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Transportation for tomorrow: Electrification, Connectivity, Autonomous Vehicles and the Shared Economy Transportation for tomorrow: Electrification, Connectivity, Autonomous Vehicles and the Shared Economy

Biggest transportation challenges?

Climate change is a challenge that touches all modes of transportation. In the United Arab Emirates, and globally, transportation is a major emitter of CO2, which places the onus on the transport industry to reduce its carbon footprint significantly. The consensus in the research community is that this should be done through three tracks:

  • Improved vehicle fuel economy, or adoption of low-carbon fuel standards that necessitate a shift in the fleet toward electric vehicles (EVs)
  • Improved freeway operation (for example, by better mitigating bottle-necks to reduce congestion) and better management of infrastructure, such as optimizing pavement resurfacing for Green House Gas (GHG) reduction benefits
  • Increased urban density to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by cars and also enable a shift from low-occupancy vehicles to high-occupancy public transportation, thus further reducing VMT

Technology crystal ball?

Technology alone cannot solve the major problems in the field of transportation. For example, to effectively reduce transportation’s carbon footprint as outlined above, most solutions require the use of existing technologies combined with policy regulation or market incentives, as well as transformation in the way we live — favoring higher density urban living with a reduced dependence on automobiles. One area where technology can play a role is in the development of better batteries to increase the range of electric vehicles. Such advances still need to be combined with government investment in creating the fueling infrastructure to make EVs real alternatives to the combustion engine. This government investment will be needed before the market share of alternative fuel vehicles can climb high enough to attract the private sector to invest in such infrastructure.

What about Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs)?

These are exciting new technologies in transportation, but their future benefits are lower than some claims that have been made in the popular press. On their own, they will not reduce overall urban congestion, and are likely to make it worse. It is true that they allow for smaller headways in freeway traffic (thus increasing flow), but this will simply shift congestions to freeway off-ramps and downstream urban networks.

As for safety, Autonomous Vehicles, with further development, will yield improvements in safety, but to fully exploit their capability, they need to also be connected to other vehicles through the Internet of Things (IoT). This is because no amount of deep learning will be sufficient to do without the information that it receives from neighboring (and sometimes unseen) vehicles. This is why researchers now talk of CAVs as one integrated technology.

This is not to say that Autonomous Vehicles are only hype. One important contribution they will make is to reduce the amount of parking needed in urban areas, for two reasons: firstly, because AVs can be parked very close to each other, since no human needs to open the doors to exit and enter, and secondly, because they can drive themselves to park in low-density remote locations far from their users’ home and work if these are in urban cores.

The most important transformation in transportation?

In my opinion, the shared economy is the transformation that will have the largest impact in reducing congestion in urban areas. Shared cars free urban dwellers from the need to find places to park at home or work. They serve as an effective mode of transport for the “last mile” of a trip. For example, transit commuters currently have the option of renting a car or electric scooter at the transit station to complete the trip to their intended destination. Autonomous vehicles can multiply the benefits of shared vehicles, by solving the problem of imbalance between the supply of cars and the demand, because they can reposition cars to the transit stations where they are needed for later arrivals.

Shared vehicles are more than last-mile solutions that complement public transportation systems: in some cases, they can transform them. For example, companies such as Uber that offer the ultimate mobility on demand service, have expanded their service options to include ride sharing, so-called Uber vans. This form of on-demand public transit is both a complement to fixed-route, fixed schedule bus transit, and a challenge to it.

The future?

On the technology side, Autonomous Vehicles will come to market within the next five years, though the extent of large-scale adoption is still not clear. Connected vehicle systems, especially Vehicle to Infrastructure will grow as the urban IoT grows.

On the demand side, millennials will continue their preference for urban living, walkable neighborhoods, the sharing economy, and away from automobile dependence. This will increase non-motorized/lightly motorized forms of personal transportation.

We will also see innovative mobility service delivery models, with Autonomous Vehicles that will enable new forms of mobility supply. New forms of car sharing with greater convenience will reduce the motivation for individual ownership. Car-sharing marketplaces may emerge, such as driverless Uber, thus further reducing the cost and uncertainty of the sharing model.