Interview: Ross Douglas

Mode swings

Ross Douglas is SA-born founder and owner of Urban Mobility a Paris-based NGO studying transport in cities, focused on reducing congestion, pollution and ultimately carbon emissions, and which presents the annual mobility expo Autonomy

Paul Edmunds: While transport accounts for up to a quarter of global carbon emissions, and the world is becoming increasingly urbanised, I think we can agree that if there is to be a future, certainly in cities, it entails a shift away from the internal combustion engine. And this probably includes a shift away from the privately-owned, single-passengered vehicle. What can we expect in its place?

Ross Douglas: The interesting thing about transport and carbon emissions, particularly urban mobility emissions, is that unlike all other emissions they’re stubbornly on the increase, particularly in Europe. The EU has been quite good at reducing other CO² emissions but they can’t reduce the transport emissions – air travel, shipping and road transport. That accounts for the biggest increase in emissions.

Within that, the biggest growth has actually come about in the change from purchasing ordinary cars to purchasing SUVs. This is responsible for the second largest single increase in carbon emissions in the world, according to the IEA (International Energy Agency).

The ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) is pretty much dead, it just hasn’t died everywhere yet. Volkswagen is no longer investing in R&D; Tesla’s share price is through the roof while Ford’s is through the floor. In other words, no investors believe there’s a future for the ICE; it’s in intensive care and no one wants to put it out of its misery. Cities have banned it all over. There’s no longer a question.

In the beginning, everyone went: Great. Let’s replace ICE cars with electric cars. Electric cars are fantastic at reducing pollution in cities, which is a big problem, but they don’t reduce congestion if they’re single-passenger vehicles. Their effect on reducing CO² emissions varies from 70% if you happen to be driving the car in France where electricity is produced by nuclear energy, to 30% if you happen to be driving in the UK which is runs on renewables and fossil fuels.If you’re driving an electric car in South Africa, you’re running on coal. So, don’t bother, you’re just preventing local pollution.

There are benefits to using electric cars: they last longer, they’re cheaper to run in the future, they’re not terrible things. But they’re not going to get you even within spitting distance of the attempt to reduce our carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and carbon neutral by 2050, as the Paris Agreement would have us do.

PE: And even with electric cars, there is a significant carbon footprint in their production, right?

RD: Most of the emissions in production of electric cars is from production of the battery. Most that is done in China, which still relies heavily on coal, and the resources for this are shipped there from all over the world. So the carbon footprint is generally upfront with electric cars.

PE: Regardless of whichever sort of car it is, you still propose that there be a shift away from individual ownership of cars in cities, right?

RD: If you want to reduce carbon emissions you have to end the mindset that motor car ownership equals mobility, and you have to replace it with the idea that car ownership is a ball and chain, in financial terms, in terms of flexibility.

What we see is that people buy cars for one or two percent of their capability. In other words, if you buy an SUV, you’re actually buying it for the odd holiday or the weekend you go skiing. But in actual fact you drive it every day to work and back, and to pick up the kids. So you’re buying a vehicle which is radically overspecced and as a result has a huge carbon footprint.

What’s going to happen with electric vehicles is they’re going to get more and more autonomous, what’s called Adas – Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. That stuff all runs through the cloud, and there are some energy experts saying that a semi-autonomous vehicle will use as much energy running the data as it will propelling itself. It’s essentially a big computer on wheels.

So we have this mad situation where we are making these super-sophisticated cars that are capable of driving themselves but are now demanding huge energy in data centres. And we’re thinking that this is a green alternative.

What is a green alternative is to get away from car ownership. And then you get onto the stuff that we are interested in at Autonomy which is MaaS (Mobility as a Service): how do I get around cities using my smartphone and any vehicle that’s appropriate for that situation?

