2020 has demanded a lot from us (from some even more than from others). Looking back, I will remember this last year most for how quickly changes were suddenly possible. Some of them – such as wearing masks, keeping the distance and reducing contact – will be reversed as soon as possible after Covid 19, others – such as permitting bars and restaurants to serve food and drinks outdoors – are certainly an option to hold on once it gets nice and warm again, and others – such as working from home or video conferencing – will surely stay with us as a “New Normal”.
In terms of the mobility of the future, I see two experiences from 2020 as especially helpful: Firstly, we were able to even change things that have been considered more or less inalterable for a long time. We proved not only that working from home is possible but also that it significantly reduces traffic, we reduced overall CO2 emissions and improved air quality visibly, we boosted the share of electrified vehicles, temporarily installed and tested structural alternatives such as pop-up bicycle lanes, and even converted long term urban vision into concrete concepts like the 15-Minute City. Secondly but not less important, we learned that for the general reflection on whether changes are meaningful and possible and thus an elevated willingness to change, we should not always need a pandemic.
With this in mind, I wish you all the best for the New Year 2021.
Whether eagerly yearned for or grudgingly conceded: By now, you have probably accepted that electric cars are inexorably on the rise. And even though you are sure that at least in some places there will still be cars with combustion engines on the road by 2050, it surely looks like EVs and Plug-in Hybrids will prevail in the cities. However, what you still find far less clear – even though you witness more and more public chargers around – is how EV drivers will be able to cope with the limited range of their vehicles in connection with the perceived scarcity of charging stations. And while at the same time some nerdish engineers reiteratively broadcast that fuel cells and hydrogen will solve this problem for ever, you still cannot get rid of this uneasy mental image of a huge crater stretching over a highway after a car crash with a poorly maintained hydrogen vehicle involved.
Then, as you read through your business strategy journals, you are told over and over that car ownership, the century old mobility pattern number one, is in rapid retreat. Urban teenagers, whose fathers were dreaming of fancy sports cars when they were their age, don’t even go for a driver’s license anymore. If train, bus or bicycle is not an option, people would not buy or lease cars but rather share a car or call a ride hailing service like Uber, the affordable and app-steered successor of what has long time been known as a taxi. But what is worrying you even more is that new digital service providers are said to take over the complete mobility business soon, with automakers being downgraded to basic hardware providers and public transport companies begging for contracts.
On top of that, automakers claim they will soon bring autonomous vehicles on the road. Not just something like an extra-advanced driver assistance system, but cars with neither steering wheel nor pedals but lots of extremely expensive sensors and software that must be extensively tested and meet standards initially developed for military aircraft. And while in spite of all confidence in engineering you still wonder how these cars would ever make it safely through unsecured road works or snowstorms and – even more significant – who apart from ride hailing providers would actually want to buy them, you witness the heralded date from which on these robocars should populate our cities’ streets being postponed year by year.
And as if all this wasn’t bad enough, some of the young guys around you, the ones wearing sneakers, a full beard and watching e-sports, tell you that data is the new gold, that big data means even more gold, and that your company should work agile, fail fast, provide something you would call completely unacceptable but they call minimum viable product, scale and ultimately indulge yourself in a so called digital transformation. All that of course independently from whether you are in automotive, mobility services, energy, public transport, insurance, law, or whatever. After thinking it over, you are left with the feeling that this is not all new but still kind of frightening. If only you would understand all these fancy IT buzzwords.
If your work was related to mobility for the last couple of years, all of the above probably sounds familiar. The battle-hardened manager, now somewhat disoriented and undetermined in this overgrown jungle called mobility of the future. How do all these bits and pieces fit together? The good news is: No one has ever been brought from one place to another by software alone. But the fact that vehicles and smartphones send and receive an exponentially increasing amount of data, that they are connected to back-end servers and with each other, and that artificial intelligence can create astonishing and valuable information from this data, will not only improve vehicle and service functionalities but dramatically change the way they are developed, produced or rendered, marketed and sold – and especially how vehicles and their private or corporate customers are served after sales.
