Covid-19 crisis is driving mobility innovations in cities the world over. The transformation of commuting patterns in major cities is paving the way for an increase in the number of e-scooters and autonomous vehicles on the road, and putting a sharp focus on the importance of sustainable city infrastructure designs.
In this year’s Consumer Electronic Show, CES 2021, industry leaders at the intersection of technology and mobility will join the web panel Smart Cities: Traditional City-Living Makes Way, to unpack the progress and safety benefits of self-driving vehicles in the smart-city context, and analyze the trends set to boost their adoption.
People don’t think twice when they step into or out of a train, relying on them to be inherently safe. This is how dull we want to make autonomous mobility: reliable, boring and absolutely predictable.
A future of shared autonomy
Global mobility patterns have shifted significantly in the last few years, and the desire to combat the socio-economic effects of Covid-19 has turbocharged new consumer behaviors. Sayon Deb, the Consumer Technology Association’s Research Manager, notes that CTA’s research shows that positive consumer sentiment towards self-driving vehicles continues to grow, with ‘hop-on and hop-off trips’ under 10 miles or loop routes, such as those used at airports or on college campuses, seeing the greatest proliferation. Sentiment towards self-driving delivery also saw an uptick during the pandemic, he adds, particularly of essentials such as medicine and groceries.
Beyond the convenience and other clear advantages of contactless delivery in the Covid-19 environment, the broader potential of shared autonomous vehicles lies in decarbonization and decongestion of city traffic. To this end, Siemens Mobility is developing smart infrastructure to integrate autonomous vehicles such as shuttles into public transport systems.
The road-safety benefits of autonomous vehicles also continue to be a key focus for the industry. According to Kunal Chandra, Vice President, Shared Autonomous Mobility at Siemens Mobility, the most interesting innovations have been in the field of computer vision which can be combined with high speed edge computing architecture to predict and relay the movements of vulnerable road users in real time – greatly enhancing shuttle safety. “People don’t think twice when they step into or out of a train, relying on them to be inherently safe,” Chandra says, adding that the company’s mission is to make autonomous mobility similarly “reliable, boring, absolutely predictable.”
Reimagining city space
The pandemic has also prompted huge increases in micro-mobility traffic in major cities, as people continue to avoid public transport.
Adam Kovacevich, Head of Government Relations and Public Affairs for North America and Asia Pacific at Lime, the world’s largest shared micro-mobility provider says they are also opting for electric scooters and bicycles over the car for short trips. While he confirms that city officials have historically been “reluctant to shift public space from cars to other users” because the incumbent user typically has the most political clout, the redistribution of traffic on the road is giving cities an opportunity to “shake up that incumbent use case” and decide whether they “think big or think small.”
“A number of cities have chosen to think big. The most ambitious, such as Paris, are going all out to build a full digital twin of the city to diagnose where they stand and simulate what a repurposing of space would look like,” says Chandra.
And with commuter patterns upended and the afternoon rush hour dramatically quieter in cities such as New York, even the most traditional traffic or city planner has the opportunity to think more creatively about progressive transportation policy and make more room for other modes, including shared autonomous travel. “That’s going to be a huge part of facilitating the transportation we need in cities,” suggests Tara Pham, Co-Founder and CEO of Numina, a sensor, and data platform that measures the traffic behaviors of travelers in streets across the world.
Resilience by design
“Flexibility is required to accommodate all of these potential new vehicles – some of which we haven’t quite imagined yet. The historical model has been to plan concrete – it’s fixed, and humans are expected to conform,” Pham says. “But we want city design to respond to how people actually move.”
The panelists point to a number of ways in which cities are reimagining public spaces to make streets more flexible, such as ‘parklets’ (repurposing parking spots as small parks); ‘slow streets’ (closing streets to through traffic); and reallocating sidewalk space to restaurant expansion and pedestrians.
With downtown traffic down, the pandemic raises questions about the role of the city, says Kovacevich, and this is likely to influence future design decisions. “Twenty to thirty years ago, mega cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles didn’t really have to do anything to attract people. That’s changing and it is going to change cities’ approach to transport.”
Cities must dare to be bold and work alongside technology companies to deliver a better quality of life for their residents, adds Chandra. “The ultimate objective of any mobility solution should be to provide convenient and affordable mobility options, while at the same time enhancing overall living standards in cities through decarbonisation and decongestion,” he says.
Towards a sustainable future
It is not only the Covid-19 crisis that underlines the importance of incorporating flexibility into infrastructure – cities must also face up to the challenge of climate change.
“Cities are facing it in different ways and flexible mobility is part of a resilience plan,” says Pham. “That means having different kinds of vehicles, being able to adapt to different travel schedules, and literally move your infrastructure around to accommodate an unexpected flood, for example. The technology is here; it’s about how we adopt it.”
To ensure a sustainable future through the advancement of self-driving vehicles and digital innovations in passenger technology, city infrastructure must now adjust, evolve, and become more flexible and responsive.
- Kunal Chandra, Vice President, Shared Autonomous Mobility, Siemens Mobility
- Sayon Deb, Research Manager, CTA (moderator)
- Adam Kovacevich, Head of Government Relations and Public Affairs North America and Asia Pacific, Lime
- Tara Pham, Co-Founder and CEO, Numina