Smart Cities and Mobility: A Look to 2049 and What the Future May Hold

smart cities and mobility - a ride in 2049

Mobility and the many challenges it brings to cities across the globe is a subject that comes up often at our Smart City Innovation Accelerator events.  We’ve heard from city leaders in Chennai, India, who are currently creating the largest parking management system in their country, if not the world, to offset a massive issue with mobility in their city of 8 million. And in Columbus, Ohio, city leaders are driven by the guiding principle that “mobility is the great equalizer of the 21st century” and are working hard to fix the one common link between unemployment, poverty, infant mortality, and the opioid epidemic in their city: mobility.

So, what is the path forward for cities? How will they overcome the challenges of infrastructure, funding, and, of course, meeting the needs of their citizens?

In order to be ready to face these challenges forty years into the future, here are three steps that a number of cities and innovative leaders are taking right now:

1. Taxi Drones

Hailing a flying car is certainly one way to rise above congested traffic problems. No longer the stuff of science fiction, global cities are in a race to become the first to offer taxi drones to its citizens.

Dubai, in its quest to reach its goal of 25% “autonomous journeys” by 2030, has been testing its own taxi drones as early as 2017. New Zealand is working toward net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and recently partnered with KittyHawk with the hopes of leading a commercial network of taxi drones in the next three years.

The government of Shaoguan, a city in China’s northern Guangdong Province, recently partnered with Ehang to develop UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), with the hope that they will lead smart city efforts and attract tourism.

At least 19 companies are developing air taxi plans, including Boeing, Airbus, Uber, Bell Helicopter, Joby Aviation, and Volocopter. Uber is working on an aerial taxi service it hopes to pilot in Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Dubai by 2020. 

2. Autonomous Cars

Offering citizens a hassle-free ride looks great on paper, but replacing traditional transportation methods is easier said than done. In fact, twenty-nine states in the U.S. have already enacted legislation related to autonomous vehicles. Japanese law requires a safety driver behind the wheel at all times who is ready to intervene and take control when necessary.

Balancing safety with convenience inside of bustling city infrastructure is a top priority, and several car manufacturers are ready to take their ideas to the streets.

On Nov. 4, Hyundai will launch a free ride-hailing service with a fleet of autonomous electric cars in Irvine, California.

In 2018, Toyota invested $500M into a joint, autonomous car venture with Uber. To coincide with the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Toyota will launch a limited test of its SAE-Level 1 autonomous cars by offering free tax rides in Tokyo’s busy Odaiba district. 

3. Car-Free Cities

One dramatic but increasingly popular method of curbing mobility issues is to ban vehicles altogether. Madrid and Oslo, Norway have both all but eliminated vehicle traffic in their respective city centers using such restrictions. In 2018, Germany’s highest administrative court ruled that, in an effort to improve urban air quality, cities can ban cars from some streets.

Other cities, like Paris, Copenhagen, and a new residential area in Chengdu, China, are creating environments that are more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists to encourage leaving the car at home.

4. Looking into the Future

Virtual reality is communication in visual form, allowing city planners and engineers to plan, propose, and share their solutions with the world.

Innovation and applied research institute Fraunhofer IAO and one of Germany’s public broadcasters, Hessischer Rundfunk, have joined forces with the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Senseable City Lab, and many others, to present their vision for the future of urban transportation: A Ride in 2049. A Ride in 2049 is a publicly accessible Virtual Reality (VR) experience that brings users through scenarios of three future cities: taxi drones in Los Angeles, autonomous cars in Chicago, and the car-free city in Frankfurt. 

Video: A Ride in 2049 360 Webversion

Looking to answer questions like, “How will new modes of transportation shape cities like ours?” and “Will cities be able to eliminate the ever-present rush hour?” A Ride in 2049 recently toured cities throughout the U.S and Germany to share the experience with over 1000 citizens. Participants were immersed in the VR experience and then asked to take a survey to help gather their insights on how viable they believe future mobility innovations may be.

Preliminary insights to the survey results reveal that survey participants want future transportation to be mainly emission-free and safe and are less concerned about transportation being “individual and comfortable.” A good 42% of participants liked the idea of taxi drones, but 36.3% did not. The survey also found that U.S. participants are more open to futuristic transportation technology than those in Germany. Additional insights from the survey are now being reviewed to be used in the future planning of innovative solutions.

How can a VR experience like A Ride in 2049 benefit smart cities in their journey forward to overcome mobility challenges?

As Dr. David S. Ricketts, Harvard Innovation Fellow and founder of The City Innovators Forum points out, “a VR experience like this could be a benefit for innovation research because it makes the future more tangible and comparable. People imagine different scenarios when they read and hear about the future. With VR, they are able to be immersed in the experience and form real opinions. This creative new approach can provide better forecasts on where innovation will bring us and allows better insights into citizens’ perspective and future opportunities.”

Additionally, using a virtual reality approach to finding solutions to challenges allows the ability to test various scenarios and present them in a cost-effective way. Based on input and feedback, solutions can be adjusted, and new considerations put in place before investing dollars in a solution that you simply ‘hope’ will work. 

Is your city on the path of using innovation to solve mobility challenges? Is what we see in this A Ride in 2049 project doable? How will you most effectively and innovatively overcome the challenges of mobility in your city?

Let’s start the conversation! Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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