The key for survival and success is embracing change. At the end of the day, the question is neither if you should proactively engage in a digital transformation nor when you should do it (the answers are yes and now). The sole question is how – and can usually not be answered sufficiently by the people who brought your company to where it is today …
A look at the comments on corresponding posts on LinkedIn or elsewhere proves: The change in mobility affects each individual very directly – and is accordingly emotionally documented. Comparable to issues such as nuclear energy or migration applies: anyone who takes a different opinion from myself and that opinion – whether actually or only assumed – threatens my own circumstances, attacks me personally, and I shoot back accordingly quickly and sharply. A factual debate often falls by the wayside.
It is obvious that the right solution for everyone does not exist, indeed cannot exist. In terms of mobility, it not only has everyone’s own individual preferences and priorities, but also everyone has to cope with their own framework of individual and general constraints – be it the personal life situation including the available financial resources, the local availability of certain mobility offers, including the necessary infrastructure or the applicable legal situation.
So anyone who asks the family man, who on the daily commute from his home with garage in a quiet community to his workplace in the nearby business park never had to stand in a traffic jam let alone worrying about a parking space, to think about giving up his car, will hardly find any understanding. Conversely, if you live in the city centre, where the monthly parking space rental in an underground car park is in the range of the leasing rate of a mid-size car, and you come to the office from your apartment in less than 15 minutes by subway, you are probably glad not to have your own car and to be able to use alternatives such as car sharing or ride hailing if necessary.
Change, yes, of course. But where to where?
It is undisputed that driving your own car has been the standard in mobility for decades, and accordingly all other forms of transport have been referred to as mobility alternatives – despite the fact that some of these alternatives have been available for much longer and are also used by far more people than owned cars, especially in the big cities. The fact is, however, that the traffic situation resulting from this standard in the cities is perceived by the people living there – both by motorists and by other road users – more and more as a massive, multidimensional problem: on the one hand, due to traffic jams and parking shortages, on the other hand, by deterioration of air quality, increasing emissions of greenhouse gases and noise, deterioration of road safety and occupancy of the scarcer public space. The fact that more and more people want to move to the suburbs and want to be mobile there with their own car is constantly exacerbating the situation.
All those affected agree that the traffic situation needs to change. However, opinions differ clearly on how the problems could actually be solved and how a corresponding change should look like: those who want to continue driving hope for more roads and parking facilities, whether by expanding the existing transport infrastructure or by switching to mobility alternatives as possible. If you care about reducing emissions, you want the continuous replacement of internal combustion engines by electric drives. And if you want to have more green spaces and space for alternative mobility in your area, you might want inner cities without private cars.
Extreme positions of individual mobility
In the end, the real mobility situation is always the result of the sum of individual decisions made within a framework of personal possibilities and preferences, market-side offers, available infrastructure and last but not least regulatory/political conditions. The individual not only decides on his or her personal mobility mode, but also regulates the supply of mobility products and services via demand and also influences the promotion or rejection of different solutions by means of regulatory requirements through the election of a party or a delegate. The change in mobility is thus supported, at least in democratic conditions, directly and indirectly by the will of the majority – and is therefore often difficult for the individual to understand and endure.
In this situation, on the one hand, many people today have the impression that politics and society are interfering in more and more things that used to be a purely private matter. Of course, everyone is allowed to smoke – but not everywhere for a long time. Of course, everyone is allowed to wear whatever they want – but they are also confronted with the conditions under which their garments were made at the other end of the world. In principle, everyone is allowed to eat what they want – but they have to accept questions about fair trade, environmental protection and animal welfare. The same feeling now arises in terms of mobility: Can I not even drive a car now?
On the other hand, there are people with different personal values and priorities who, for example, attach great importance to ecologically and socially sustainable life and action, cope wonderfully without a car of their own and feel affected by the mobility behaviour of others in their quality of life. From such a point of view, it is often incomprehensible why someone wants to hold on to their own car around everything in the world.
