seat. They might even make the situation worse, as people abandon fuel- and traffic-efficient buses and trains for the privacy of a temporarily hired car.

It was interesting, and reassuring, to hear from Shell about their work with other major players on solutions to some of these problems. Listening to a set of partners with sufficient scale and impact to make a difference, the holistic solutions discussed offered to join up electricity generation from renewables, improved electricity distribution and e-car charging systems, and pushed for the use of e-car batteries that are plugged into the network to assist with demand smoothing.

As a technologist, I went to the show looking for examples of how new tech was going to drive us to meet our future mobility needs and climate change goals. For the most part, I came away thinking about the policy, business and market problems that need to be solved first, rather than the technology.

By the way, the most thought-provoking tech at the show was an interesting application of ground penetrating radar (GPR) from WaveSense. Their system builds a reference map of the terrain underneath the roadway, using the GPR returns to map the subsurface features. A vehicle equipped with a GPR can use the sensor and its reference map to provide improved positional accuracy than a standalone GPS, or can assist with location when GPS is degraded in built-up areas. It’s a fascinating example of innovation through technology transfer across markets.

Also worthy of note is system from NIRA Dynamics, which can detect road surface conditions in real-time by using standard telematics equipment. The NIRA solution collects data from a cohort of telematics-enabled vehicles, applying custom fusion algorithms to build up a real-time picture of the roughness and friction of the road surface. The friction maps can be passed back to the vehicles, providing alerts on potential danger areas and reducing the potential for accidents.

These examples may not open the door to the brave new world of future mobility, but both offered real improvements to issues facing us in the here and now.

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