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What role will tech play in the changing face of urban mobility?

Parisians awoke to the sound of birds tweeting, children laughing and an unfamiliar smell in the air on Sunday as the city implemented its first ever car-free day. The event was a hit on social media and a window into an alternative future, with Parisians sharing thousands of images and stories about how different their city felt. The event came a day before the release of a groundbreaking report entitled “Urban Mobility at a tipping point” from global consulting firm McKinsey & Company which spoke about the new technologies and business models contributing to the quest for better, more efficient urban mobility.

The report paints a desperate and gloomy picture of what the future could hold without a radical change in the ways that people get around their cities. “Congestion is already close to unbearable in many cities and can cost as much as two to four percent of national GDP, by measures such as lost time, wasted fuel, and increased cost of doing business,” the report states, going on to add that “Transport creates emissions of greenhouse gases; smog presents serious public-health concerns. The World Health Organization estimated in 2014 that seven million premature deaths are attributable to air pollution, and a significant share is the result of urban transit.”

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But several factors have burst into the global consciousness at the same time, pointing towards solutions and rapidly provided a glimmer of hope that upends the prevailing middle-class idea of a car in every garage in every home that dominated the 20th century.

The report boldly states that “Technological advances and commercialisation, funding, intelligent policies, and business-model innovation will be needed to realize productivity improvements while creating more sustainable environments in our cities.”

Many of these changes are already making a measurable impact and that it likely to expand exponentially over the coming decade. Household names like Google and Apple, and upstarts like Uber, Waze and Tesla will all be major players as we seek to find better ways of managing our transport needs, both for the environment and for our pockets.

Technologically, there are four major trends converging at the same point: in-vehicle connectivity, electrification, car-sharing and autonomous driving.

Let’s take a look at each of the segments separately.

In-vehicle connectivity refers to the growth in software and data, particularly in relation to the mobile phone, that provides drivers and traffic planners with detailed information which they can use to improve traffic flows: “Eventually, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication could be used to reduce accidents and to anticipate traffic congestion,” the report states. For example, Waze is a mapping app that is already being used very effectively in cities like Jakarta and Rio to transmit real-time data from drivers to the city’s traffic control centres.

Electrification is another factor that is at a tipping point. By 2022, the report estimates that there will be 11.5 million electric vehicles (EVs) or hybrids in service, which is about 11% of the global market. This particular innovation is likely to be located more in urban centres where the availability of recharge stations means the fears of running out of power will recede and driving distances are much shorter. With battery costs falling faster than anyone could have predicted, there is a lot of hope being placed in EVs for the medium term.

Car sharing is the third major factor and it’s only going to get bigger and more established. Driven by the realization that most cars sit idle for 90% of the time, car sharing services are exploding around the world in the hope that using fewer cars more productively will mean less vehicles on the roads for everyone. The report suggests that sharing fully autonomous vehicles could reduce the cost of personal mobility by between 30 and 60%.

Finally, the big unknown and the factor fueling the imagination is the introduction of autonomous vehicles in the not too distant future. Studies predict that the number of accidents would drop by 90% and save thousands of lives every year. But there are risks too, for example if a driver couldn’t find a parking spot they could simply direct their AV to simply circle the block until they are finished whatever they are doing.

These trends, coupled with a growth in urban cycling, venture capital flowing into new mobility ideas and strong public and private partnerships are all gathering steam and promising to take us into a brighter more environmentally friendly future.

The report concludes on a hopeful tone… “Innovation in connectivity, autonomy, lightweight materials, EVs, and AVs will continue to accelerate, and the attitudes of citizens and cities around the world are evolving. Put it all together, and we can’t help but be excited about the bright future ahead for urban mobility.”

Our analysis suggests that a mobility revolution is on the way for much of the world. As a result, we anticipate big improvements in the quality of life for city residents.

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