How do we get to sensible and majority-capable solutions here as citizens with mobility needs, as mobility providers or even as politicians, despite all differences of opinion? An indispensable prerequisite for this is the fundamental assumption that people with an opinion other than their own do not generally represent them out of stupidity or malice, and the willingness to deal with conflicting points of view in a factual and differentiated way in a consideration of the overall system. A look at the motives from which extreme positions are represented helps. In this sense, figures 1 and 2 show different reasons, for which the positions “I drive with my own car and want to continue doing so!” and “I don’t own my own car and don’t want one!” are taken – each descendingly ordered by how easy alternative can be found.
In addition to the understanding of the “opposite side”‘s reasoning, this analytical analysis also reveals the shortcomings of one’s own reasoning or supply: those who want to sell cars would do well to understand why some people do not or no longer address this offer, and with which vehicles or services customers could be held or recovered. Those who offer alternatives to owned cars, on the other hand, should look very carefully at what drives people to continue to drive their own cars in spite of everything.
Let us not be under any illusions: in the end, this approach will not lead to a result that everyone is happy with. But it makes the debates on mobility change noticeably more constructive and thus leads it clearly towards an overall optimum.
Most of the measures taken to solve the problems caused by mobility aim to improve or enhance the available choice of mobility options, e.g. by designing electric cars with lower or no emissions, enabling autonomous driving, creating alternative vehicle concepts, generally improving publictransport or offering innovative mobility services.
Few measures however focus on the actual root cause of these problems, namely the individual mobility needs. Apart from the tremendously long-term and costly political efforts to transform monocentric into polycentric cities in order to keep people in their neighborhood and thus shorten the average trip distance, a short-term and effective measure is to reduce the overall number of trips by replacing on-site gatherings through means of tele-cooperation, e.g. tele-working, tele-learning or tele-diagnosis. But while the required technology has been available for many years, its application often stalled due to rather irrational hurdles: IT had not installed the required hard- and software, associates were reluctant to stay back home, managers were afraid to lose direct control, professors didn’t want to give up personal interaction with their students, patients were reluctant to measure blood pressure, pulse or body temperature by themselves. And after all, the pressure and need for this transformation has obviously not been considered that urgent.
But now, as the measures taken to staunch propagation of Covid 19 lead to companies having their associates work from home whenever possible, schools and universities closing down, doctor’s appointments being postponed, and face-to-face meetings being generally reduced to a minimum, tele-cooperation undergoes a true boost. As there aren’t any more alternatives, people get enabled, use the technology for the first time – and then realize not only how easy and comfortable it works but also how much time they can save that they formerly spent traveling. And furthermore, it becomes clear that hard- and software for tele-cooperation are part of the so-called critical infrastructure and that its availability and performance should be secured accordingly.
Aside from all the severe and worldwide impact the Coronavirus pandemic will have for a while, the boost of tele-cooperation and its positive side effects for mobility are certainly here to stay.
Another new experience: Last month, I attended my yearly performance review meeting – the first time over Skype. And while reflecting that not too long-ago people in many companies would have flown in for something like that from wherever they are located in the world, I watch also recruiters doing job interviews online, agencies giving pitches via video conference, buyers negotiating and closing over the air, and even consultants interacting with their clients using web-based collaboration platforms.
After we all have got more or less used to attending team meetings or regular one-on-ones from our makeshift home office by now, this certainly is a next level of tele-working. While for this kind of personal encounters, meeting face-to-face has at least in the overwhelming majority of cases always been considered indispensable, our involuntary real-life experience imposed by the coronavirus situation now proves to us that all this is possible in a reasonable manner without meeting in person.
So, what does this mean for the hopefully near future when coronavirus will have eased its grip on us? Will anyone want to turn back time and spend hours in a car, train or plane only to meet someone in person for one hour? Rather not. But this then obviously leads to pressing strategic questions regarding the future of business travel. As an airline or railway company: Will passenger numbers fully recover, or will they rather follow an L than a U or V? And as a car manufacturer: Will range as the unceasingly uttered main advantage of combustion engines over electric drivetrains still be so decisive for the purchasing decision? I am convinced that a good deal of the changes we are now forced to implement in our routines are here to stay …