Small steps and big leaps: making future transport a reality

Any new mode of transport is naturally met with scepticism: is it safe? is it sustainable? is it useful? As the mobility universe experiments with transport up in the air and on the ground, businesses and policymakers need to create customer demand, answer critical safety questions and take the small steps that make the big leaps possible.

“The most surprising mobility developments in the coming years will likely occur in the air,” predicts Stefan Schmal, Partner, Mazars. “Whether it’s personal air travel, unmanned drones or space travel, the possibilities are huge.” What could sound like purely blue sky thinking is, in fact, backed up by progress already being made on the ground: “In France, we are already seeing experiments with flying taxis to relieve congestion for the 2024 Paris Olympics,” says Olivier Guillot, Partner, Mazars. Meanwhile, the continued expansion of cable car usage in Central American cities creates a hattrick of mobility solutions built on anything but standard, pedestrian thinking.

It’s not just new modes of transport shaping the future of mobility: advances in existing forms are leading to cleaner solutions. “The technology for cleaner planes, for example, is progressing every year,” says Guillot. “There are early indications that hydrogen propulsion could reduce the environmental impact of planes by 75 to 90%, the Airbus ZEROe has a target to achieve this by 2035.” (For more on this, see our recent article on the future of aviation post Covid-19.)

He continues, “We are also seeing cleaner modes of transport being developed for maritime use. We've seen the first clean propulsion boats powered by liquefied natural gas as well as the rise of hydrogen vehicles for the road.”

Towards a safer, simpler future

Each one of these steps forward paves the path to a safer, simpler mobility ecosystem. Take air taxis, for instance, which could open up new transport routes and relieve road congestion. “Autonomous vehicles hold out the possibility for safer roads too. By communicating and coordinating with each other, autonomous cars could enable better traffic flow and fewer accidents,” explains Schmal.

In the US at present, there is about one fatality for every 100 million miles driven. It will be a long time before fully autonomous cars have driven enough miles to offer a comparison: but in 2016, Tesla claimed its Autopilot mode, in which the car has some autonomous aspects such as auto steer, cruise control, automatic lane changes, and some autonomous navigation, is safer than the current standard. The company said that even though a car in Autopilot had been involved in a fatality, it came after 130 million miles driven in that mode.

Perhaps most importantly, new modes of transport offer an opportunity for cleaner air and improved wellbeing: “Carbon-free modes of transport are likely to improve overall health as well as being better for the environment,” says Guillot, “a more efficient mobility ecosystem means less traffic, stress, noise and danger.” If every car in the UK were electric, the country’s emissions would fall by almost 12%, according to one estimate.

Who takes the risk and responsibility?

When these technologies are ready to be part of our daily lives will depend on how well they are able to jump commercial, cultural and legal hurdles. “Expensive start-up and research costs make widespread deployment of these modes especially daunting,” says Michael Dessulemoustier, Partner, Mazars. “A lack of any legal precedent around autonomous vehicles creates risk around liability and responsibility for accidents. And while people may think that personal, autonomous flying drones are a great idea – they may hesitate to step into one themselves.”

Not only do those hurdles need to be managed, but the demand for new modes of transport needs to exist. For those in the business of mobility, the Covid-19 pandemic led to uncomfortable questions about how much personal and professional travel was necessary, as well as the extent to which passengers would be willing in the short-term to share transport when it could be avoided.

Converting sceptics

None of these leaps forward come without potential issues, as Schmal notes, “Drones and air taxis can trigger great uncertainty and fear. There is no shortage of ominous scenarios from science fiction which people think about. As human beings we’re conditioned to generally reject risk. We often choose safety first.” Any growth in that mindset would be a headwind on the deployment of new modes of transport but should not halt it altogether. “After all,” points out Guillot, “many modes of transport we take for granted today, such as trains, were also met with scepticism at first but demand grew as they proved to be safe.”

To convert sceptics, policy and lawmakers have to also ensure any new mode of transport hitting the road and market meets stringent criteria, including areas relevant to transport, like insurance, data protection and liability. “Consider a potential rise in air traffic,” says Guillot, “it would require strong regulation to reassure passengers and ensure that airspace can be shared safely. And if the use of drones continues to increase, questions would have to be answered about appropriate laws, infrastructure, charging stations, air maps – not to mention coordination with existing air traffic control mechanisms.”

Driverless cars, taxi services via helicopter, hydrogen propulsion, integrated and responsive drone networks – these solutions are slowly moving from science fiction to everyday reality. Media coverage of new technologies tends to cover big breakthroughs: successful prototypes, first deployments and commercial launches. But between each, there are many smaller steps that are necessary to make the transport of the future a reality. “It is these incremental steps which ensure concrete implementation,” says Schmal. “Big breakthroughs are important, but without the small steps, nothing will be achieved.”