shared mobility

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Shared mobility and Mobility as a Service (MaaS)

In an era when the very essence of what a car interior is – how it feels, looks and operates – is rapidly changing, it can be tricky to visualise what we will be sitting in by 2030. But there is never any shortage of concept cars on display around the world’s major car shows that give us a glimpse of what the future might hold. While some concepts are more out there than others, Matthew Beecham, associate editor of just-auto, highlights some common themes emerging, such as greater use of multi-screens, all-digital dashboards, personalisation and connectivity.

The ‘urban transport space’ is becoming a battleground for disruptive business models seeking to carve out market share from traditional players. The urban mobility landscape is seeing the rapid emergence of new players, partnerships and business models - ride-hail firms such as Uber and Lyft have risen to prominence in a relatively short space of time. The same can be said of Didi in China. 

And the speed of change is concerning many in the industry, considering the pace of developing and manufacturing new vehicles is glacial compared to the rapid-fire tech world. New business models can emerge very quickly – aiming to revolutionise the driving experience, the customer experience or the car’s interior – and leave traditional players on the back foot. 

Other factors that will shape the future mobility industry are coming into play, such as the emergence of the ‘digital natives’ and the growth of the ‘sharing economy’. Some of these trends have arisen as a result of younger people’s desire to be constantly connected to their ‘friendship groups’ via social media – with the advent of self-driving vehicles, that now includes the time they spend in the car. 

What will happen in 2020? This is a very dynamic space, so it is very difficult to make predictions - other than we will be seeing plenty of activity, with vehicle makers, new entrants and 'established disruptors' all playing a part. Expect also to see more innovations in 'last mile mobility' or micro-mobility in cities. Electric scooters and e-bikes ought to become more widespread - but local regulations (or their enforcement) will be key. 

Mobility service provider or a carmaker? 

Rapid changes in the transport space pose increasingly urgent questions for vehicle makers about how they position themselves to embrace the key trends, protect their revenue streams and business models. Automotive OEMs, some analysts say, may want to consider themselves as ‘mobility service providers’ rather than simply as manufacturing companies. There are signs that some of them are inching towards this. 

A number of car companies have embraced car sharing and set up their own schemes, such as Daimler with car2go. This way, they can better understand this area of the market by participating in it, learning where the boundaries are and where profits can be made. While the car-sharing concept is sound, it requires a critical mass of population density to work, otherwise the distances between a user and an available shared car become too great. This highlights one reason why traditional car ownership models that provide truly on-demand transport won’t disappear overnight. Ownership is particularly entrenched in sprawling urban cities such as Los Angeles or Houston where the comparatively large distances between destinations is a barrier to car sharing. 

However, the urban mobility landscape is seeing the rapid emergence of new players, partnerships and business models. Many new actors are investing significantly to deliver the ‘killer’ seamless proposition and user experience – the service that finally convinces customers to give up their personal cars en masse. Disruptive forces in mobility are seeing new platforms link supply and demand to create new marketplaces. Tech-enabled mobility services are growing rapidly, aiming to reduce spare capacity and improve the user experience. Analysts note that many young people now expect on-demand solutions, and are increasingly happy to use shared services if they provide the mobility they need, where and when they need it. 

Rapid changes in the transport space pose increasingly urgent questions for vehicle makers about how they position themselves to embrace the key trends, protect their revenue streams and business models.

Two North American tech companies have made significant strides into mobility services with the backing of large OEMs. One such firm is Cruise Automation which, in addition to being owned by GM, has received billions of dollars in funding from the likes of Honda and Softbank. Cruise is aiming to launch a fleet of driverless robotaxis to become a leading force in the mobility services market. Waymo is a subsidiary of Alphabet having grown out of Google's self-driving car project and, since 2017, has been trialling a limited autonomous robotaxi service in Phoenix, Arizona with the intention of escalating into a large-scale robotaxi fleet. Waymo has already acquired a fleet of Chrysler Pacificas and Jaguar I-Paces to realise its ambition.

