It has been nearly eight months since the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was reported in the U.S. We’re only a couple of months removed from the NCAA canceling this year’s college basketball tournament, being what the general public seemed to care most about. And yet, the mobility industry—full of legacy companies and disruptors all working in their own way to accelerate innovation and growth within this space—has seen months, years, and even decades of work significantly impacted in this short amount of time.
So where exactly do we go from here? First, it’s important to examine how far we’ve come.
Over the last several years, micromobility, in the form of shared bikes and e-bikes, e-scooters, and electric skateboards, has provided mainstream options for those in cities across the U.S. While access and safety have pushed these services and product offerings to the forefront of our industry and collective conscience, the biggest hurdle was always consumer comfort and adoption. Those hurdles remain in the age of COVID-19, but comfort now also equates to virus transmission risk—adoption depends on personal protective equipment of the rider and assurance that disinfectant is part of daily company maintenance.
Early consumer behavior research from IBM indicates that most forms of micromobility have and will continue to take a hit, and they will require new designs and guidelines to protect users and operators alike. For example, e-scooters that are shared by many will likely require passengers to wear gloves, much like you’d wear a helmet on a motorcycle or grab the pole on a subway. At the same time, ride-hailing and autonomous shuttle providers will need to determine the best design approach for keeping drivers and passengers safe. How many partitions make the experience challenging and uncomfortable? Does comfort even matter during a pandemic?
As many micromobility solutions suffer, some personal mobility and delivery services are likely to see a significant surge. In fact, there has already been an immediate boom in e-bike sales and new partnerships and opportunities for drones sprouting up, according to CNBC. In Michigan, Refraction AI’s bot delivery service, according to The Detroit News, has experienced an accelerated timeline in becoming viable.
We can also expect to see a massive resurgence of personal car commuting and ownership over the next 6-12 months as people continue to practice varying levels of distancing. This will be the priority for OEMs and suppliers alike, who are likely to continue prioritizing EVs due to industry standards, but slow down some of their efforts with AVs and fleet sales based on the need to revisit business models and a lack of profitability.
But let me be clear: In the long run, the future of AVs and complementing technology is not bleak. For companies that are focused on vehicle technology, there are still opportunities to leverage the artificial intelligence they’ve developed to make vehicles and public transportation safer in today’s age.
In the short term, we will likely see a heavier reliance on public-private partnerships. That is where Michigan has a head start on many states, with the strong foundation we have built leveraging partnerships like PlanetM’s to drive mobility solutions. It will be critical to not only focus on the types of technologies but diversify to new modes of mobility. Even today, think about how automotive manufacturers have bent traditional business models to support other industries, most notably in the medical field.
Automation and connectivity are going to continue to be relevant in our new normal, as will a need to design and engineer hardware differently. The future of mobility before the global pandemic was very much defined as the efficient movement of riders and goods. However, hidden in that definition was the basic human needs of the actual people commuting in those vehicles and moving those goods—needs that expand beyond just arriving safely and on time. Now, after the crisis that forced the world to pause, the future of mobility will again have to rely as much on humans as it has on technology.