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MaaS, autonomous vehicles or drones?Reflections on the future of mobility
In November 2021, Antonio Lobo, a researcher in transport systems at the University of Porto, was chosen as the new director of the Board of the Association for European Transport. FLOWS interviewed him to find out which of the main mobility topics will be developed in the immediate future and what the Association’s role is in this context
FLOWS – According to your vision of future mobility, as the new Association for European Transport (AET) Board Director, what are the main topics in the field of mobility and transport you think will grow and be developed in the next 5 years?
Antonio Lobo – There are a few sustainable and interesting topics that I think will be developed in the next years in the field of mobility.
Certainly MaaS had a good start. Young people are using this kind of service and the use is still growing as it has the potential to solve transportation problems in small towns and villages. It is a great topic among researchers because it has existed for some years at this point, but now we need to better integrate the existing MaaS services and offer new ones because even villages are starting to attract more young people. Just to give an example, here in Portugal, the population is concentrated along the coastline and the interior has become a desert year after year. But the pandemic changed the mindset, remote working spread, and this new situation motivated a lot of people to move back. This is a stimulus to adopt MaaS even in remote areas. Of course, if we want to reach more population, we need to work on the usability issue.
Finally, I want to say something about autonomous vehicles. Now researchers are focusing on a problem – in the European market, the most advanced systems are level 2, so the car can drive by itself but the driver has to monitor the road all the time because of safety concerns.
At the same time, we have attempts at rolling out level 3 vehicles but, at the moment, they have no success. Level 3 is supposedly better than level 2 but not necessarily because with a level 3 system the driver can take their eyes off the road but still has to intervene if something goes wrong, which is a paradox. What manufacturers are doing is to limit the use of these systems to very specific conditions, like congestion in highways. As it is a very limited system, some manufacturers are jumping to level 4, a full automation vehicle in specific environments, such as the highway pilot. It requires regulation and great technology and sensor development.
Jumping to level 4 is understandable, and I think it will be crucial in the next 5 years. And, as European researchers, we can promise results in this field. In the US there are already significant results. For example, General Motors tested a fully autonomous vehicle in San Francisco in a standard environment with pedestrians and cyclists. So the results are really very promising.
The spread of the MaaS and the development of level 4 autonomous vehicle are the topics transport experts will focus on in the next 5 years. And it will give jobs to many people, not only for industry but also for planners (we don’t know if we will have dedicated infrastructure for autonomous vehicles, it is a topic we are analysing) and policy and regulation makers.
Finally, I would like to mention other solutions that are being analysed but that, in my opinion, are not priorities for the next five years, at least in the European context. For instance, cable car systems can’t be implemented on a large scale but they can solve important, specific problems in certain cities, mainly in Latin America, as they can provide accessibility to settlements located in very difficult areas.
Another interesting topic is about drones. We have the technology but at the moment we don’t have full-scale implementation. There are, indeed, many issues to solve about regulation, safety and the use of air space, even to deliver small packages and goods. Here in Europe, my idea is that we are very careful about regulation and drones are not a top priority in the next 5 years.
F – The AET is the leading European organisation for transport professionals and researchers. Which of these issues will the Association focus on and how can AET members work together to make a contribution on them?
A.L. – AET is an association with a broad scope. We are interested in a lot of topics related to transport and mobility and, in parallel, we try to keep up with the pace of new developments. We promote regular seminars, webinars and forums to debate these issues and we constantly work to make the topics of these forums in line with the most recent concerns. The programme committees organising these forums are kept updated not only by involving new people every year, but also by updating their scope.
Our main activity is the organisation of the European Transport Conference (ETC), the oldest conference on transport in Europe and this year we are celebrating its golden jubilee. The key to the continuing success of the ETC is the ability to keep up with new developmens in the transport sector without losing the identity of the conference itself. The ETC is unique in the European context because there is not another conference where academia and industry are engaged at the same level. ETC is the chance to share and obtain information on a very wide range of topics and from different prospectives. We are interested in what the market is doing, the industry is doing and of course the universities are doing.
F – As authority and institution, what are the tools the AET will leverage to make an effective, tangible and solid contribution on the topics you identified (cooperation with private companies, sponsors, R&D departments and participation in research announcements)?
A.L. – In times of pandemic, we have made a great effort to compensate for the lack of a physical conference. We have longstanding partners and friends with whom we can openly discuss and who have been continuing to support us also during the last 2 years. We are trying to understand how to address their wishes and let them still see value in our proposition. Basically, the conference is a very good networking opportunity also to show activities, products and works. It has been difficult in times of pandemic but our longstanding partners understand the difficulties and have stayed with us.
We have also done a lot to keep academia interested. We have increased the impact of publications as we offer new publication opportunities in peer-reviewed journals. This is attractive for participants from academia.
In my opinion, we need to keep promoting our strengths but, at the same time, we are looking for new opportunities to better understand what academics and practitioners want. Our partners and members can really drive the contents we choose to develop in our conference because they are key experts in the field of mobility who review and validate the contributions presented at the conference. Particularly, the role of our partners in the industry is fundamental because they let the researchers understand what the market wants and what is feasible to do.