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Is Transport Tech a Game Changer For the Planet?

Open Steets Langa, Cape Town

Open Streets Langa (Copyright Open Streets Cape Town)

As an associate of Appsafrica Advisory, I was asked by the Cape Town pressure group Open Streets to prepare some thoughts for their Transport Minds workshop on the potential impact that mobile transport technology might have, in assisting with the battle to reduce carbon emissions on our roads. This technology is typified by big names like Uber and Google but there are myriads of competing and smaller apps operating in this sector and no doubt many more still to be developed – Jeremy George.

Transportation policy and greenhouse emissions is not my area of expertise, but I live on the planet and have a vested interest in preserving it as long as possible so this is something that interests me. 10 minutes browsing revealed that transportation is responsible globally for about 15% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. That will vary from country to country depending on the state of their economy, general infrastructure and local environmental legislation. Interestingly South Africa just makes it into the list of the top 12 Carbon Dioxide emitters with about 2% of the global total.

World Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2005

World Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2005 (Copyright World Resource Institute)

The current digital infrastructure that we often take for granted gives us unprecedented levels of access to information and processing power and enables us to communicate like never before. The incredible power of our mobile phones and the infrastructure that supports them are the accumulative progress from the very earliest technological milestones. The excellent Atlantic magazine has, with the aid of a number of respected experts, drawn up an interesting list of these milestones ranging from the economic production of paper in the second century to semi-conductors and the internet in the twentieth century.

Tech milestones

Tech milestones (thanks to Atlantic Magazine)

When we pull our hand sized smartphones out of our pockets to summon an Uber cab with just a few clicks and the taxi miraculously arrives somewhere close to where we are standing on the street, it is easy to forget the incredible number of processes involved in this apparently simple action. It is also easy to imagine that, as previous generations have thought, we are at the pinnacle of our technological advancement. However, the truth is that we are somewhere along a continuum of interlinked technological progress, punctuated by a series of beacons of progress that disappears into a winding future place that we don’t have the capacity to imagine.

So, is the current state of digital transport technology a game changer for the planet?
Well, no, and yes.

Ola Smartphone

Smartphones make transport tech possible

What is mobile transport technology? For many of us reading this the first name that comes to mind is Uber. A company which has famously exploited the mobile ecosystem to profitably create a taxi ride market place with the aim of making massive future earnings for themselves and their investors. But there are many other mobile services which could be correctly be classified under this heading. The ones that have been around the longest are the digital mapping apps. Initially these were mainly available in standalone satellite navigation units (Garmin, TomTom), but as mobile phones increased in power they have migrated onto phones and added many useful features such as offline maps and traffic monitoring.

It is useful to consider the considerable list of technologies and services which make it possible for these transport apps to be successful now, in a way which they couldn’t have been just a few years ago. These include:

  • Accurate GPS – enables phones to be tracked in real time, while riders and drivers
    are directed to their meetup points.
  • Advanced mobile processors – so the app experience is fast enough to be pleasing.
  • High capacity mobile storage – so we can keep loads of huge apps on our phones.
  • High-resolution screens – so we can read detailed maps and include more information
    on the screen.
  • Mature, stable operating systems – in particular iOS and Android.
  • Sophisticated, well-populated app stores – in particular the Apple and Google Play App Stores.
  • Longer life batteries – so we can actually use the apps on our phones after midday.
  • Fast, ubiquitous (in cities anyway) mobile connectivity (3G+/4G) – so everything happens
    in real time.
  • Mobile payments/credit card infrastructure – allowing seamless payments for services.
  • Comprehensive, accurate mapping services – imagine having to create your own digital map
    service for every piece of digital transport tech that needed a map!
  • Artificial Intelligence – countless numbers of algorithms automatically make decisions such as routing and pricing, and these continually evolve in sophistication and complexity and now often include machine learning techniques.
  • Powerful cloud computing infrastructure – allowing app companies to build applications at reasonably low cost and then scale them as demand grows.
  • Venture capital financing – financiers prepared to take considerable risks to allow companies
    to develop their ideas for applications.
  • Trust – apps like Airbnb have taught us to trust one another based on reassurances
    provided by commercial entities and other people, not governments.
Transport Tech components

There’s a massive amount of technology and infrastructure that has gone into making today’s transport tech function

So to come back to the topic at hand, “is transport tech a game changer for the Planet?”; let’s consider what existing apps there are in the transport tech sector, and which of them could be useful in terms of reducing carbon emissions by keeping vehicles off our roads.

The most ubiquitous of the transport tech apps must surely be the mapping apps like Google Maps, Here Maps and a number of others. Any technology that makes a journey more efficient in terms of either recommending the shortest route or by avoiding traffic jams, keeps vehicles off the road for a few extra minutes or kilometres and therefore, must be useful. Waze, which was purchased by Google in 2013 for $1.3B, uses crowd sourced information from its users to enhance their offering with details such as traffic delays and fuel prices.

Another well-established category of transport tech apps are the timetable apps. Much of this technology is already deeply imbedded into the major operating system mapping offerings. They integrate with 100s of city transport city systems to give you public transport as an option on top of driving, walking or cycling around the city. There are also a number of niche timetable apps for train, bus and subway services. A South African example would be GoMetro which incorporates timetables, route and delay information as well as public transport route mapping. Do these have any impact on reducing vehicle usage? Probably a little; by making it easier to use mass public transport systems more people will be encouraged to abandon their cars.

