The Future of Mobility in the COVID-19 Era
The transportation industry looks a lot different today than it did ten, five, or even two years ago. When I first got my driver’s license, if you would have told me that car-sharing would ever be normal or that I’d experience—not to mention work on—self-driving vehicles in my lifetime, I would have laughed at you out of my 1985 Mitsubishi Colt. Though I no longer work directly for a transportation company, Newlab is home to a number of companies working in the mobility space—from electric bicycles to autonomous vehicle technology—allowing me to remain connected to this ever-evolving industry.
The mobility landscape looks a lot different today than it did before the COVID-19 crisis, but the future of the industry remains bright. Broadly defined, public transportation has expanded past buses and subways to include micro-mobility options like ride and bike shares. Especially in New York City, we have seen these critical last mile options take on new life in getting people around the city without having to be in close proximity to others. As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, we’ll see rideshares and public transportation shift even more and other modes come into play in unexpected ways.
Newlab recently hosted a virtual event that explored these types of innovations in mobility with leaders from Lyft, JUMP, Avis Budget Group, and Voyage. And given the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to share some thoughts—both mine and from the leaders on our panel—about how we see the transportation industry shifting.
In many cities around the world you can’t walk down the street without seeing a shared vehicle—scooters, bikes, Smart cars—thanks, in part, to infrastructural and cultural changes, and the advent of the devices we all carry in our pockets. With COVID-19, a new norm is on the horizon. While policymakers are often concerned with keeping their streets safe (as they should), Avra Van Der Zee, chief strategy officer at JUMP, brought up other critical infrastructure issues during our mobility event. She cited, “Amsterdam wasn’t always the cycling nirvana it is now. It took the oil crisis, many accidents, and, most importantly, policy restructuring to produce the bike haven it is today.” One can imagine this policy restructuring will be equally important for the next chapter in mobility.
We’re already seeing bike lanes in New York City pop up at breakneck speed—250 miles have been added since 2006. The ability to push change is out there, especially in the COVID-19 era (NYC aims to close 100 miles of streets to vehicular traffic to make more safe space for pedestrians). We’ll see government collaboration become even more essential in ushering true change but refocused on what’s needed in the aftermath of this pandemic.
Congestion and the path forward
One silver lining that has come from the COVID-19 crisis: a significant dip in pollution across the world due to fewer human activities that are harmful to the planet. Newlab member company Aclima has been measuring significantly lower pollutant levels across California, and we’ve all seen the stories about Venice’s clear canal waters. I’m optimistic that congestion in cities—from Moscow to Beijing—now feels more solvable than ever.
“There will be a new normal, especially because we’ve seen policymakers move faster than they have before to solve a big problem. The world has a common enemy for the first time and society will gain momentum on how to solve problems, hopefully in a positive direction.”—Aaron Zifkin, Managing Director, Lyft Canada
Reducing transportation’s global climate impact and freeing up clogged city streets will hopefully see us enter the chapter after COVID-19 with greater capabilities and improved leadership. Aaron Zifkin, managing director at Lyft Canada pointed out, “There will be a new normal, especially because we’ve seen policymakers move faster than they have before to solve a big problem. The world has a common enemy for the first time and society will gain momentum on how to solve problems, hopefully in a positive direction.”
Which brings me to my final point.
True innovation in autonomous vehicles only entered the zeitgeist in earnest this decade. 2019 was perhaps the most eventful year in the AV world. If you were a skeptic you could point to Cruise’s July cancelation of their San Francisco launch, among other things. However, for the optimists, the back half of 2019 was almost a complete reversal. News broke—thanks to Reddit—that Waymo One had launched in Phoenix. Unlike any deployment of AV technology before it, this TAAS brought paying public passengers a self-driving vehicle with no safety driver behind the wheel. Industry leaders who understand both the technological milestones and the safety and liability hurdles for a deployment of this type heralded it as the moon landing that few press outlets covered. It was a resounding statement heard around the world that Level 4 commercial deployment was no pipe dream, but a reality on our doorsteps.
The truth is, the path forward for AVs will probably look a little different than only door-to-door trips. Instead of replacing the traditional driving experience, a technological feat only some will be able to reach in the short term, many AV efforts will focus on augmenting our driving habits—especially in closed, predictable environments. Chief innovation officer at Avis Budget Group, Arthur Orduna noted that niche market segments, for example, business travelers going from the airport terminal to pick up their rental car, or private land use, will be the first to get comfortable and help AVs gain traction. Case-in-point, Optimus Ride currently shuttles people in autonomous vehicles around the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where Newlab is headquartered, and AV company Voyage already serves private communities that include senior citizens.
AV or not, we have to solve for the challenge of customer confidence in shared mobility safety. As Newlab members work tirelessly developing frontier technologies, are there use cases for computer vision and various types of sensors that will help us return rider confidence? Now is the time for ambition and innovation, considering technologies developed for adjacent or industries we previously assumed were unrelated. There are opportunities out there—we just need to work together to identify, prototype, and pilot them.