But that is a hard thing to change because motor cars employ a lot of people. Volkswagen employs 300 000 people in Germany alone. Angela Merkel is very close to Volkswagen because those are 300 000 voters. But what we see now is that cities are generally a bit left; governments are generally a bit more right. Cities are pushing cars out because they want to look after their residents while governments are trying to incentivise people to buy cars because they want to look after jobs.

And cars are very good at one thing: they create a lot of employment. The reason they’re good at that is they build a whole lot of things you don’t need to perform a simple function. If you buy a bicycle, you’re saving the environment, you’re improving your health, but you’re killing jobs. The total number of jobs in the bicycle industry in EU, with 300 million people, is 100 000. It’s insignificant.

That is a problem that the greens and the left don’t often appreciate. How do you create meaningful work for people building things that are built for purpose? It’s really hard. When you build all the other stuff that we don’t need, then jobs pick up because all this rubbish around the driver requires sophistication and production, manufacture and design.

PE: So MaaS encompasses all modes of transport, from private to public, from active to automated, right?

RD: Exactly. MaaS is a piece of software, an app or a platform that connects the user to all the public and private mobility operators in the city through a single payment gateway and a single app. You decide you want to go from A to B, you look at your app, and it tells you what the route plan looks like. Do you want to go by bike, by scooter, by public transport, or do you want to walk? You choose depending on price, depending on your sobriety, if you’re disabled or have luggage etc.

What MaaS hopes to do is to include 30 or 40 different solutions on one app. And you have to have a common data standard so that all the data speaks the same language. And Ladot (Los Angeles Department of Transport) pioneered the idea of an open transport data standard that is universally accepted and can work for all the ‘shared mobility’ i.e. car sharing, bike sharing, scooter sharing.

PE: Included in all the multimodal transport on the MaaS platform is lots of shared and public transport. But it’s become difficult to talk about that in a post-Covid-19 world, hasn’t it? Suddenly those things have become charged. Sharing confined spaces, putting your hands on a shared bicycle … all of those things are not what they were three months ago, are they?

RD: No they’re not. And if you look at the public transport data, it’s fallen off a cliff, some of it by as much as 90%. It’s all picking back up now, but it’s not going to come back to pre-Covid-19 levels because people are scared of contamination in those confined spaces.

So you’ve got this very strange situation in European cities where the city, or in France, the national government, is trying to provide alternatives to public transport and they’ve turned to the bicycle. Autonomous vehicles are not ready yet, flying drones are not ready yet, so how do we get people to move in a way that’s not by car and that’s not going to lead to more congestion, more pollution, and more carbon emissions? So they’ve turned to the bicycle.

France’s minister of transport, Élisabeth Borne, said she wants the bicycle to be the ‘queen of deconfinement’. I was riding my bike to work this morning and I saw a queue of people with bicycles literally around the block. And it was my local bicycle shop. It’s a two-hour queue! So the bicycle is the hero of Covid-19!

When I started this business five years ago, at every event I went to, there would be a guy on the stage saying ‘Autonomous vehicles will be on our streets in 2020!’ It’s now 2020, no one can take public transport and there’s not an autonomous vehicle to be seen, and you can’t buy a bicycle for love or money. It’s the new toilet paper!

PE: A term I see a lot when reading about urban mobility is ‘the last mile’. I don’t typically use delivery services much, but supermarkets, since Covid-19, have become charged spaces. There has been a huge increase in delivery motorcycle traffic on my road. Is not ‘the last mile’ the holy grail, the thing we really need to get right in urban mobility?

RD: We refer to the first and last mile for two things. Firstly for the commuter journey, and this is something that’s particularly hard to get right. If I want to catch an SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français, the French national railway company) train to London, how do I get to Gare de l’Est? If I take a taxi, that creates congestion. Even SNCF is starting to think about the first and last mile of their customers, so their app will now give you door-to-door route planning.

But in terms of logistics, what has happened is that online shopping has radically increased the amount of traffic in cities. What we’re realising is that companies like Amazon are not paying for the increased externalities of pollution, congestion etc. For example, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, an annual cost of around $120 will get you overnight delivery on many things.

