Panel on future transport at the TM Forum Smart City conference in Yinchaun, China

Drive to work reaches end of the road in the smart city

City commuters of the future will give up buying cars or season tickets, say transport specialists, but autonomous vehicles first need to "behave more badly".

They will instead buy “mobility as a service” in packages that mix up different kinds of transport, according to Sami Pippuri, chief technology officer of Helsinki-based MaaS Global, speaking at the Smart City in Focus conference in Yinchuan, China. His company’s smartphone app will behave like an intelligent agent or concierge that tells you the best way to get to your destination, with differently priced options according to spare capacity, cost and personal preference. “The key thing is access that can be packaged up in different ways,” he said. “Some more expensive packages may include more travel by car, cheaper options more public transport.”

The Gulf state of Dubai is taking a similar approach. “The world is changing and the way we are looking at it is mobility as a service,” saidAbdullah Ali Al-Madani,CEO of corporate technology support services for Dubai’s roads and transport authority. People just want to get from point A to B quickly and safely, he said. “People in the future will not be bothered about what car or what engine they have. They just want to move from one point to another in the city.” The mobility service will offer citizens the different modes of transport and corresponding rates so people can choose the more economic transport, the fastest transport or whatever compromise suits them. Car ownership will become more of a hobby. “A Ferrari in the future will be your weekend luxury car,” he suggested.

Projjal Dutta, director of sustainability initiatives for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said one problem in this approach is ‘load balancing’ - you can already see empty bike stands in some cities where everyone has taken them in one direction for the rush-hour commute, he pointed out. This leads to more ‘dead heading’ - the transport industry’s term for non-revenue services that are just to get vehicles in the right places, getting a bus to the start of its route, for example. He feared we will see in the future many empty autonomous vehicles dead-heading after dropping everyone at work in the morning rush hour.

Pippuri said the dead-heading issue could be avoided with the right connectivity, while Al-Madani argued that people’s different personal preferences would mitigate theproblem because they do and will continue to choose different transport modes. Some people in Dubai for example, prefer to take cars from Uber or its local competitor Careem rather than standard taxis because they often provide more luxurious cars.

Dutta, who is writing a book with the working title ‘Taking the car out of carbon’, said "transport is a big emissions source but it doesn’t have to be”. He sees public transport as ‘more human’, where the “accidents are happy accidents” of meeting new people, for example. He said it could even be something that commuters look forward to at the end of the day.

Tomorrow’s cars are more likely to be smart, shared, driverless cars, the conference heard, but some delegates were concerned at the overcautious algorithms of driverless vehicles which can cause them to ‘stutter’ down the road in response to the events around them. Driverless buses can be held up at junctions for long periods too, as they wait for a safe gap to pull out while human drivers would be more assertive. “Autonomous vehicles today are a little too well behaved,” said Dutta. “They need to behave a little more badly!”

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