The push towards mobility as a service has revealed itself to be astonishingly cash intensive – the costs of setting up and running a mobility fleet, and building automation into it is leading to some previously unthinkable alliances. In February 2019, BMW and Daimler announced they would invest more than EUR1bn to 'develop and more closely intermesh their offerings for car-sharing, ride-hailing, parking, charging and multimodal transport'. The cooperation comprises five joint ventures: REACH NOW for multimodal services, CHARGE NOW for charging, FREE NOW for taxi ride-hailing, PARK NOW for parking and SHARE NOW for car-sharing. These two companies have traditionally been fierce rivals which demonstrates the shock mobility services are causing to existing business models.

It is also interesting to note that non-automotive companies are investigating the automotive space. Technology giants such as Apple and Google see an opportunity to engage with the customer while they’re in the – increasingly autonomous – vehicle. Car companies, however, don’t want to lose ownership the customer, viewing Apple or Google as just another services supplier.

Will the tech giants be able to mass-produce their own cars? It’s certainly an option and they have the resources to go-it-alone – on the outsourced contract-manufacturing model, if necessary – and leverage the considerable power of their brands. If they want to be truly innovative and disruptive, however, they may have to wait for the next generation of autonomous tech to become commercially feasible – thought to be in the 2020s.

Ride hailing and robotaxis vie with personal mobility

As efforts continue to reduce the job of the human driver in favour of on-board autonomous systems, some are left questioning – “why own the car at all, when I’m not needed to drive it?”. While it might seem counterintuitive to some, having access to a car you don’t own offers some distinct benefits – users are not liable for maintenance costs, they aren’t responsible for finding somewhere to park while at home or at work, nor are they the reason that the car wastes most of its useful economic life languishing motionless in a company car park. 

Similar to car sharing, ride hailing services offer some distinct advantages to the mobility network and society as a whole. With more journeys completed in hailed ‘rides’, those vehicles are being utilised for more of the time, reducing total miles driven and the amount of time a vehicle sits doing nothing. Ride hailing services such as Uber currently rely on an army of human drivers to operate their fleets but, as vehicle automation becomes more widespread, these fleets will eventually morph into ranks of self-driving ‘robotaxis’, further lowering their cost per mile. 

Today, ride hailing offers levels of convenience that match or exceed those of a personal vehicle – you might have to wait a minute for your ride-hailed taxi to pull up outside your office, but you won’t have to waste any time trying to park it. That said, it doesn’t yet offer a low enough cost per mile to replace personal vehicles. This is especially apparent in sprawling urban cities such as Los Angeles or Houston where the costs of personal mobility are still lower than anything offered by ride-hailing services. Only when coverage is increased and costs reduced – probably through automation – will ride hailing be able to compete with personal vehicle ownership. 

The steady march towards more widespread ride hailing services won’t be without its bumps. Service providers will have to adapt their offerings to each individual location – predicting supply or demand incorrectly could put massive strain on already congested road networks. There will also be issues with ‘tides’ of usage – many will want to hail rides to get to work or school by 9am, but usage could noticeably drop off until 6pm when everyone wants to go home again. What’s more, OEMs’ profit margins will see a relentless squeeze from ride hailing as the number of new vehicles sold declines and the ecosystem of on-board third-party services diversifies. 

Mirrorless cars use video systems and dashboard screens to increase the driver’s field of view, typically eliminating the blind spot by stitching together a panoramic view of what is behind and to the side of the car.

Material-wise, we are seeing more centre console screens made of flat and curved glass. Although the use of glass for touchscreens creates a classy look, this illusion is soon shattered by smudgy fingerprints. The HMI (human machine interface) therefore needs greater refinement before glass screens become widespread. Glass screens do not currently provide the user with haptic feedback, causing driver distraction when double-checking activation of functions.

Another reason tomorrow’s car interiors could see more screens is the gradual disappearance of the exterior rearview mirror. Given that wing mirrors add weight, cost and wind resistance (at high speeds) to the car, it is not surprising that some automakers wish to eliminate them thereby creating a sleeker look. As suppliers anticipate a change to mirror regulations, many are developing mirrorless systems using vehicle mounted cameras and dashboard monitors.

