Last reviewed 22 January 2019

The future of mobility is one of the four interlinked Grand Challenges established in the Government’s Industrial Strategy. Caroline Hand investigates.

Mobility and the environment

Of all the Grand Challenges, this is the one most directly linked to environmental impact. Transport is responsible for 26% of UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and it is emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulates from road traffic that prevent us from achieving statutory air quality targets in London. Diesel vehicles are the chief culprits when it comes to poor air quality. According to the latest road traffic estimates, van traffic increased by 4.7% to 49.5 billion vehicle miles in 2016, due largely to the growth of online shopping.

As Western society becomes increasingly urbanised — by 2050, 66% of us will be living in cities worldwide, compared to 55% today — the challenge is to develop a transport system that is clean and energy efficient, with walking and cycling the modes of choice for short journeys. The growing numbers of diesel vans that deliver our online purchases need to be replaced by greener options, which may well not be vans at all.

The Government believes that delivering on the Future of Mobility Grand Challenge could substantially reduce GHG emissions and other pollutants from the UK’s road and rail network, and that automated vehicles could make the roads safer.

The Future of Mobility Grand Challenge is not just about the environment: safety, efficiency, social inclusion and economic growth are also in view. These goals need to be achieved without detracting from the environmental aims — a risk, if better infrastructure encourages people to make too many additional journeys.

Reports by leading consultants such as Deloitte and McKinsey paint an exciting picture of a futuristic transport system which could be realised very soon, perhaps within the next 10 years. The future of mobility promises to be comfortable, convenient and clean but will come at a price as we are persuaded to give up our cars in exchange for a communal service.

Linking in with the Grand Challenge of artificial intelligence (AI), future mobility will be dependent on connected, smart technology accessed through our smartphones. While this may appeal to millennials, policymakers will need to address justifiable concerns about safety, cyber security and privacy.

Plans in the pipeline

The last mile

By the end of this year, we should have a new Government strategy for “the last mile” of delivery to the consumer. At the time of writing this article, the Government was consulting on ways to increase the use of cleaner delivery vehicles such as cargo bikes (ordinary bikes with baskets), electric cargo bikes (e-cargo bikes) and micro vehicles (think milk floats). At the same time, Amazon is contemplating the use of drones to deliver small, high value items such as medicines and documents. In fact, it made its first drone delivery in 2016, and routine deliveries could descend from the sky as early as next year. The challenge is to ensure that safety is fully taken into account when regulating these new modes of transport. September 2018 sadly saw the first fatal accident in which an e-bike collided with a pedestrian.

Autonomous and zero-emission vehicles

Within the next few years we will see the first autonomous (self-driving) vehicles on the road. Uber’s CEO has gone as far as declaring that the first self-driving taxis could be picking us up in 2019. Autonomous vehicles are favoured for safety reasons: AI being seen as more reliable in its judgments than human drivers. When connected to smart city infrastructure, autonomous vehicles are more resource efficient than conventional cars because they reduce congestion. For example, they can be redirected away from gridlocked or congested areas, and they can be driven at the optimum speed for fuel efficiency.

On the motorway, we could soon be driving alongside “platoons” of up to three trucks driving close together in convoy. Only the lead vehicle would have a human driver, the others being automated. While this might be good for efficiency, the Head of the AA has raised safety concerns.

The future of mobility will have no place for polluting petrol and diesel vehicles. In a speech delivered in September 2018, the Prime Minister pledged to cement the UK’s position as a world leader in zero-emission vehicle technologies, and announced £106 million of new research funding. All new vehicles will be electric (zero-emission) by 2040, and every vehicle on the road should be zero-emission by 2050. These are not merely aspirational targets — the pathway to achieve them is mapped out in the Government’s detailed Road to Zero strategy. This is good news for urban air quality and will contribute to GHG targets if the electricity is sourced from renewables or other forms of low-carbon generation.

The railway of 2042

Rail travel generally has less impact on the environment than road travel. Carrying freight by rail results in an 80% cut in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per kilogram carried compared to road haulage. The railway of the future will be much more energy efficient and will be able to transport greater numbers of people, and more freight, without adding to congestion and delays.

The future of the rail network has been planned out in the 2012 Rail Technical Strategy (RTS), which was fleshed out in 2016 by a delivery plan. More trains will be electrified: in remote areas, energy storage systems will be introduced to power the trains, and lighter tram-like trains could replace diesel locomotives on rural branch lines. Key to the strategy is the vision of a digital railway based on smart trains and infrastructure. Traditional signals will be replaced by the new European Train Control System, which is already under development: the trains communicate their location to an automated traffic control system which then directs their movements. This enables them to travel much closer together without risk to safety. Freight trains will be able to run unhindered at night thanks to the automation of maintenance operations.

