SXSW: Is Mobility Tech Reinventing the Wheel?

  • March 19, 2018
  • Shelley Nall

I have been doing SXSW Interactive since 2010. One of the big bonuses of being a local is the flexibility to come and go as you please for the week-long extravaganza. I take full advantage of this by trying to see and do as many random things as I possibly can – and many random things there are. This year, we’ve got all the usual acronyms (AR/VR, AI, UX/UI) and topics ranging from big data to branding, but this year we also have some new buzz words like cryptocurrency, blockchain, and digital transformation. And you can’t forget the brand activations. My favorite this year is the unapologetic and to-the-point VICELAND lot.

As I browsed the schedule this year and tried to plan out my days, I unwittingly found myself starring a lot of sessions from the Intelligent Future track. Co-hosted by me Convention, this program embodies the realm of future possibilities where intelligence is embedded in every aspect of life. The goal is for technology to empower and enable new possibilities like smart transportation and cities, deep machine learning, and intelligent devices. The sessions on the future of mobility and transportation, in particular, caught my eye.

This is a topic INK has talked about before and one we’ve gotten to dig into with our work with moovel North America. In New Mobility and the Future of our Cities, the panel discussed the increasing opportunity we have to reverse decades of design practices that have prioritized the movement of automobiles over people. What I found most interesting, however, was Jarrett Walker’s argument that we should not be focusing on disrupting these design practices but embracing and evolving them. The crux of the argument is two-fold.

First, the majority of established transit infrastructure is based on fixed-route services. This includes any transit service in which vehicles run along an established path at preset times. Trains, subways and buses are the most common examples of this type of service. Geometrically speaking, because it is grid-based, fixed route transit services are much more efficient systems of getting people from one place to another. Overlooking this existing, efficient infrastructure for shiny new things (like door-to-door ride sharing services, individual autonomous vehicles, etc.) ignores the many benefits that buses, light rail, trains, shuttles, and other forms of public transportation already bring to the table.

Second, the main focus of any mobility solution needs to be space efficiency. The below photo sums this up perfectly.

When we look to single-user solutions as the future of mobility, we are not solving the space problem – we are adding to it. Suburban sprawl, for example, was a direct result of the automobile era. As one critic at the time stated, the car “has a voracious appetite for land.” As the photo above calls out, if you make something easier for people to do, more people will do it. Driverless cars can make it easier for workers to live farther out, but a single-user solution clearly isn’t going to solve traffic problems. Nearly everyone who has studied the subject believes that self-driving fleets will be significantly cheaper and more efficient than owning a car, which sits idle roughly 95% of the time. And how do we best implement fleets of driverless vehicles? Through fixed-route services that incorporate a mix of driverless buses, light rail, trains, and shuttles.

The panel also featured Jessica Nigro, ‎Manager, Outreach and Innovation Policy at Daimler. Her organization, which is also the parent company of above-mentioned moovel, is focused on CASE: Connected, Autonomous, Shared, and Electric. As Daimler explains it, each of these CASE concepts has the power to turn the mobility industry upside down, but the true revolution is in combining them in a comprehensive, seamless package. In the next few years, Daimler will invest 10 billion euros in the expansion of electric vehicles, including trucks, buses, and transporters that are coming to market in 2018. Along with this, they have developed Fleetboard, a logistics platform that delivers real-time data and an intelligent networking of drivers, fleets, and orders to help all of these new tools work together. It is this kind of integrated thinking that will truly shape the future of mobility.

At one point in the panel, Walker pointed out that no demand-responsive service (like Uber and Lyft) can serve more than three to five people per hour, but even the worst bus route that seems to be empty all the time is actually serving 10 people per hour on average. Mobility technology messaging needs to stop pushing the idea that the current idea of transit is obsolete and, instead, embrace and improve what we have. We see this in the work Daimler is doing, but also in clever takes on ride-sharing like Via, which integrates fixed-route transit philosophy into door-to-door service solutions. Being smart doesn’t always mean being new. As it turns out, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the future of mobility.

Other good stuff in here