The transportation revolution: Will smart tech fundamentally change how we travel?

Blog Post

For nearly a century the automobile has been our foremost means of transportation. Look within our cities, or to their surrounding metropolitan areas, and you find urban environments poised to accommodate, if not promote, the automobile. As a current and nearly life-long metro-Detroiter whose father spent his entire career in the auto industry, and whose current profession involves working with several automotive companies, I would be delusional to say that the automobile has not played an important role in my life. Perhaps for that reason, I always assumed that the automobile, and most people’s desire to own (or lease) one, would continue to drive and define how we as Americans get from point A to point B. But that assumption met its challenge a few weeks ago.

The era of new mobility

It was a few weeks ago when I drove downtown to attend a panel discussion on New Mobility (a.k.a. Advanced Mobility). The topic was new to me for the most part. I didn’t quite know what to expect. Sure, I’ve kept abreast of the popular ride-sharing services and other emerging (or re-emerging) transportation modes that seek to ease our ability to get from point A to point B without depriving our desire to text, tweet, email, or otherwise be productive. But I hadn’t realized that there are now venture capitalists, software-application developers, engineers, and other technicians working alongside established automobile manufacturers and a host of other players who are fully committed to “disrupting” (i.e., transforming) the conventional transportation model that we’ve known throughout our lives. As I listened to the panel, I realized that a great deal of money and other resources have already been committed and will continue to flow toward what appears to be a race to this promising yet not fully-defined era of New Mobility.

What exactly is new mobility?

I’m not sure anyone can answer that question definitively. But conceptually, New Mobility describes an improved transportation system that seamlessly links multiple modes of travel through use of established and emerging smart technologies to customize door-to-door travel to individual needs, enhance travel efficiency and convenience, provide accurate real-time information on departure and arrival times, and offer streamlined ways to pay for the entire trip. Here are some illustrations taken from Smart Mobility for a 21st Century America, a White Paper by Transportation for America, the Association for Commuter Transportation, and the University of Michigan’s SMART Initiative:

Sarah is a single mom living in a small town about 100 miles from her job near a major metropolitan area. Every morning, she takes her children to the school bus pick-up location and waves good-bye before driving into town and parking at the train station. Today, she decides to walk down the street to pick up a coffee and checks her smart phone to see how full the next vanpool shuttle is and when it will leave. Knowing she has some extra time, Sarah picks up a paper and chats with the shop owner a few extra minutes before settling in for an early ride to work.

Deciding which family member to call for rides used to be a problem for John, a 70-year-old man living in Montana, but not anymore. Now when he books an appointment with his doctor online, he also receives a list of options for getting to the office – including vanpools, a medical shuttle and public buses. The morning of the appointment, John forwards the appointment time and location to his ride sharing provider and receives confirmation that he will be picked up downstairs. John is confident that he will arrive at the doctor’s office on time because the ridesharing service takes into account traffic patterns and maps the best routes in real-time. John books the trip and starts getting ready. As an added bonus, this service was made particularly cost effective when he donated his vehicle to the service after realizing he was no longer able to drive.

Marisa is a young economist rushing to prepare for a meeting across town but confident that she will make the appointment on time, despite frequent congestion downtown. Just 12 minutes before the meeting, her smart phone alerts her that she should leave now to be on-time, based on current traffic conditions and signal timing. Marisa walks out of her office and waves her wallet past a sidewalk hub to unlock a shared bike already adjusted to her preferred size. After stuffing her briefcase in the large basket on the back, she bikes 15 blocks across town on bike lanes to her meeting, dropping the bike in another hub outside their office.

Why change?

Subject-matter experts point to several forces fueling the drive toward New Mobility. Overall, they see a global citizenry becoming more urbanized. They see a need for sustainable transportation solutions that will accommodate the increasing urbanization. They sense the presence and continuing development of game-changing information technologies that can help deliver those solutions. At the same time, they recognize that Americans over the age of 65 represent the fastest growing segment of our population and will presumably have lesser need for automobiles. On the other hand, they view younger Americans on balance as less eager than their elders to own cars or even get driver’s licenses. They also perceive a growing number of us becoming more sensitive to climate concerns tied to auto emissions. And, they believe that all such forces are combining inevitably to move the transportation model toward a more convenient, efficient, and fully integrated system or network.

Who’s leading the charge?

Just by way of example, Techstars has partnered with Ford Motor Company, Magna International, Verizon Telematics, and a few venture capital firms. Together, the partners have been funding, mentoring, and otherwise developing select start-up companies since 2015, with the goal being to accelerate the creation of New Mobility technologies and infrastructure. This collaboration is based in Detroit, which the partners equate to the center of the global mobility and transportation ecosystem.

What’s down the road?

It’s difficult to know what our transportation system will look like in 10, 20, or even 50 years. In all honesty, how to get from point A to point B is not a subject I had given much thought to before just recently. But one thing seems clear: there is an ongoing, dedicated effort – backed by major players with substantial resources – to change how we travel in urban America, and eventually throughout the country. The extent to which they succeed remains to be seen. But if successful, their results could be transformative and, from a business standpoint, usher in a broad range of new employment, business, and commercial opportunities that we can’t yet identify. Who knows? These New Mobility types might just be on to something.

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