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Route planning concept on a mobile phone screen Side on view of a Greenwich GATEway POD

Evolution or revolution? Peter McLeod

For many, mobility as a service (MaaS) is a radical revolution. But on a technical level it can also be viewed as an organic development of things already in existence.

Traveline is a UK-wide national public transport route planner service provided by a partnership between local authorities and transport operators since 2004. From a technical fulfilment perspective, MaaS could be considered a matter of blending Traveline-style scheduled travel information with real time transport intelligence and smart ticketing.

What MaaS needs to take off is a user friendly portal, like those that are transforming the take-away food sector. Delivery services such as Deliveroo and Just Eat offer a joined up end to end service, from the supplier, through delivery to the consumer, via an easy to use mobile app.

Who might develop such a platform is up for grabs, but it’s unlikely to come from a conventional transport background. Uber has shaken up taxi services and Airbnb the hotel and hospitality industry. Both are excellent examples of platforms linking service delivery to an end consumer and arguably could be regarded as early MaaS platforms.

Data compatibility will likely be a defining issue, with the potential for many different transport service operators and data providers hooking into the emerging platforms. Open standards are key to building a community of systems and the European Commission has instigated a working group (the Platform for Deployment of Co-operative Intelligent Transport Systems in the European Union – C-ITS for short) which is developing data exchange protocols to make it easy to exchange transport data right across Europe.

Without optional extras

Whether autonomous driving capabilities will be provided on entry level cars is an interesting conundrum. Potentially, one line of thinking goes, the whole product segmentation of the car industry could be blown away by autonomy.

A lot of autonomous cars might effectively be used as self-driving taxis paid for via an Oyster-type card or something like Uber. If that happens, there won’t be so much differentiation among cars – things like engine size, manual or automatic gearbox, sound system, ride and handling will not come into the equation. When you get in a taxi, your primary interest is getting from A to B, not the experience of being in the car.

The entry-level autonomous car may be the autonomous car you never actually buy, you just pay for access as you do for a taxi or the tube. People may want plusher interiors and more gadgets on their privately owned autonomous vehicles, but the market could be more like mobile phones where there are basically smartphones and less smart phones, and that it pretty much it.

Transport, but not as we know it

Heathrow Airport’s Ultra POD transport system is a semi-autonomous personal rapid transport (PRT) system that shuttles passengers to and from business parking at Terminal 5. It consists of 21 vehicles operating on a 3.9km route, and although it runs in a dedicated ‘open guideway’, it is controlled by sensors and is not guided in the conventional sense.

Currently it is a legal requirement that the pods operate within a segregated area, but the UK Department for Transport is looking to put forward legislation to enable AV running on public roads.

The Heathrow experience is being fed into the GATEway driverless car project in Greenwich, southeast London, in which a consortium of Westfield Sportscars, Heathrow Enterprises and Oxbotica is adapting the pod concept to navigate the city streets without the need for dedicated tracks.

The potential exists to provide city-based ‘dedicated last mile transit’ for people and goods using similar technology.

Pod based PRT is a relatively simple concept, not full AV. But the potential applications are diverse. For instance you could envisage PRT pods operating around and within hospitals and other large campuses, car-free housing developments, major railway stations or even, it has been suggested, ski resorts – and of course the airport application is already proven.

There are also freight benefits, particularly urban last mile deliveries, which would operate from transfer hubs on larger arterial transport routes. Driver costs are a quarter of haulage operators’ costs and drivers are only permitted to work for eight hours a day. But that would not be a limitation for a truly autonomous vehicle.

Another alternative model is to consider public transport operators as brokers of transport, providing trains and buses at peak times, minibuses at less busy times, and taxis operating a 24/7 on-demand service. PRT pods could link to these modes and provide the last mile connection, strengthening the MaaS packages available. The upfront investment in enabling a more flexible approach to scheduling could be offset by reduction in fuel bills and the need to roster bus drivers at inconvenient times when services might be provided on-demand by the private hire sector.

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