Integrated transport: a smarter way to travel

By | 3 minute read | September 28, 2016

I recently posted on Twitter that I was amazed and disappointed to be able to hire a car and drive from Stansted airport to my home in Cheltenham, more quickly and cheaply than using public transport. I actually got a few retweets (unheard of for my slightly malnourished Twitter) suggesting that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Don’t get me wrong: I love driving – really I do. Instead of a holiday, I decided to drive 3500 miles through Europe, passing through France, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Italy, and France again. And yet even I think that the Stansted example is crazy. In what other situation would the most convenient, desirable option also be the cheapest? That’s like being told by a restaurant that all the menu dishes are £50, but that a chap with a Michelin star will prepare your favourite meal for £25.

And (dragging myself away from the restaurant analogy since it’s coming up to lunchtime) as a single traveller this is even more amazing – you would perhaps expect the economies of scale to make this work for a group, but not for one guy on his own.

As a car-lover, you would expect that this would please me greatly. But I am not naive enough to think that this is sustainable. In the UK, our roads are filling to the point where Smart Motorways are required to manage traffic flow at peak times. Why should I be forced to contribute to this congestion, simply because the alternative doesn’t make financial or logistical sense?

I suppose that over short distances this is the problem IBM and Local Motors are trying to solve with Olli. By essentially bridging the gap between an Uber and a bus, we can make use of the same economies of scale which currently make personal transport the only option for a small group travelling to a common destination.

But what about for long distances? Here’s my vision – “the IoT-enabled car as part of an integrated mobility chain, with your smartphone as the hub.” Or TIEC for short!

Automotive OEMs are transitioning to becoming mobility services providers, and if they’re not, they should be – yesterday if possible. So TIEC would form the hub of your journey, but would also act as a single component of it. It might even decide that the best option was not to use the car at all.

Using an app on your Smartphone, you would state from where you want to go, and when. TIEC could then take inputs from a multitude of sources including:

  • Availability and popularity of public transport routes
  • Availability of parking near public transport routes
  • Traffic congestion
  • Road pricing
  • Weather
  • Proximity of available lift-sharing options
  • Personal preference

And so forth. It could then plan your journey for you as follows:

“Hi Russell. I see you want to go from Stansted to your home. Start off by jumping in the short-term hire car which is parked right outside the terminal. Drive this to a station 50 miles away – I’ve already reserved you a parking spot. Then jump on a train which will take you all the way to Cheltenham. As it looks like it’s going to be 20 degrees and sunny, I suggest you walk the 10 minutes from the station. Don’t worry – this will get you home in time for the football which starts at 19:45. You’ve only done 5000 steps today so you look like you could use the exercise in any case.”

(Perhaps the last bit might not go down so well…!)

Of course, being IoT-enabled, this system would be responsive, meaning that it could manage the load on both public transport and the roads. And because it would be integrated seamlessly, it would be the best of all worlds – for the service providers and for the consumer.

This vision may sound far-fetched, but it involves daisy-chaining a number of capabilities which are already offered by a number of sources. A combination of IBM’s IoT for Automotive platform, Uber’s surge pricing, Ford’s work on an intelligent parking app, and the public transport APIs used by Transport For London (TFL) would go a long way towards making this a reality. Even the fairly conversational delivery I described above could happen with existing technology: IBM’s Watson IoT platform would provide a natural, cognitive human-machine interface, helping with the “seamless” feel.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts below.