Mobility as a service in a post-COVID world
Mobility as a service (MaaS) is widely considered a sustainable strategy toward future sustainability, even as OEMs watch vehicle sales fall, but the concept of shared mobility in the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic could require some fundamental rethinking.
Ride-sharing powerhouses Uber and Lyft have seen a massive drop in ridership, and have in some cases reportedly suspended driver accounts due to infection concerns. In late March, Waymo, GM Cruise, and Uber stopped self-driving taxi services that included safety drivers, however a Reuters report quoted a source from Alphabet, Waymo’s parent company, who said their fully automated services would continue during the pandemic.
In theory, fully automated cars could provide a valuable service during a health crisis, as a driverless shuttle or other type of vehicle would be able to operate 24/7 and reduce human contact. However, depending on the use case, and the number of users, the possibly for infection is far from zero, as the virus in this case is able to survive for long periods of time on various surfaces.
Eitan Grosbard, Vice President of Business Development and Marketing at Tactile Mobility, suggested in the future, that MaaS providers and fleet operators could integrate systems that monitor their passengers and scan for signs of illness or infection.
“I think that is the way the world is heading, and there are already some companies out there providing this technology,” he explained, pointing to Vayyar and MDGo. “That service can use the information to direct the vehicle back to the garage to be decontaminated. However, there are a whole host of privacy considerations that come into play, and regulations will have a big impact here: privacy or health, health or privacy? That will be a major issue that needs to be tackled.”
Because a pandemic requires people to stay home to halt the risk of infection, MaaS providers will be looking to optimize their assets in any way they can—if they aren’t transporting people, then their vehicles can used to transport goods or medical supplies.
“I strongly believe this current situation will accelerate the pace of developing autonomous vehicles,” Grosbard said. “If you had asked me that a month ago, I would have said; let’s talk again in 10 years time.”
Mass investment in MaaS expected
A recently study from Juniper Research found that the revenue generated by the use of MaaS platforms, which integrate different transport services—including buses, taxis, rail, and metro—into a single app, would exceed $52 billion by 2027, up from $405 million in 2020.
Shared transport providers, such as Uber and Lyft, will have to institute strong measures to ensure safety, such as regular cleaning and self-quarantining of drivers who are unwell.
“Generally, we would expect cleaning to be built into a shared vehicle’s scheduling to ensure that it is cleaned frequently,” said Juniper Research lead analyst Nick Maynard. “Under an autonomous system, this is easier and can be handled at servicing areas.”
He said that, as autonomous vehicles become introduced to fleets, use of a standard design of those assets could become more commonplace.
“We would envision that features, such as separate air conditioning systems and partitioned compartments, could be a potential solution while drivers are still involved,” Maynard said.
However, the growth will be realized from 2021, as the study predicts “significant” reductions in transport usage in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Maynard said the outbreak would slow down investment in MaaS, as it will slow down investment in many areas, but the company’s research anticipated MaaS initiatives would rebound quickly in 2021 as cities re-evaluate their transport strategies. He added that, while autonomy will have an important role to play in MaaS, there is still work to do in terms of testing and commercializing autonomous vehicles under a MaaS system.
A roadmap to changing MaaS strategies
Some MaaS specialists, however, are not so sure providers will have to rethink approaches to customer safety and security following the pandemic.
“I think some will not change anything, or at most react to a specific request from partners,” said Boyd Cohen, CEO of open MaaS technology platform provider Iomob. “We believe there will be subtle and major changes to the way people move around and what cities and other stakeholders do to increase the resilience and safety of travelers.”
For its part, Iomob has developed a roadmap of features to enhance its core MaaS solution to embrace social distancing in important ways; for example, allowing users to filter for intermodal journeys that meet social-distancing criteria.
“We will prioritize micro-mobility operators who incorporate some type of disinfecting solution into the hardware or have other ways to improve safety,” he said.
He noted that the company would also be adding a new feature that captures the level of occupancy of mass transit vehicles (such as buses, trains, and metros) and prioritize vehicles that have low occupancy.
“We have other ideas for the future including factoring in hotspot areas in our routing choices for users and in some markets like Singapore where they have deployed the Trace Together app, and we may even support communication to users who have been exposed to infected travelers on their journey,” Cohen said.
He said that, while it is important to keep in mind that the virus is likely to have an impact on global society for 18 months, even after most of us “go back to work,” unfortunately this is not going to be the last pandemic.
“Embedding these features now makes MaaS, and the mobility ecosystem more broadly, more resistant to the next one, and these features we are developing have utility even when there is no pandemic,” he said.
Those could include users who have low immunity to infections and viruses, for those who do have a contagious illness and wish to reduce the risk of infecting others, even for germaphobic people to travel in comfort regularly.
“I believe for MaaS platforms that do not embrace the resilience of their platform to pandemics, they will have a harder time obtaining investment,” Cohen said.