And that bring us back to where we started; the ride sharing apps. The benchmark is Uber but there are a number of similar services out there. Uber has cleverly managed to dominate in a number of markets, especially in the US and Europe. However, in many emerging markets, most notably China (Didi Chuxing) and India (Ola), Uber are not the dominant player. However, these services are effectively just taxis. While they have disrupted traditional taxi services with their high levels of convenience and ease for both rider and driver, they don’t have any significant impact on the reduction of carbon emissions. They possibly even increase them as there are now fleets of extra vehicles patrolling the streets looking for riders.

Transport Tech logos

A selection of the bigger transport tech players

Fortunately, there is some light at the end of the carbon tunnel; these ridesharing companies are slowly adding carpooling services to their offer. Now this really does start to save some Green House Gas. Instead of a driver and a single passenger in each vehicle, there is the option to add another passenger or two. My daughter lives and works in London and regularly uses the UberPool service which saves her 25% of the UberX price. But it also makes more money for the driver and for Uber. The key to carbon efficiency here is the alignment of diverse objectives; Uber and the driver make more money, the rider saves money, and less cars use the roads.

Carpooling has been around for decades but it hasn’t really taken off, largely because of the complexity of allowing flexibility with peoples’ schedules. You just need a kid’s hockey practice to be cancelled to find your ride heading off without you, leaving you having to find an alternative means of getting home after work.

This problem is resolved by instant carpooling, effectively just app-based hitch-hiking. This new class of ridesharing apps are driven by incredibly smart algorithms, filling cars on existing journeys with extra passengers, deciding where to pick up and drop passengers off while balancing the commercial factors, and all this in fractions of a second. If the hockey practice is cancelled, no problem; just go home with a different shared ride. Once they are established in a city and reach critical mass these services can make a serious dent in the number of cars on the road. With city cooperation this can be accelerated by the addition of carpooling lanes in which only cars with more than 2 occupants can drive. High tech cameras can also be used to automatically police these lanes. Uber’s main competitor in the US, Lyft, has recently launched their carpooling service – Lyft Line. There are a growing number of app based carpooling services emerging like Google’s Waze Rider which is in a pilot phase in Israel, and a home-grown South African version – uGoMyWay.

French startup Bla Bla Car is a long-distance, intercity carpooling app service now operating in over 20 different countries, boasting more than 25M members. As their cofounder Nicolas Brusson said, their service is slightly different, “I realised that what we’re disrupting is not hitch-hiking, it’s the transport industry”. Their impact on carbon production is probably minimal as people using their service are more likely to result in unoccupied seats on buses and trains.

The final category of transport apps based services are the short-term hire car sharing companies like ZipCar. They started operating in 2000 in Cambridge Massachusetts and were sold to Avis in 2013 for a cool $500M. Currently they have almost one million members and 10,000 vehicles in about 6 countries in North America and Europe. The car sharing model has the potential to remove a number of cars from the roads as people rely on shared cars for trip. This service could be leveraged by Zipcar’s business offering where companies can use Zipcar to provide employees with shared vehicles for business trips.  However, until this form of vehicle ownership becomes more accepted and achieves a larger scale, the impact on carbon will be negligible.

Feature phone

Most of the world do not have access to smartphones

All of these models depend on users owning smartphones, and many of them, require sophisticated smartphones, with excellent mobile coverage and a data connection. However, for much of the world, this is just not a reality. And while those who don’t own a smartphone almost certainly don’t own a car, they probably use some form of public transport. Transport mobile technology is like the proverbial iceberg; the smartphone is the visible portion while, beneath the surface, there are huge servers processing all the data needed for these complex services, and an intricate multifaceted infrastructure supporting their user experience. This same infrastructure does not necessarily need to include a smartphone frontend and a number of these systems can be redeployed to deliver information to basic handsets using more ubiquitous technologies like SMS or USSD. Alternatively, it could even deliver the information to devices such as smart bus shelter signs in remote locations that have live bus arrival times displayed on them. Users could even sign up to a live SMS alerts system in remote areas telling them when their bus is 15 minutes away. These technologies can be used to check timetables, and even to book tickets. This network of technologies combine to increase transport efficiency, saving costs for the operators and passengers, and reducing the amount of carbon being produced per journey.

Bike Mugging MapOn a personal note, an app that I wish existed and which would also help keep cars off the road is a ‘bike bus’ app. Where I work in Woodstock and where I live in the CBD are connected by a dedicated cycle track alongside the MyCiti Bus route. However, crime levels on this route make it too dangerous to use for commuting. An app that coordinates fellow riders so we could meet at fixed times and ride together in force would make cycling safer and a viable alternative to driving. There may be a range of apps that could take a similar approach to provide alternate forms of transport than private cars. For example, ‘walking bus’ apps for schools which assist the organisation and safety of getting a group of children to walk to school.

As app businesses and venture capitalists engage with one another in a ‘land-grab’ for app users some will succeed and some will fail. The big winner of this intense competition is the consumer who will benefit from the utility, cost-saving and fun these apps provide. Costs will be driven down, customer driven features such as female only vehicles will be added and an increasing number of people will start to use them, eventually reducing the number of cars on the road. The fundamental key to success in reducing Carbon Dioxide emissions on the roads using mobile technology is the alignment of diverse, but linked objectives. If the commercial objectives of app owners and users support reducing dependence on private vehicles and are reinforced by a commitment by town and traffic planning authorities and national legislators, mobile technology can be used to reduce Green House Gas emissions. This will be one small, but important step towards making our planet a better place for us, and more importantly, for our children.

You can download this article free of charge here: Is Transport Tech a Game Changer

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