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What will post pandemic mobility look like?

Governments need to do more to support the development of next generation vehicles, writes TomTom’s Stephanie Leonard.


The easing of lockdown has highlighted a number of societal factors, but most importantly the role of public authorities’ role in mobility and transport. As we progress through the current climate the need to manage transport solutions and battle congestion will only become more apparent. There is no doubt that what we once knew is not what we will see in the new post-pandemic world. However, it’s important to understand that in order to recover fully, it cannot be done without a comprehensive, progressive strategy for the mobility sector.


Now, with more people out and about, country leaders are focused on ensuring that citizens are safe when they travel. However, in doing so, the big picture shouldn’t disappear. Mobility lies at the core of economic stability and plays a major role in daily life. Building a transport model that is equally sustainable as it is efficient and safe, is the key to creating the strong future we are all hopeful for.


The surge in Mobility as a service (MaaS) has played a significant role in working toward economic and social progression over the last 10 years. However, the pandemic has spurred an increase of concern when it comes to health and safety. This has now slowed down the development of public transport systems, with more people hesitant to return to frequent usage. Research from the United Kingdom’s Department for Transport highlights that in April rail and London Underground usage fell by over 95 per cent, and the number of bus passengers dropped by 85 per cent. There is now a call for the UK Government to rethink how to build on the foundations of MaaS, with commuter trust sitting at the core of all decisions.


Flattening the traffic curve


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 the general public 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 as 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, which has innovatively managed congestion with demand-based road pricing, offering financial incentives to drivers to avoid peak rush hours.


A look into the robotic future


However, a more palatable solution could come from MaaS and some of the recent trends that have been developing in the industry. The guiding principle of MaaS is to provide the public 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.


However, the challenge policymakers will 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 over transmission. It’s anticipated that the $75 billion 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 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 such as TomTom Traffic analyse real-time incidents and congestion to predict traffic before it happens. With billions of anonymized data points processed every second, autonomous vehicles will be able to avoid congested areas and transport their passengers.


Future of mobility: smart, sustainable and efficient


When it comes to what the future holds for the mobility industry, it comes down to the role that public authorities, businesses and the general public will play in the coming years. But ultimately the onus will be on public authorities to push the agenda of a cleaner, safer and more efficient MaaS system. To do so, the UK Government and others will need to support the development of EVs, autonomous and smart navigation technologies that will be crucial for future societal progression.


Although necessary, remaking the system shouldn’t be mistaken as a small task. Doing so will take years, so the process of innovation should be appreciated instead of considered as a final goal. Within every stage of the process there will be various breakthroughs and benefits that will shape the future. The task now is to simply get the wheels turning on the recovery.

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