Emergent Futures Report 001: Reimagining Mobility

A residential compound in Yanjiao, about an hour from downtown Beijing. Photography credit: Sim Chi Yin, The New York Times/Redux

A residential compound in Yanjiao, about an hour from downtown Beijing. Photography credit: Sim Chi Yin, The New York Times/Redux

Reimagining mobility: smart, connected megacities of our future

The Emergent Futures Report identifies global signals of transformation, shaped by research and conversations with innovators in academia, industry, and the arts.

Today, there are 33 megacities worldwide, each with populations of 10 million or more. They present a wealth of investment, education and employment opportunities, but also face rising issues such as overcrowding, traffic congestion, air pollution and income inequality.

Currently, half the world’s population lives in urban areas, but by 2050, this will increase to two-thirds with 70% of that growth happening in 10 emerging-world centers: Delhi, Dhaka, Kinshasa, Shanghai, Lagos, Cairo, Chongqing, Karachi, Beijing and Mumbai.

So how will our cities improve transportation systems to cope with this rapid growth in population? What are the technological innovations that will help make mobility in cities more functional and sustainable, and ultimately make cities more livable?

This article focuses on key mobility trends and technologies being implemented and regulated by companies and cities across Asia, North America and the Middle East, and gives insight into a future driven by design–one that reimagines urban space and uses technology such as 3D digital mapping, high-tech cameras & sensors, data transparency, artificial intelligence and robotics to make mobility through our cities simpler, faster and more efficient.

Autonomous and connected mobility: From Drivers to Passengers

It is expected that by 2030, one in four cars on the road will be autonomous. But which cities are leading the global race to replace the current automotive industry with a safer and more efficient solution for getting from A to B?

Image courtesy RTA, Dubai

Image courtesy RTA, Dubai

In the United Arab Emirates, the local transport authority in Dubai recently launched the world’s first tests of autonomous, modular and electric pods as part of their wider strategy to make 25% of all journeys in Dubai autonomous in the next 12 years.

Devised from a collaboration with US-based company Next Future Inc, the units are designed to travel short distances through metropolitan areas in dedicated lanes. The pods can also be joined together or detached in less than 15 seconds, marking the next phase of the future of ride share services in our cities.

After traveling on pre-programmed routes for the inaugural years, the pods will eventually be available for pick-up from home using an app.

Truck Drivers: Moving From Humans to AI

Turning to the movement of food and goods, autonomous long-haul trucking is likely to fill gaps in ever-increasing demand, with density contributing to rising costs of storing goods in urban warehouses. Instead, the future will rely on comparatively fast delivery over greater distances. Autonomous trucking was approved in the United States in 2018, with early commercialization predicted within the next two years and full automation anticipated within the next 7-20 years.

Reducing the cost of delivery by up to 40%, AI-guided long-haul delivery has shown it could reduce fuel use by 15%, thanks to increasing efficiencies in routes and “platooning” — chaining large numbers of vehicles together to unify movements, reducing drag over long distances. Since 2016, Volvo has deployed a self-driving concept truck in a diamond mine in Sweden, the same year that an autonomous convoy completed a route through Europe.

Innovation and Regulation: Autonomous Vehicles in the US

In the US, technology companies and governments are working together to create regulations that support innovation and safety concurrently with autonomous vehicle testing without a safety driver being carried out in Arizona, Nevada and California.

In Arizona, a ‘braintrust’ of companies, government, and universities, the Institute for Automated Mobility (IAM), has recently been set up to collaborate on autonomous vehicle testing in the state. With an industry expected to grow up to $400 billion by 2026 due to the expanding food delivery and ride-hailing industries, there is an increased need for the private and public sectors to collaborate to meet the market demands of the next 10 years in the US.

Meanwhile, forecasts suggest automated freight in the US could make redundant any number between 294,000 to 2.1 million jobs, with long-distance drivers affected first.

Innovation and Regulation: Autonomous Vehicles in China

In China, the pace of urbanization is happening at an unprecedented rate with the urban population expected to hit one billion by 2030. By then, China’s cities will add more people than the entire population of the US, and the government is preparing for the pressures on infrastructure and the environment by restricting private car use, building metro systems and high-speed rails.

It has also singled out the autonomous vehicle sector in the Made in China 2025 program to transform the country. They suggest that driverless technology will reduce transport costs by 20 cents per mile, reduce car ownership, and reduce carbon emissions in cities already suffering from toxic air quality. This move, alongside a strong technological ecosystem underpinned by global giants Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu, shows that China is well placed to win the race on creating a driverless future.

