The Tech Tank is an initiative that we have created here in Hatch Quarter to foster a human-centric understanding of how emerging technologies are posed to impact certain industries. To organise and present this knowledge, we designed a three-dimensional information structure that we called: The Tech Match Matrix (you can discover more about the Matrix in our previous article). 

Now, how to move humans and goods from point A to point B in a safer, faster, and cheaper manner? This is the focus of the first Tech Tank episode about Mobility.

There is no denying that a paradigm shift is taking place in how we move around. Through our research, we identified five main trends that are transforming the industry. Each of those trends is becoming almost an industry of its own, and promises to significantly impact our lives one way or another:

1. Moving away from fossil fuels, namely through shifting from conventional internal combustion engines to electric engines that are powered by batteries or fuel cells.

2. Sharing economy: less ownership, more ride- and car-sharing.

3. Self-driving: partial and full automation of cars, trucks, drones ..etc.

4. The connected vehicle: including a qualitative leap in vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-internet connection, and quantitative leap in the speed of connection through e.g. 5G.

5. Super-fast: cutting the time of long-distance travel using hyperloop tech and the revival of commercial supersonic airplanes.

Those of you who have been following the development of the Tech Tank - Mobility event before it was cancelled, might recall that the original plan was to discuss the five trends in the same order that we mentioned them above. However, with the development of the COVID-19 situation, we sought that it became more relevant to start with the second trend, i.e., sharing economy, because it shares similar risk factors like public transportation, which is the main channel in spreading the Coronavirus infection globally in such a short time.

The Ride-sharing model, which is as old as history itself, and car-sharing model, a relatively recent one. serve three main human values: 

1. Cost-saving: since sharing reduces the cost on all participating parties.

2. Better environment: because it reduces the energy consumption per person to commute (compared to privately owned cars), as well as reduces the traffic on the roads. 

3. Social connection: this one is more specific to ride-sharing; as you share rides with strangers, you never know whom you might meet, what conversations you might have, and which friends you might make.

While many cities are still counting on the sharing model to reduce traffic and pollution problems, the main question about driving the community away from private ownership towards sharing models was whether people are willing to give away the feeling of ownership and the comfort of having their own car at the doorstep.

Also, as we contemplated the car-sharing model in Hatch Quarter, we wondered what will happen in the special times of rush-out when many people need to go out in different directions at the same time (e.g. during a sunny weekend after a rainy week). Remember that the whole idea of car-sharing is to have much fewer cars than users, and optimise the car usage among them assuming a random distribution of usage time over the day/week.

 

Then…came the Covid-19

Starting from one city in China, the virus went global in a matter of weeks. That was only possible through public transportation channels, starting from airlines for inter-city and international expansion, followed by other public transport means for intra-city expansion. Bill Gates is famously quoted saying that infections spread as fast as the speed of our transportation system.

Suddenly, having one’s own private car became a large advantage as it allowed owners to move around the city much safer, i.e. away from public transportation, and to get supplies easier and faster, which proved equally critical in the time of shopping panic that invaded the world.

Before COVID-19, we were asking the community to give away the independence and comfort of private cars for the sake of the betterment of the rest of the community and environment. However, now after COVID-19, having one’s own private vehicle might be a matter of survival. And this is not a temporary matter. This crisis will be deeply engraved in the memories of our generation and will certainly affect our decision making in the post-Corona world.

 

So here is the challenge

 

On the one hand, we still care about the environment and want to adopt more sustainable and cleaner mobility models. On the other hand, we now have to account for the biological safety, which happens to be most critical where sharing models are most needed.

How can we tackle this challenge? Is it by incorporating medical technology in shared vehicles to avoid infections? Is it by going back to individual mobility but using some improved, more efficient, and more sustainable version of cars (or pods)? Or is it by going somewhere in between where sharing is the norm, but having backup individual mobility solutions on the side to use only during the times of crisis (think of evacuation boats in ships)? 

Remember that there is no perfect solution. Every model has its pros and cons. For example, using MedTech to prevent infection in shared and public transport models can protect us from future infections, but it does not solve the main issue, i.e., in times of crisis, those who can move faster have a higher chance of survival, and having a private car is still the fastest way to respond. Using an individual “isolated” model has a negative social effect on the long term of increasing isolation and loneliness which our societies are already suffering from. And finally, having a “back-up” plan to be activated only in times of crisis means that we are freezing a large amount of assets to be used once in 10-20 years. 

We don’t have the answer to that (yet). So this question is for all of you: how to address these issues? How do you see the future of sharing models after COVID-19? 

As the name implies, the HQ Tech Tank is meant to be a think tank, so your input will be reviewed by our team and then will be combined, summarised, and added as a permanent content in the Tech Match Matrix for you and others to benefit from in the future. 

Your opinion matters. I can’t wait to hear what you guys think.

Until then, stay home and stay safe.

Written by Dr Husam Wafai.