Consequently, Amazon runs a lot of empty delivery vehicles because they make money on the Prime membership. So they are knowingly increasing congestion to make money out of Prime membership, and Paris makes no money from that since it all runs through Amazon Prime membership which is not local.

Cities are starting to re-think logistics because generally these are operated by companies that are not local to the city, generally big American tech companies like Amazon, not paying for the use of the roads, not providing many jobs outside of the distribution centres, and contributing heavily to congestion.

Lots of small initiatives are starting, like making certain roads car-free, or delivery-free unless you have a cargo bike. In Europe DHL is experimenting a little, and there’s a company called Velove who are building an electric cargo bike called the Armadillo that can take a small pallet. But it doesn’t really work because the cost of using a van is so low that there’s not such a convincing upside. So they’re going to have to start taxing the van deliveries so that it’s financially viable for the others to start operating.

Bonus: in which we get lost in the weeds talking about autonomous vehicles.

PE: Are autonomous vehicles not just today’s version of the personal jetpack? Can they serve any purpose not already covered by multimodal transport including something like light rail?

RD: It’s a good question. When you look at the amount of money that’s been invested in autonomous vehicles, it’s billions and billions … Google, Waymo , they’ve raised another $2,5 billion a couple of weeks ago … I think they’ve made an investment of $14 or 15 billion over 12 years and haven’t made a cent back from it. Intel ought Mobileye for $13 billion and then bought Moovit last month for $1 billion. The amount of money that’s gone into autonomous vehicles is absolutely unprecedented. The reason Uber was able to raise so much money in the beginning is that they were promising to get rid of the driver.

Autonomous vehicles do have the potential to improve mobility in the cities, but they may also increase congestion hugely, because once economies of scale enter the picture, it’s quite likely that you would be able to own an autonomous vehicle and you’d be able to send this thing to run errands for you. Or if you’re having a lunch meeting you could send the vehicle around the block for an hour. Americans are quite keen on the autonomous vehcles; Europeans less so.

Also what’s happening now, is that in order to make cars more desirable, you need to have some autonomous features. And that’s one of the reasons Tesla’s been so successful … I’m feeling tired, I want a rest, I put my car on autonomous. That’s what the consumer’s wanting.

The reality is that if you were doing this for the good of the environment, you wouldn’t waste your time on an autonomous vehicle; as we discussed earlier, the amount of cloud computing you need to process all the information to know whether that is a dog or a plastic bag in the road, is massive. There’s not one data centre in the world that’s runing on renewables because it requires too much energy and too much stable energy so they run on baseload energy like fossil fuels, or nuclear in France.

It’s not an ideal situation for the environment and it’s not an ideal situation for cities. What some of the autonomous vehicle companies are saying is: these cars are so clever that they can travel more closely together and they don’t stop and start in the same way, so you can actually fit more cars per travelling mile than you can regular cars driven by humans. But, I think the motor car industry needs to go somewhere where it can make money and this is it.

That industry says the future of the mobility is Case (Connected Autonomous Shared Electric). That’s actually wrong. The future of mobility is what we call Adesa (Active Data Electric Shared Autonomous). What we’re seeing in cities is that the trend is walking and cycling, because that’s what cities want and they’re putting in the infrastructure and they’re making car ownership hard.

So there is a future for autonomous vehicles, but the reality is that drivers are not so expensive, and they perform functions other than drive – they help the elderly, people feel safer when there’s a bus driver in uniform etc.

I think we will start seeing autonomous commercial vehicles, but I think we’re far away from the days of a rover taxi cruising around the city and picking you up. I think what we’ll see when they come is that a whole lot of cyclists moving out in front of them, and because their architecture has to be defensive they’ll just jam on their brakes. So they haven’t figured that one out yet. So then you’re talking about having a separate infrastructure for autonomous vehicles and bicycles. And no one wants that!

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