Technology, and autonomous vehicles will disrupt mobility the next decade

Technology, and the change of demographics in the twenty-first century, will make connected cars and automated mobility services the next big business for electronics manufacturers, more than computers and smartphones.


Cities need a new mobility ecosystem

In 30 years the majority of the world’s population will live in cities, creating a huge mobility challenge. In developing countries, especially, urban population growth will be so massive public transport infrastructure won’t be able to keep up.

Cities may be able to absorb more people, but not more cars. Deploying more mass transit services will reduce the problem, but personal transportation will still be necessary. That’s why ride-sharing autonomous cars, which can be used many times during the day by different passengers, will substitute for most car ownership, as we know it.

Cities are already reducing road and parking space for cars. My hometown of Barcelona installed in 2016 the first “superblock”, a square area of nine city blocks, that eliminates over 60% of parking spaces within the area and changes traffic direction to prevent any through traffic. And Barcelona is a compact city where only 24% of mobility is by passenger car. San Francisco, by contrast, has almost triple the number of individual, polluting cars — 64% — while being home to Uber, the biggest ride-sharing firm.

As cities become less car friendly by necessity and their populations increase, more people will consider living without a car. Many millennials are already following that trend, and the percentage of young people delaying getting a driver license, once considered a rite of passage, is rapidly increasing.

The electronics industry is investing heavily

Last year Qualcomm finally acquired NXP semiconductors, confirming that connected cars and autonomous mobility will be one of the most important markets for the electronic industry in the next few years.

NXP is, after acquired Freescale in 2015 for $11.8 billion, the biggest provider of car electronics.

In 2016 car manufacturers and technology mobile players created the 5G Automotive Association, to develop together solutions for autonomous vehicles using connected technologies, such as Cellular Vehicle to Everything (C-V2X) communication.

The association, initially formed by global vendors Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia and Qualcomm, technology firm Intel and automobile giants Audi, BMW and Daimler, aims to provide an alternative to rivals such as Apple, Google, Lyft, and Uber, who are working intensely to launch driverless mobility services in the next three years.

Analyst firm Gartner has forecasted that the production of connected cars will grow exponentially in the next few years, reaching nearly 61,000 cars per year in 2020, a ten-fold increase from 2015.

Autonomous car-sharing promises new personal transportation

“American households will no longer aspire to own two cars in every garage, but instead will have mobility apps on every phone, to hail self-driving vehicles that they will share rather than own. In high-density cities, the overall number of vehicles will fall considerably, while the intensity of their use (passenger trips per day) will soar,” wrote Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. “Low-income households will likely reap enormous advantages in improved access to transport services, similar to the gains in access to low-cost mobile phone services.”

It is interesting to note how the forecast for the arrival of autonomous cars has been changing in the past few years. In 2005, experts predicted the arrival of commercial autonomous cars around 2040. Now almost everyone agrees that we’ll have commercial self-driving car services before 2022.

John Zimmer, co-founder of Lyft, recently wrote in Medium: “By 2025, private car ownership will all-but end in major U.S. cities.”

For traditional automakers this new mobility ecosystem is a huge disruption of their current business model. They are, however, embracing it, even if their motivation is simply survival. In other words, they may have no choice but to jump on the bandwagon.

In 2016, during a circular economy conference in Barcelona, Seat’s international relations director Carlos Romaní told the audience that the Volkswagen group believes the future of the company is to provide mobility services, rather than sell more cars to individual users.

That has been the end game for newcomers to the auto industry. Tesla’s goal from the start was to develop self-driving cars, so their current strategy of selling electric cars to consumers serves to scale up production, test self-driving technology, and collect as much data as possible about potential users of a future mobility service.

Ride-share companies such as Uber and Lyft, and internet firms such as Apple and Google, will have an enormous technology advantage. Those businesses have huge databases of personal mobility at their disposal, collected continuously from smartphone apps and operating systems. When autonomous rides become a market reality, those databases will help them to optimize their services to cities and areas where they can get the most revenue from their fleets.

Public transport can’t supply all urban mobility services

People need to move around the city. Walking, bicycling, and public transport can’t satisfy all their mobility needs. In compact cities they are excellent options, but for trips without a direct public transport connection, a car is still the best option. More municipalities will be banning private cars from entering the city center, except for ride-share vehicles and taxis and, as a result, more people will resort to those options to reach their destinations.

Many people commuting to work by car from outside the city would consider using public transport if a “last mile” solution were offered. In many cities that could be provided by bike-sharing programs, except where weather conditions are extreme or the terrain really rugged. Taxis provide that last mile transportation, but they are expensive to use on a daily basis.

Free floating rideshare fleets are already at work in many cities worldwide, providing an easy, cheap and convenient way to hire a car for short rides. They have the inconveniences, however, that a licensed driver needs to be at the wheel, be a member, and park the car at the end of the trip.

Self-driving rideshare cars will provide the solution to all of those problems. Without drivers they’ll have more room for passengers and cargo. They will be safer, clean, and mostly electric. Additionally autonomous cars won’t need to be parked, as the passengers will get off at their destination and the car will go get other “fares” or park in a designated waiting area or charging station. A self-driving vehicle, ideally, will be going from ride to ride with little idle time.

How many rides will autonomous cars provide? It is difficult to say. If autonomous robo-taxis can take away most of the taxi rides, plus the current car-sharing and ride-sharing market, the potential market is enormous. Researchers from the Rocky Mountain Institute predicted that by 2025, automated mobility services could be a $120 billion business in the United States alone.

The needs of the new mobility ecosystem will boost business for the electronics industry in similar ways that the introduction of the smartphone did. Autonomous cars and new driverless ride-share services will need to be serviced by brand new technologies, both in the vehicles and the infrastructure. The arrival of the first 5G networks, promising a new level of connectivity, is critical to the autonomous vehicle industry.

It will also be a boost for vendors of sensors and analytics for connected vehicles. Companies such as Siemens, which provides monitoring and preventive maintenance solutions for the rail industry, could start looking into self-driving cars and trucks offering fleet management services.

Self-driving vehicles in cities won’t be limited to cars. By the end of the next decade most transportation will be driverless, including buses, metro, light rail, and delivery vehicles. Self driving metro lines are already operating in many cities around the world and have proven to be safer than human operated services. In Barcelona, automated trains serve 95% of the metro lines, and the ones that have a “driver” only need him or her to close the doors.

“My confidence is bolstered by the fact that electric vehicle-based shared [self-driving] fits all of the objectives of sustainable development: efficiency of vehicle use (cutting down sharply on vehicles per person); high social access through the sharing economy; and environmental sustainability,” professor Sachs concluded.

What is becoming clearly is that autonomous ride-share mobility services will arrive sooner than anybody expected a year ago. And that is going to be a revolution with huge implications in transportation, communications, and electronics. All the players in those ecosystems are racing to be the first and the ones.

Published as Autonomous Car Mobility Shifts Electronics Industry on EBN

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