The future of consumer mobility: could integrated transport drive a new digital divide?

12 February 2015

The recent SMMT (Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders) annual dinner showcased a ‘next generation’ award that illustrated the way new technology is radically reshaping the future of consumer transport. The prize went to the developer of a steering-wheel that can tell immediately whether a driver is too drunk, tired or even angry to drive safely. It does this by monitoring the individual’s heart rate, respiration and blood alcohol levels.

If such devices sound futuristic to you, think again. They’re here today. And it’s clear that the colliding megatrends of advancing technology and rapid urbanisation will transform the landscape of transport across bus, rail and cars. Take urbanisation: in 1960 only 34% of the world’s population lived in cities – now it’s 54%, and rising by 1.5 million people a week.

21726_Integrated-transport-_v2_VJ1102This explosion in urban populations raises major questions around how transport systems can meet rising demand safely and sustainably. The answer lies in digital technologies, embedded both in road and rail vehicles themselves and the surrounding infrastructure.

These technologies are now changing the concept of transport itself. Rather than being metal boxes in which we travel from A to B, cars and other vehicles are becoming interactive spaces where we undertake a multiplicity of activities, whether working, watching a movie, or buying or communicating online.

This shift has much further to go. Driverless trains and tubes are already a reality – and soon technology will free us up from having to keep our eyes on the road. Guided by roadside and on-vehicle sensors, driverless cars will enable people who are too old or visually impaired to drive.  And computer-controlled cars and buses will be able drive with a gap of six inches between them rather than six yards, vastly increasing the efficiency of road networks.

The alcohol-sensing steering wheel that we mentioned earlier underlines a further opportunity: the vehicle as health guardian. If someone is at at high risk of a heart attack, their car could divert to the nearest hospital as soon as their vital signs show anything amiss – indeed even if they’ve lost consciousness. What’s more, with shared digitally-connected vehicles we could each have our own personal preferences and payment details programmed into our smartphone. So as soon as we climb in, the car reconfigures to our needs – from seat position to radio stations – and debits our account as we travel.

If all this sounds like a wonderful future for urban dwellers, that’s because it possibly is. But inevitably there are bumps along the road. Some are the risks around data security and privacy. Will personal data and banking details be secure? Or imagine if a driverless car were hacked and redirected by criminals.  Other issues are legal and regulatory. Who’s liable if a driverless car goes wrong and crashes? And how can these vehicles be squared with the Highway Code, so they’re considerate to other road-users but not overly cautious?  The UK government is already looking into this and is due to publish a code of practice in the spring.

All of these implications have been picked over by various commentators. But another one to highlight is the risk of a widening digital divide, not just around access to information, but access to transport.

Why might this open up? Well, the rising population density of cities makes it worth investing in the infrastructure needed to support, guide and charge for driverless vehicles. But in rural areas the business case is much weaker – a challenge prefigured by the decline we’ve already seen in traditional rural bus services.

Given these contrasting dynamics, we could see the emergence of a two-tier transport system, with remote and low-population areas effectively becoming no-go zones for the latest high-tech vehicles being used in cities. This polarisation could in turn help to drive demographic shifts, as younger people migrate towards areas offering the new transport opportunities, and older people – probably more comfortable with legacy self-driven vehicles – moving the other way, into the countryside.

Would this be a problem for society? Not necessarily. But as the megatrends continue to play out in the transport arena, it’s increasingly clear that the changes they could usher in will involve much more than just new ways of getting from A to B.

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