What will be the impact of autonomous vehicles on the future of transport? In our report on multi-modal mobility, we look at how multiple stakeholders view the integration of ticketing, timetables and other services to enable true end-to-end journeys for passengers. Representatives from each stakeholder group remarked on the expected disruptive effect of autonomous transport. Yet for organizations such as Daimler’s multi-modal subsidiary moovel, it is a strategic business driver. “The reason we exist as an organization is the idea of autonomous cars and vehicles,” says David van Oertzen, Head of Product at moovel Group GmbH. “They could be a much better operator in cities, creating a big challenge for traditional buses and trains.”
In an industry striving for efficiency, autonomous vehicles have the potential to remove significant costs in the form of drivers, at the same time as creating a basis for fast rollout of new services (for example, Uber Eats food delivery). The human factor is omnipresent. While safety could be less of an issue than first mooted (driverless car safety records appear to be better than driver-based cars), many transport workers fear their roles may be superseded by robots. Already the commercial taxi industry has no greater hatred than Uber, which is testing its own autonomous vehicle fleets as we speak.
Some stakeholders take the view that change is inevitable, that it should be embraced rather than ignored or avoided. Alain Flausch, Secretary General at the International Association of public transport (UITP) highlights: “Autonomous buses are changing the paradigm: maybe some bus lines are disappearing as they are not sustainable but new modes e.g. autonomous vehicles are appearing. If we have to cut-off bus lines so be it. In the 19th century, workers were trying to destroy factories due to electrification [this is no different]. We need to take measures, re-train our people. This is the philosophy we are trying to push.”
While the future will undoubtedly bring profound change to public transportation, it may still be too early to determine what the impact will be. All we can say with certainty is that the impact will be very broad, with the biggest perhaps being felt with personal car ownership. “Autonomous driving will change the market in terms of car sharing, rental cars, taxi driving – it’s definitely a turning point,” says Michael Peterson, Member of the Board (Marketing) at DB Fernverkehrs AG. “It will add a whole new layer – a coordination layer – to the whole industry. The car is not used 90-95% of the time, so we should see better load rates.”
In part due to this breadth of impact, autonomous vehicles still have a long way to go before they become mainstream. An account from Jörg Bruchertseifer, Deputy Federal Chairman of passenger association Pro Bahn offers an illuminating example:
I had the chance to try an autonomous bus in Sion (Switzerland). The bus was going through a pedestrian element of the route: it turned 2m left, went forward 10 m, then 2m right, you couldn’t see why. When I asked, I was told: – “It’s programmed that way, as the restaurant opener has the possibility to open two additional tables.” It was cold in November so he had 4 tables out but had the option for 6. If you need to program the route so exactly, you will try to stop it on a bike – I can see the kids making a sport of this.
As well as illustrating the very real challenges ‘on the ground’, this example shows us how poor customer experience from early ventures can tarnish potential expectations and push back the mass adoption of autonomous transport services. “My personal impression is that a mass roll out will need 15 years or more. You could do it where there is little traffic, for exhibitions or closed area, but for normal routes it isn’t feasible,” says Jörg Bruchertseifer. Michael Peterson agrees, “The first autonomous car fleets will cause disruption, but that will not happen before 7-10 years.”
There is a broader point, highlighted by Peterson when he says that autonomous vehicles “will add … a coordination layer to the whole industry.” This coordination layer is the same as that required for multi-modal mobility across the board: in our report, we highlight the challenges getting in the way of turning it into a reality, from data sharing and standardisation difficulties to a lack of co-operation between stakeholders. Given this, autonomous vehicles are more likely to appear in cities first. Says Dr. Libor Lochman, executive director at the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER), “Autonomous cars, especially if electric, can be seen as a connecting service, rather than for long distances.”
In conclusion, short-term disruption from autonomous vehicles will mostly be felt by stakeholder groups, as they re-organise and develop new business and service models. While today’s startups are not without ambition, the spectrum of different transport organizations will need to seamlessly collaborate to achieve multi-modal mobility in the future. The transport industry has a responsibility to innovate, to keep centuries-old infrastructure relevant and accessible to today’s tech-savvy customers, and to create the job roles necessary to keep up with this change – and it is here where we are advising participants to focus their initiatives to build experience and understanding of what these roles need to be.
Many careers will be forged in inventing and building the technologies needed, including gathering, collaboration and analysis of sensor data and customer experience. Because, whatever the changes that happen within the transportation industry, the customer is interested only in having a smooth ride.