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Safe post-pandemic transport solutions will be driven by data

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Commuters’ unwillingness to travel in close contact with strangers in the wake of Covid-19 is likely to boost uptake of autonomous ‘mobility as a service’ systems like electric robo-taxis that were once the stuff of science fiction.

As we ease out of lockdown, the importance of public authorities’ role in mobility, transport and battling congestion will only increase. There’s no return to ‘business as usual’ – the post-pandemic world will be very different from what came before. However, there can’t be a wider economic or social recovery without a comprehensive, progressive strategy for transport and mobility.

For the moment, the utmost priority for countries is to ensure the safety of citizens when travelling. At the same time they shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Transport infrastructure is the lifeblood of an economy and the bedrock of people’s lives. We have to be building a mobility model that’s safe, efficient and sustainable many years into the future.

Mobility as a service (MaaS) has been crucial to these efforts during the last decade. However, persistent fears over infection and a hesitance to return to public transport could undo a great deal of progress. Indeed, the UK Department for Transport reported that April this year saw rail and Tube usage fall by over 95 per cent, and the number of bus passengers by 85 per cent. It’s vital the Government shores up MaaS and builds on its foundations. A data-driven, autonomous MaaS transport system could prove to be the safest and most efficient option for the post-pandemic economy that commuters trust

Will a return to relative normality inevitably lead to the return of widespread congestion in towns and cities? New car registrations in the UK rose by approximately 11 per cent year-on-year in July, with almost 175,000 sales, as consumers turned away from public transport in favour of personal vehicles.

While not an unmanageable shift, we must proceed with caution. The risk of transmission may be lower in a car, but the side-effects of traffic congestion and emissions can be equally damaging. Recent reports suggest that pollution and low air quality can leave people at higher risk of contracting Covid-19, with the risk of death increasing by 15 per cent in heavily polluted areas. Congestion can also have a negative impact on economic growth and the quality of people’s lives.

The need for sudden regional lockdowns only increases the likelihood of congestion as roads are closed and traffic diverted. Ultimately, public authorities will have to step in to keep congestion under control and flatten the traffic curve. The UK could take some inspiration from Singapore, where congestion has been managed innovatively using demand-based road pricing that offers financial incentives to drivers to avoid peak rush hours.

A more palatable solution could come from MaaS and some of the recent trends that have been developing in the industry. The guiding principle is to provide consumers with travel solutions based on their present needs, rather than depending on a personal vehicle that might not always be the best option. The wider adoption of a MaaS network would reduce congestion and car emissions, while improving public health outcomes more generally.

The challenge policymakers face is convincing the public that such modes of travel are safe. The only way for the MaaS industry to survive in the short term will be dependent on government funding to support it through this period of fear and uncertainty.

Over time, however, a greater use of electric autonomous technologies could help allay concerns. It’s anticipated that the $75 billion due to be invested in the development of autonomous cars by 2023 could lead to more sophisticated and reliable solutions. MaaS offerings like electric robo-taxis and other passenger services used to be the stuff of science fiction, but they could prove a major comfort for travellers hesitant to share an enclosed vehicle with a stranger.

Of course, electric autonomous vehicle networks need to be powered by the latest navigational solutions. In place of a human driver, onboard computers need up-to-date, accurate lane-level information on driving conditions and traffic in real-time. Services like TomTom Traffic analyse real-time incidents and congestion to predict traffic before it happens. With billions of anonymised data points processed every second, autonomous vehicles will be able to avoid congested areas and transport their passengers safely from A to B.

Public authorities, businesses and consumers all play a key role in determining what the future of mobility will look like. Yet it will be down to public authorities to ensure the progress towards a cleaner, more efficient MaaS infrastructure is not in vain. Support for EVs, autonomous and smart-navigation technologies are crucial to building a transport system that is fit and safe for the future.

Undoubtedly, remaking the system is no small undertaking and it will be years before a working and reliable model is in place. Yet innovation is a process rather than an end goal. Every advance or breakthrough will carry its own benefits that will build up over time. Work needs to start now to get the wheels turning on the national recovery.

Stephanie Leonard is head of government and regulatory affairs at TomTom.

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