“Miles instead of cars”

Ross Douglas, CEO of Autonomy on the future of Mobility as a Service

It is not about the destination; it is about the journey. Mobility has become a hot topic within the entrepreneur community, and a top priority in city agendas. In a rapidly expanding industry Ross Douglas, Founder of Autonomy, the groundbreaking mobility conference in Paris, shared his thoughts with us on what the future of mobility might look like. From the challenges faced by the traditional transportation actors to those triggered by the arrival of autonomous vehicles, we explore what the new urban mobility will be like.

You’re at the heart of the mobility community; as the future is being built, how are the two main actors -the car and public transport industry- reacting?

Ross Douglas: I have no doubt that we are going to see a change in the private sector.

Car companies will soon start selling miles instead of motorcars.

The car industry has realised that the desire to own a motorcar for status and the need to have it are changing very quickly, particularly for young urbanites that want freedom, autonomy and flexible mobility. At the same time, transport operators are aware that public transportation has always been a ‘grudge purchase’ for those who can’t afford private cars. In other words, cost effective but not really fun or exciting.

However, we’re now seeing that there’s no fun in sitting in traffic jams and that there are a lot of other solutions coming that are cost-effective, quick and fun. These ideas, such as offering mobility as an aggregated service (MaaS) that includes a mix of different means of transportation, are challenging both the car and public transport industry. And these industries have started to understand that to not be disrupted they need to play in this new space in some way or other.

Regarding the car industry, do you think they are ready to let go the idea of one car per individual to a shared mobility offer? What are the biggest challenges for them in the rise of new offers?

Ross: I think a lot of people underestimate how smart the car industry is. Like any business, they have to remain profitable, relevant and therefore need to adapt, and that is going to take some time. For example, BMW Drive offers a good sharing car service. The service is losing money, not because is done badly, but because is really hard to make money out of car sharing.

“I think people underestimate how sophisticated the car industry is”

The car industry has built a successful business model for 70 years doing effectively three things: great engines, great bodies and telling a great story. Now with electric mobility, there is no need for an engine anymore.This means they’ve lost a third of their core competence which is hugely disruptive.

Going forward the car industry will face three big challenges:

  • First is the transition to electric, and this is going to be very painful. It’s also going to bring into the field new players like Dyson, who until recently specialised in designing and manufacturing vacuum cleaners, fans, heaters and hand-driers.
  • The second is the mass reduction in car ownership and the types of car needed. Once you go into car sharing, you don’t need the same level of quality. If I’m sharing a vehicle with 20 other people I don’t want to drive a beautiful Audi.
  • The third challenge and the greatest to overcome will be autonomous vehicles. If we go autonomous, then the driver loses the relationship between herself and the car. This is huge because the glorified story of man’s connection with the machine is what car industries have been selling us for years.

Bottom line, I think there are no easy alternatives for the car industry. Again, I think people underestimate how sophisticated these companies are. They’re not moving quickly because they’re stupid, they’re not moving quickly because is really really hard to make money with new mobility solutions.

What have been the most successful projects and startups so far and what are the more promising ones you’ve seen recently in the field?

Ross: I think until now the most successful ones have been the multi-mobility apps, the ones making sense of transport data or the ones providing mapping solutions.

What do I think is going to be the next big wave of innovation and start-ups? People making interesting electric vehicles aimed at cities.
Arcomoto's 'fun utility vehicle' : the next big thing?

You don’t really need a Tesla or a Nissan Leaf to move around a city — those are two tons vehicles that cost from 35 000 to 100 000 euros, beautiful and very powerful machines, but not what you need for urban mobility.

Toyota is currently testing its i-ROAD electric vehicle in Grenoble, France, to see how it can integrate with public transportation to decrease the amount of traffic gridlock.

I think what we are going to see in cities is a whole range of new semi-autonomous electric two-wheel, three-wheel purpose made vehicles made for urbanites, that are fun, light, inexpensive, quick, easy to operate, and easy to share.