Mirrorless cars use video systems and dashboard screens to increase the driver’s field of view, typically eliminating the blind spot by stitching together a panoramic view of what is behind and to the side of the car. Although mirrorless cars will take time to get used to, most solutions we have seen feature high-resolution screens located close to where a driver would glance to check the wing mirror. Some mirrorless technologies assist the driver further by automatically adjusting to reduce sunlight glare or intensifying levels of brightness while parking at night.

With future trends pointing to the elimination of wing mirrors and the addition of screens, such black rectangles can dominate the look and feel of a car’s interior. It has even been disputed as appearing a little dated; the opposite of a luxury interior designer’s objective. To some extent, flexible OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) displays that blend into the interior can help (see below). A balance therefore needs to be struck. Greater use of projecting driver information onto head-up displays (HUDs) and augmented reality windscreens would further reduce dashboard screens.

More screens, fewer buttons (Range Rover Velar).

Larger, curved screens

Jump into a new car today and you are almost sure to find a tablet-style touchscreen infotainment system positioned centre stage of the dash. It acknowledges that most of us no longer use maps to find our way around but expect the car to guide us to our destination and remain connected throughout the journey. For example, the Volvo XC90 comes loaded with semi-autonomous and connected car features, most of which are displayed on an intuitive centre console touchscreen.

As with most new technologies, what starts in the luxury market often trickles down the car segments. Inside the new Honda Civic, positioned at the top of the piano-black finish centre console - and drawing the eye as the push start is pressed - is a Honda Connect 2 seven-inch touchscreen, serving as the main point of contact to control the infotainment and climate control functions. This second-generation of Honda’s infotainment and connectivity system incorporates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration.

Tomorrow’s cockpits, according to Harman, will have more curved screens designed using OLED technology. The main advantage of an OLED display is that it works without a backlight, enabling it to blend into the interior.

Screens are becoming larger, too. The Tesla Model S features a huge 17-inch screen. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. China’s Byton has debuted its first concept car. A notable feature of the electric SUV is a colossal 49-inch screen stretching the width of the dash.

Whether or not such high-tech wizardry will actually make it onto the road, the above concepts demonstrate the direction the auto industry is taking.

Voice recognition

While giving instructions in our cars is nothing new, putting questions to the likes of Alexa and Cortana while on the road is. Automakers are fast adopting virtual assistants, confirming that speech is becoming the preferred interface for tomorrow’s cockpit.

Voice recognition is seen by some as the answer to eliminate many controls that have traditionally been manually operated. Voice can play an important part of a multimodal HMI solution for inputting information or for cutting through layers on the menus by requesting a function directly. Traditional voice control was centred on a set of fixed commands with catatonic responses which required some level of driver training prior to operation of the system. With the advent of the new low power, high performance microprocessors, smarter voice command engines linked into the HMI logic are now available. Even natural language and grammatical analysis are becoming more achievable.

Voice recognition, although already an option, looks set to play a bigger role as cars gradually become more autonomous.

If in doubt, ask: Microsoft’s Cortana AI system forms part of BMW’s Connected Car vision.

Gesture recognition

Looking down at a touchscreen (without haptic feedback) can be distracting. Gesture recognition is therefore said to be the Next Big Thing, regarded as the logical next step from touchscreens and buttons. Gesture control operates via a stereo camera within the cabin that can recognise certain hand movements for pre-programmed adjustments and functions. Rotating your finger clockwise at a screen could turn up the volume or a finger gesture could answer or decline a call. While such novelties will make life simpler for the driver, it should also simplify interior design and liberate space for storage options.

Interior lighting trends

Advances have also been made in the interior lighting department. Not so long ago, interior lighting consisted of central and side headliner lights, complemented by low-level ambient lighting located mainly in the cockpit area. Today, the accent has changed, thanks to widespread use of LEDs enabling personalisation of car interiors. For example, during night time driving, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class takes on an entirely different feel thanks to the ambient interior LED lighting that can be personalised using a palette of no fewer than 64 colours. It really does start to feel like a cockpit, adding illuminating highlights to the trim, the central display, the front stowage compartment on the centre console, handle recesses, door pockets, front and rear footwells, overhead control panel and mirror triangle.

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