One if by Car, Two if by Sea Change

By Steve Plumb, Senior Editor

Sound the alarms. The mobility revolution has started, and it promises to affect virtually every aspect of how people and goods move from place to place. This includes vehicle ownership and usage as well as how next-generation cars and trucks operate—from advanced driver assist systems to fully autonomous functions—and increasingly interact and share information with each other, the roadside and third-party businesses.

At the same time, new mobility services are emerging to give people more options and greater flexibility. People can Uber, Lyft or Zip their way across town and back, plot multi-modal connections, hail an autonomous shuttle or remotely find and pay for parking via a smartphone.

We all know the potential benefits: dramatic safety and efficiency improvements, lower transportation costs, reduced congestion and pollution and better transportation options for low-income families and the elderly and disabled.

But reaching this nirvana of personal transportation means overcoming major challenges ranging from regulatory and legal issues to cybersecurity, consumer acceptance and infrastructure upgrades. The technology involved is moving quickly, but much remains to be done before it’s ready for prime time.

Expert Analysis

These issues and more were addressed at the 2016 Automobility symposium earlier this month in Dearborn, Mich. Co-hosted by the Advanced Mobility Project, AutoBeat Daily and Automotive Design & Production (all of which are owned by Gardner Business Media), the conference featured experts from automakers, traditional suppliers and tech companies as well as top researchers and analysts. Video replays of all of the presentations are available here.

Speakers offered differing opinions regarding specific technologies and implementation timing. But there was widespread consensus on the main theme: Transportation is changing in an unprecedented way—and the transformation is accelerating. 

“The rate of investment and progress is amazing,” notes keynote speaker John Leonard, director of autonomy, Toyota Research Institute (TRI). Leonard, who says he has been “obsessed with robots” since he was a graduate student at the University of Oxford in 1987, joined TRI earlier this year shortly after it was formed to create safe mobility for all people. “The industry has made great strides, but there still are tremendous research challenges that need to be solved.”  

Chris Borroni-Bird, vice president of strategic development for Qualcomm Technologies, agrees. But he cautions there will be no single “answer” to future mobility. “We talk about connected, automated, electrified, shared and small-footprint vehicles,” he says, but adds, “None of these by themselves addresses all the societal challenges facing the automobile, especially in an urban context.”

The former General Motors executive, who along with his co-authors correctly predicted many recent advances in their 2010 book Reinventing the Automobile, says the pace of change is accelerating even faster than they envisioned. He expects wireless charging for electric vehicles and greater connectivity and sensor fusion to be key enablers for self-driving cars.

Shared Ideas, Smart Cities

Greater cooperation among transportation providers also is needed to improve urban mobility, adds Sue Zielinski, managing director of the University of Michigan’s SMART program, which focuses on sustainable transportation. “Mobility as a service is the next wave,” she told conference attendees. “We’re moving from modes of services to systems of systems.”

With technological advances outpacing public policy, Zielinski says there is a huge opportunity to reinvent urban mobility and cultivate innovations that address societal needs. Doing so will mean bringing together entrepreneurs, CEOs and infrastructure experts with end users, city planners and other stakeholders who typically don’t interact with each other.

“This new era of mobility is going to require a holistic solution,” agrees Carla Bailo, assistant vice president-Mobility Research & Development, Ohio State University (OSU). “We can’t do it with technology alone.”

Bailo, who previously headed Nissan’s r&d efforts in North America, defines smart mobility as zeroing in on three key areas: accidents/fatalities, carbon footprint and driver stress. To this end, she helped Columbus, Ohio, win the Smart City Challenge awarded by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to develop, implement and test new mobility services. The ultimate goal, Bailo says, is to use technology and information to improve people’s lives.

Sounds like a revolutionary idea that we can all fight to achieve: a true sea change in personal mobility.