Many industries will be affected worldwide if they’re not able to adapt to the changes that autonomous vehicles will bring to the market. Large corporations and industries such as oil and insurance companies, car manufacturers, auto parts & repair services, and ride hailing services face severe upheaval.

The Sky Becomes a Roadway

Image courtesy Volocopter

Image courtesy Volocopter

As urban spaces become more crowded, technology companies are looking to the skies to solve mobility problems of the future.

In Singapore, the future of air taxis is being tested by Germany-based company, Volocopter, with pilot trials commencing in late 2019. The Volocopter is an 18-rotored human-sized drone that can fly for 30 minutes, adding a new transport option for future urban commuters. However, although the technology is ready for testing, the company still needs to navigate regulatory institutions, and bring governments up to speed with the technology before it’s ready for the market, in approximately 5 years.

Fueling Autonomy: The Future of Maps

Autonomous vehicles require large amounts of data—1gb per second—to stay on the road safely. For maximum efficiency, autonomous vehicles will require a consistent communication system for sharing their location and destination that can be understood by all of the other drivers—robots and humans—on the road.

Such real-time map creation, where human movement is tracked live in within dense environments, raises the specter of surveillance by one’s own state and for espionage. This year, the New York Times was able to track the position of the city’s mayor, and several employees of nuclear power plants, using data gathered from a weather app which they willingly installed on their phone. The journalists were also able to pull “compromising” data based on other location-based activities.

The future of mobility for smart cities is inherently tied to the need for positioning data — cities will need to balance privacy and security concerns with the need for positioning data in our GPS systems. It is also predictable that maps themselves could become less often used by humans. Today we see an increase in “input and output” models of navigation, where we ask a phone how to get somewhere and listen to audio instructions. 

Rebuilding our transit systems: A Return to Rail

As metro transit systems around the United States face the reality of aging infrastructure and increased needs to meet the challenges of a growing population, some cities are developing incubation programs to help find solutions for the future. In New York, an aging subway and bus system has led the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to turn to tech companies for solutions by setting up the nation’s first transit tech lab, an incubation accelerator program for startups solving public transportation challenges.

They are seeking to answer two main challenges faced by the country’s largest public transport system suffering from increasing congestion and breakdowns: how can we better predict subway incident impacts and how can we ensure buses run faster and more efficiently? The MTA believes this challenge will incubate transit-improving tech possibilities such as ultra-wideband wireless technology, onboard sensors and cameras, and robotic installation systems to control subway tunnels. Another goal is to invent new A.I. solutions that utilize big data to analyze historical subway data to find patterns that can be used to predict future disruptions.  

In China, a main challenge facing urban planners is how to meet the demands of a growing population in the tight confines of existing cities. So they’re going underground, and building high-speed metro networks marking a revolution with almost as many kilometers of rail tracks being built in the next decade as in the past 150 years. Although this technology isn’t ‘new’, it marks a trend in what mobility will look like in some of our megacities in the near future: underground and electrified.

In California, entrepreneur Elon Musk’s “Boring Company” has pinned investments and energy into the Hyperloop, an encapsulated train using air pressure and gliding mechanisms to reach theoretical speeds of 760 mph (1,223 km/h), though the current record holds at 260m/ph (418 km/h). Currently, there are proposed routes for Hyperloop connections between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the United States, Chennai, and Bengaluru in India, and Helsinki and Stockholm, a journey which take just 30 minutes by tunnelling beneath the Baltic Sea. The first European test track will open in Valais in 2019.

Back to the Streets

In urban communities in the U.S., streets make up 30% of all space. The traditional notions of how streets are used is being challenged from merely supporting the movement and storage of vehicles to one which is more aligned with societal values. Greenfield Labs — a Ford Smart Mobility research and innovation team—is questioning what streets might become in the future with a vision of serving a variety of functions and needs: from walking, biking, running a business, relaxing, exercising, and connecting with peers. Streets will be seen as economic & social generators: an area for social activity and a conduit for everything that moves. 

Over the next 15 years, governments and technology companies will play an interconnected role in redesigning mobility in our cities to meet the needs of rising populations and infrastructure constraints. China’s ability to fast-track government regulation on the latest innovations means they will lead the way in rolling out new technologies that reimagine mobility in megacities, with autonomous transport expected to hit the consumer market within the next five years. In other major cities around the world, human-centric design and data-driven technologies, such as smart network systems and autonomous vehicles, will transform urban environments, but the timing of this will depend on the ability of governments to keep up to speed with innovation.


Written by: Perrine Huber

Foresight research: Birgit Coleman, Laura Erickson, Perrine Huber, Eryk Salvaggio

The Emergent Futures Report is a contribution by swissnex San Francisco to a larger foresight publication created by Armasuisse Science & Technology.