If every car is self-driving but it’s still only transporting one passenger, then you have even more cars in the city, so the traffic doesn’t get better.Michael Peter, CEO Siemens Mobility
The Morning Commute
It’s 8:02 a.m. on a Tuesday in the year 2036. Elise opens her smartphone’s travel app, which suggests the best route for her morning commute, using her preferred mix of speed, value and low carbon emissions. With the tap on the screen, she could switch to the cheapest, eco-friendliest or fastest option. Nearby, millions of Elise’s peers are doing the same thing. Her city is seeing the same population surge almost all urban centers have experienced since the early 2020s, and its pace is increasing. It’s estimated that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050.
Fewer cars, cleaner streets, easier commutes
Elise walks to a corner two minutes from her apartment. Only a handful of cars roll through the streets—unlike two decades before. Most are fourth-generation semi-autonomous autos with their drivers and passengers eating, working or napping. One of the new driverless taxis also rolls by; Elise hails one once or twice a week, usually at night.
Back in the late 2010s, many predicted that her generation would use driverless passenger cars to get around the city. But a more practical solution came sooner: driverless electric minibuses that run on fixed routes, which appeared a decade earlier than fully autonomous cars.
Their predecessors were in use even earlier. “Such a form of transportation is already popular in cities around the world, albeit sometimes in less hi-tech versions,” noted Carlo Ratti, Ph.D., Director of SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 2020.
The magic minibus
“The self-driving minibus resolves several problems,” said Michael Peter, CEO of Siemens Mobility, that same year. “If every car is self-driving but it’s still only transporting one passenger, then you have even more cars in the city, so the traffic doesn’t get better.”
Secondly, driverless minibuses helped solve the “first and last mile” problem, by making it easy for people coming into the city to use public transit to get to and from train hubs. “You can have a fully demand-responsive system that makes sure that people who have the same end location will always have a minibus available,” said Peter.
Indeed, Elise’s minibus is waiting for her. She steps in, and three other commuters join her within a minute. While the minibus can transport up to eight people, it usually carries four—the sweet spot for speedy service, economy and ecological impact. As they depart, four other minibuses pull up behind them, ready to pick up 16 or more commuters in the next few minutes.
Importantly, all five minibuses are making different stops—each less than a two-minute walk from any passenger’s destination. Making every ride an express also solved a third problem that repelled people from public transit: slowness. “You don’t have the disadvantage of conventional bus service that has all these intermediate stops that you don’t need for your personal trip,” Peter added.
During her eight-minute ride, Elise watches a news show that automatically turns on in her compartment. “Our smartphone will be liaising with the transport provider to share our preferences around seat settings, temperature, lighting and even snack choices to help personalize every journey,” predicted futurist Rohit Talwar, CEO of London publishing house Fast Future, back in 2020.
Cities run on rail
The minibus takes Elise and her fellow passengers to the transit hub entrance closest to their metro line. The electric driverless trains run every few minutes, and Elise’s app directs her to the train car that will stop at the station exit closest to her destination—one of countless micro-mobility features operating in the background.
While most of the metro’s infrastructure was built in the last century, it’s the backbone of the city’s modern mobility system. Across the world, shifting emphasis from road to rail in the 2020s was the primary driver that transformed urban transit, and rail has been the most efficient choice for decades. Even in 2020, several years before cities began using ecologically sustainable electric trains optimized by artificial intelligence, a metro could transport 40,000 passengers per hour in the same infrastructure space as a highway lane that often carried less than 1,000.
After a four-minute express metro ride, Elise emerges to see six minibuses waiting for the commuters in her train car. She’s at her desk at 8:27 am, as expected.
Achieving seamless mobility
Where are Elise’s tickets or ride card? There aren’t any. Every part of her journey—including e-bikes, taxis or any other mode of transport she might take—is silently booked and paid through her app. And every month the app tells her if buying another transit package would’ve been cheaper.
Digital natives like Elise expect a no-friction, single-platform transit solution to handle everything, and this app was one of the first innovations in reinventing urban transportation. Similarly, the city’s transit leaders have long used Siemens Mobility solutions to manage the entire transportation ecosystem on one smart platform.
Making cities more liveable
The evolution to smart mobility didn’t just eliminate long transit waits, rush-hour gridlock and parking headaches in Elise’s city. It also spawned the new parks and pedestrian areas that nudged her to move here after college. Urban centers competing for talent and business knew early on that their transit systems needed to be smart, autonomous, connected and electric by 2030, and the winners invested wisely at least a decade before.
The views expressed herein are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect the views of Siemens Mobility.