Passengers can already take advantage of ticketing apps. The familiar ticket office could well disappear as more people plan and book their journeys online, then scan their phones at the ticket barriers. And in the future, apps like this will make it possible to book the whole journey from door to door.

Mobility as a service

Ben’s bedtime story

“Ben is exhausted.… All he wants is a quick bite to eat and to head home, as quickly and painlessly as possible. He pulls out his smartphone and scans the options that his mobility app suggests. Train or bus? Too many stops. A carpool vehicle? He’s in no mood to make small talk with strangers. He opts for his own autonomous taxi… and tacks on his standard order from the local pizzeria.

The small electric car — no driver — picks him up a few minutes later, just as Ben steps through the front door… His slice (with extra onions) is still steaming when he opens the pizza box sitting on the car’s table; the taxi picked it up moments before Ben climbed in. He settles in and enjoys an episode of his favourite guilty-pleasure reality show that the car has cued up for him. The cost of the whole trip is instantly deducted from his account. Twenty minutes later, he’s at his apartment door. Half an hour after that, he’s fast asleep dreaming about his plans for the weekend.” (From The Future of Mobility: What’s Next?, 2016 Deloitte University Press).

A scene from a futuristic movie set 20 years from now? No, this is an extract from a report by international consultants Deloitte describing how technology which already exists could soon transform the day-to-day travel experience of people in Western cities. Had Ben been feeling more energetic, he could have saved money by hopping onto a hired bike and arriving at the rail station just at the right time to pick up his grocery order and board the train, his entire journey already paid for through an app on his phone.

The key element of Ben’s commute is that he does not own a car: he purchases “mobility as a service” (MAAS). Anyone who uses a car sharing service or books a taxi through Uber is already accessing MAAS, but the future vision is to create online platforms through which people can book and pay for their entire journey from door to door, even when travelling by several different modes of transport.

Since 2016, residents of Helsinki have been able to use an integrated transport app called WHIM. This enables them to plan and pay for all modes of public and private transport within the city, be it by train, taxi, bus, car share or bike share. Anyone with the app can enter a destination, select a mode of transport (or combination of modes) and set off. Users can either subscribe to the service or pay as they go. Other cities around the world are also developing this type of MAAS, including Paris, Eindhoven, Gothenburg, Montpellier, Vienna, Hanover, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Denver, Singapore, and Barcelona.

While this vision of the future promises to be cleaner, greener and more convenient — even if people make more journeys, the effect is likely to be offset by increased car sharing — not everyone will want to give up their cars. Will Ben’s customised adverts and television show give people the same sense of personal choice and autonomy as owning their own vehicle? Here in the UK, the Government would also have the challenge of replacing the lost revenues from road tax and vehicle excise duty.

What is needed?

The growth of MAAS will depend not just on a greater uptake of smartphones and cashless payment systems, but also on greater co-operation between Government, business and the transportation sector. A diverse group of stakeholders will need to come together: transport service providers, IT and mobile phone companies, payment processors, public and private transport providers (such as taxi, bus and train companies), and local authorities with responsibility for transport and city planning. This level of co-operation is not easy to achieve.

Planners will need to create interchanges and transport hubs which allow easy transfer between different modes of transport. As well as integrating bus, train and tram services, they will need to give thought to spaces for car sharing and bike storage areas at stations. Of course, this is already happening in many cities.

Something simpler?

As already mentioned, there are simpler versions of MAAS which, although not offering an integrated citywide system, can still bring impressive environmental benefits.

Riversimple is an imaginative and ecofriendly MAAS enterprise based in Wales. For a fixed fee, customers receive a car, fuel and maintenance service. By the end of 2019 Riversimple expect their new hydrogen powered vehicle, the Rasa, to be available. This emits only a tiny quantity of water and is made of lightweight composite materials. As Riversimple retains ownership of the car, it is in their interest to make it as durable and sustainable as possible.

The future is now

While the Government’s challenge is about “the future of mobility”, the examples in this article demonstrate that the future is already here. With the exception of sophisticated integrated MAAS systems and the long-term digital rail project, most of the innovations are expected to become part of our everyday experience in the next few years. The challenge is not so much to develop new technology, but to adapt to it and integrate it, and put safeguards in place to ensure that our future journeys are safe, secure and sustainable.