Travelling at a sedate nine miles an hour, the first horseless carriage on English soil trundled along for 56 miles, arriving at its destination nearly six hours later.
Not quite breathtaking speed, yet events of 1895 were still history in the making.
It’s hard to imagine anything that could transform the way we move around quite as much as this. Yet industry experts recently gathered at Frost & Sullivan’s Intelligent Mobility conference in London to consider innovations that could be every bit as history making as the arrival of the first motor cars.
From the rise of electric vehicles to the arrival of a super-connected world, to a shift towards car-sharing apps and a need to keep crowded cities moving, mobility is rapidly evolving. Add artificial intelligence (AI) to the equation, and the changes ahead seem even more dramatic.
Our forefathers gazed in wonder at the horseless carriage – are we now staring at a world once more about to be transformed?
Back to the future …
Dan Sturges, adjunct professor of transportation design at the College of Creative Studies, sits in an office in Detroit near where, in 1914, the first mass produced motor car rolled off the production line at a breathtaking rate.
Back then, everyone aspired to own a car – it was the ultimate symbol of freedom, of progress. In tomorrow’s digital world, however, this may not be the case for everyone.
As Dan explains: “People will think about whether they need to own a car at all when there are vehicles they can call on to take them where they want to go.”
AI sits at the heart of future mobility. The gathering of data from every possible source funnelled into algorithms and fed into machines that predict an individual’s behaviour and acts on their needs will become a key component in how we move.
That can mean anything from taxi app autonomous vehicles arriving unsummoned for our morning commute to built-in personal assistants that send out emails to let business associates know you’re on your way.
Artificial intelligence can even encourage us do things we didn’t know we wanted to do.
Sethu Vijayakumar, professor of robotics at Edinburgh University, recalls visiting India and using a taxi app: “I stopped, but it found a pattern in the way I had used it and sent me a coupon offering 100 rupees off my next journey.
“So I start thinking about making a trip I might not otherwise have made. When you can predict people’s behaviour, what they might buy, their preferences, it’s a powerful tool.”
Game on for a new world of mobility
On many levels, it’s a brave new world. Some say AI will create a new industrial revolution as society adapts to an AI-led society – super smart cars will remove the need for high numbers of professional drivers, we’ll own fewer cars as public transport and on-demand services improve and “new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living” will emerge.
Stefan Liske, founding partner of Berlin based PCH Innovations, which helps major brands use innovation to grow their business, says artificial intelligence is a “game changer”.
“Some cities will be highly regulated because of energy consumption,” he says. “In these more regulated cities you will have more homogeneous regulated government transport systems, where mobility matters are standardised to keep the footprint low and to make mobility accessible for the mass of people.”
Automobile manufacturers’ focus will shift too. “They will not be selling primarily to private people,” Sturges elaborates. “They will be selling transportation and mobility systems to cities and governments.”
Artificial intelligence could change our emotional as well as our practical relationship with cars
Niranjan Thiyagarajan, principal consultant at Frost & Sullivan, adds: “Providing customers with flexibility to choose the right mode of transport will be very important.
“One colleague suggested we should stop talking about autonomous vehicles and instead talk about autonomous customers. They will have the flexibility to decide what they want and it might not be a car that they own.”
While cars become increasingly connected to the Internet of Things – last year 17.8 million vehicles were sold ready to connect – our emotional relationship with them may change too, putting pressure on designers to create vehicles we actually love to drive.
“Headlights that are like eyeballs, grills like mouths – we like our cars to be human-like because they are our avatar,” adds Sturges.
“When it’s driven by computer it could be like getting in an elevator. But if I can leave Detroit and be in Chicago in an hour, would I miss the look of a Dodge or a sports car? No.”
Buckle up: changes are coming
AI’s impact, however, will be subtler than that first car’s arrival. Liske stresses work is required on data security, road safety and handling the impact of job losses, plus ethical questions of how robot-style machines might make ‘human’ choices.
Meanwhile Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, the UK based travel watchdog, points out: “Transport users are more concerned with having better road surfaces, train reliability, better value for money. Their expectations are much more rooted in every day experience.”
Besides, not all of what artificial intelligence can do will find its way into our lives, adds Vijayakumar.
“Only things that are efficient, comfortable for people and cost effective will survive,” he says. “It’s up to us to decide what we are ready to accept and what we don’t want.”