Flexible fleets for uncertain times

At first glance, the COVID-19 crisis looked like a death blow to the shared, automated mobility marketplace.

When people can’t move, there isn’t much need for mobility. Social distancing made sharing pretty tough too. As countries gradually open up, there is some fear that people will retreat to the private car as the trusted way to travel, especially with petrol and diesel prices at historic lows.

But there are exciting developments afoot, by-products of the crisis, that point to a brighter future for shared transit.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and cities, public transport agencies, and private providers are finding solutions that can move more people with fewer vehicles and help fleets operate more efficiently.  

Their goal is to maintain some of the benefits to car-free living that many have enjoyed—clean air, quiet streets, and more room for walking, biking, and exercising. 

Smarter, Cleaner Cities

Cities from Paris to Seattle are planning to close miles of downtown streets to private cars permanently. “I say in all firmness that it is out of the question that we allow ourselves to be invaded by cars, and by pollution,” Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo says. “It will make the health crisis worse.”

To ease the traffic and prevent overcrowding on public transport, work from home orders have been extended for some businesses, or people may do so out of preference now that they have adapted to remote work.

At the same time, transit agencies are shifting from traditional bus networks to on-demand services that automatically match supply and demand. Cities like wine country destination of Napa, California, and Belleville, Ontario, to Kent, U.K, converted their entire bus networks to an on-demand service.

“Due to the strong reduction of demand in the context of COVID-19, public transport operators have to reduce the supply but must also ensure service continuity, in particular for transporting healthcare personnel,” says UITP secretary-general Mohamed Mezghani. “On-demand services offer the needed flexibility to optimize the use of bus fleets and the occupancy of vehicles while keeping social distancing.”

More with Less

The shift to on-demand services is one of many changes that some cities want to keep—fewer cars on the streets and more flexible, right-sized mobility services.

As is the case in most economic downturns, mobility providers are looking to do more with less—offer more efficient services using fewer resources. Some are taking the their on-demand services a step further, by using the fleet to provide multiple services.

In Jacksonville, autonomous shuttle service provider Beep has shifted from carrying people to safely carry COVID-19 tests from hospitals to Mayo Clinic for analysis. Other shuttles in its fleet are delivering food to a VA hospital in Lake Nona, Florida.

UK cities are drawing plans to use on-demand services for multiple services every day, carrying commuters to transport hubs during peak hours, and carrying both people and packages in non-peak hours.

Harder than It Looks

Shifting to an automated on-demand fleet and enabling it to serve multiple purposes is harder than it might seem.

For example, many traditional bus networks have been unable to adapt to changing ridership patterns because their schedules and driver shifts are fixed, and they have no mechanism to change them on the fly.

Also, there is no way to communicate changes to travellers or drivers quickly, as is the case with a mobile app-based service.

Also, enabling rides to be booked in advance, and creating flexible sharing options (controlling how many people can book the same bus due to space limitations), are no easy feats.

It’s All About Orchestration

The flexibility needed to deliver these types of on-demand services, and different services at different times of day can be provided with advanced fleet orchestration platforms that dynamically match travelers with drivers/vehicles while giving the operator ability to control key performance metrics like ride times, wait times, and passenger counts.

For example, in this era of social distancing, operators can control the number of passengers that are allowed into a vehicle at one time. As the measures are lifted, they can change this threshold in the fleet orchestration platform.

Fleet orchestration solutions also offer the passenger apps that enable travelers to book rides, see ETAs, view vehicle locations, and receive notifications of arrival times and travel times.

Apps and Data

The travel data gained by using mobile apps to book and pay for rides enable fleet orchestration solutions to get smarter as they learn demand patterns.

Demand data can include passengers as well as goods. The orchestration analyses real-time and historical demand and automates dispatching to send the right vehicle to the right place at the right time and continually reallocate resources—drivers and vehicles—to where they can deliver the most efficient experience.

The Future is Flexible

It has been said many times that life will not be the same as we emerge from the pandemic crisis. But the change doesn’t have to be negative.

Cleaner, quieter streets, reduced traffic, and more convenient transportation can be among the positive changes that stick with us.

Moving more people and goods and performing multiple services with flexible, orchestrated fleets can be one of the changes we keep.

About the author

Raphaël Gindrat is a co-founder of Bestmile and as CEO he is the executive leader of the company’s business and technical teams.

He is a pioneer in the world of autonomous mobility, having led a project with Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne with cofounder Anne Mellano to test and operate some of the first autonomous vehicle projects in Europe, after which organizers of autonomous mobility projects from throughout the world requested their expertise in defining and managing autonomous mobility trials.

In addition to founding and leading Bestmile, Raphaël speaks throughout the world on new mobility services, advocating for an open technology ecosystem to enable to new mobility services to deliver on the promise of safe, affordable, efficient travel for all.

He is active in many global industry organizations including the World Economic Forum’s Tech Pioneers and the Forbes Technology Council, and he writes for the Axios news Autonomous Vehicle Voices. Raphaël earned a Master’s degree in Civil Engineering with a specialization in Management from the EPFL.

Find out more: bestmile.com

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