An exciting example would be the American company Arcimoto— recently listed in the stock market — they created a whole new category of vehicle called ‘fun utility vehicle’. It is a funny hybrid between a motorbike and a car that is connected, fun and easy to park.

There is a huge debate about mobility across urban areas, smaller towns and cities. New mobility initiatives have been criticized for only focusing on big cities and neglecting the peripheral areas that sometimes have even bigger issues of mobility. How can we make sure the future of mobility is more inclusive?

Ross: The discussion about inclusive mobility changes from region to region. It’s only in Europe, to my knowledge, where lower-income people live in the suburbs and cities have this unique transportation challenge.

“I think it is important to understand that every city has a different mobility challenge.”

Good mobility in a city either frees up capital for the city to spend it on infrastructure for bringing and connecting poorer areas, or creates technology that can be easily adapted to less developed areas.

The idea that new mobility is only for rich people in cities is a false liberal accusation. It’s like saying that smartphones are only for wealthy people. Cheaper, safer, greener and autonomous vehicles will benefit rich and poor people alike. What I can assure you is that the old way of moving, which is a combustion motorcar with high maintenance, high fuel cost, high pollution costs affects more the poor than the wealthy people. So it’s easy to accuse one solution as elitist, but good mobility is like cheap good wifi or clean air: it benefits everybody.

One of the key challenges seems to be cooperation between public sector (Transport authorities and publicly-owned transport companies) and private sector (startups, digital giants, newcomers), so what’s the best way to move forward?

Ross: Mobility is now part of the city-agenda rather than the national one. For example, the city of London and TfL took away Uber’s operating license. Even if the Prime Minister said that it wasn’t a good idea, it wasn’t her decision. Cities are the ones granting licenses and contracting franchises for bike-sharing, car-sharing, scooter-sharing. No central government can give a country-wide license to any platform (like big transportation franchises used to work). It is now mostly organised city by city because they are the ones managing the roads, the parking, the bylaws, and most importantly, they are directly responsible to their citizens.

“Part of city democracy is that policy-makers have to give their citizens good and cheap mobility solutions.” — Ross Douglas

Cooperation can only foster after comprehension and conversations. You need all the actors sitting at the table, that’s why we have over 50 cities coming to Autonomy, because they’re all looking to find great solutions to help their citizens move, and that is democracy at work. Cities are becoming more and more powerful and much more educated about new mobility solutions and the private sector ever more interested in offering them.

What would you say is the biggest opportunity and challenge for the future of mobility in the near future?

Ross: I think they’re both the same answer and is the integration of autonomous vehicles into cities. Policy-makers will be confronted with some very complex problems and decisions to make. For example, if the goal is to achieve great mobility, cities could go to big tech-companies and put in place a Google or Uber-taxi service and ban all car ownership. You’d have great mobility but with unneglectable negative effects. You’d lose your local car manufacturing industry, Google probably wouldn’t pay taxes and you risk creating a monopoly, etc.

“In this wonderfully sophisticated and networked world, the easiest question is ‘if the car has an accident, who’s responsible?’ “

So the real issues with AV are not just about good mobility, but how do we keep jobs and our industries going, how do we promote people to be on the streets, walking, biking, spending money on local shops, not shopping online. How do we make sure that those companies are part of our economy and pay taxes. The level of complexity is extraordinary, believe me, and in this wonderfully sophisticated and networked world, the easiest question is ‘if the car has an accident, who’s responsible?’

Le Lab will be at Autonomy

Feel free to contact us and join us during this 2-day event. Our work will be featured on-stage with the help of our partners.

On Thursday at 16.45 (Auditorium) Isadora Verderesi (Transdev — MaaS Global) will moderate a panel on Mobility as a Service.

On Friday at 10.00 (Studio) Ghislain Delabie (OuiShare) will moderate a panel on Data, Mobility as a Service and how to build a great and open ecosystem, featuring Bruno Dachary (Mappy), Olivier Vacheret (Ile de France Mobilités) and Julien Honnart (WayzUp).