21 July 2020
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In a recent article we discussed the numerous and varied aspects relating to the impending mobility revolution. Even before COVID-19 came along, the mobility sector was facing huge change. Now the pandemic is creating additional challenges. In this article, we take look at some of the latent advances in technology which could help address some of these challenges.

The new normal

At the onset of the lockdown, businesses quickly mobilised to protect their workers and maintain supply chains. While the world is still coming to terms with the effects of the pandemic, many organisations have developed effective work-from-home setups and are not pressing for an immediate return to previous work patterns. For some people, travelling for work may never return to pre-COVID levels. Indeed, recent polling suggests that workers are reluctant to return to work in the way they did before the pandemic.

As the economy starts to re-open, physical-distancing requirements are likely to have a lasting effect on our transportation needs, at least for journeys over short-to-medium distances. For those who must travel, we can expect a shift away from public transport and towards more active forms of transportation. Many commuters will have to entirely rethink their daily travel plans, especially in London where workers are particularly reliant on public transport. Even in nonurban areas, where driving is ‘de rigour’, the effects of COVID-19 could still cause lasting change to the mobility mix.

In light of all this, we can expect the emergence of new mobility solutions which cater for the differing needs of people across the country.

Moving people around

Cycling as a leisure activity has seen a significant uptake in the UK during lockdown. Commuters have been encouraged to cycle (and walk) in order to support social distancing. Although it remains to be seen whether the enthusiasm for cycling will persist into the winter months, it’s possible that at least some people will continue to choose cycling over public transport and/or driving, particularly in urban areas. Electric bikes are also becoming more prevalent, in part because they enable users to travel further, and with less effort.

But cycling isn’t for everyone. In which case, what are the possible alternatives? Well, the UK government recently announced that trials of rental e-scooters will be allowed to take place on Britain’s roads. Similar trials in Australia, New Zealand, and across Europe, have proved very popular with commuters and tourists, in particular.

We might expect future innovations to be directed towards increasing the general performance and usability of these vehicles. This would typically involve the use of lightweight materials and enhanced electronics. The miniaturisation of electric motors and batteries has already enabled manufacturers to increase the power-assist of these machines, whilst also extending their useable range. We would expect such developments to continue with electric motors, in particular, becoming smaller, lighter, quieter, and more integrated with the vehicle’s structure.

We can also expect to see greater integration of drivetrain components into the vehicle chassis, with more exotic features being promoted as a way of improving handling and safety. Such developments include adaptive suspension, automatic gearing and ABS braking systems. Many of these technologies have been around for years in the automotive sector. However, it takes significant engineering to optimise and, in many cases, re-configure these technologies to suit these smaller form factors.

Safety is an ever present area of development when it comes to personal mobility, whether it’s directed towards protecting the user from injury or preventing theft of personal property. Towards this aim, a UK brand HEXR have developed a fully customisable helmet using a 3D scanning and printing technique which reduces waste, and is therefore more environmentally friendly. Elsewhere, companies are developing smart safety lights, which can collect road surface quality data that can be used to inform infrastructure projects, whilst others are developing GPS tracking systems to prevent theft of scooters and bicycles.

Moreover, the use of these types of vehicles provides a great opportunity for collecting useful data about our urban surroundings, which can then be used to generate tailored route suggestions, for example. On board sensors can also be used to collect information on everything from traffic jams to pollution levels, which can also be utilised to inform smarter route suggestions for the user.

Electric bikes and scooters are designed to provide gentle assistance but the user still has to put in some effort, and also take responsibility for the steering. For those who are looking for a more relaxing way to travel, there is the promise of autonomous vehicles. Towards this aim, the UK government has backed pilot programs in Bristol, Coventry and Greenwich to develop autonomous vehicle technology, so that it can be safely integrated into the wider transport network. Such systems are directed towards journeys over short-to-medium distances, but there are also projects looking to cater for much greater distances. For example, earlier this year the HumanDrive project successfully completed the UK’s longest and most complex self-driving car journey on a 370km long self-navigated route on public roads.

The introduction of ride sharing services, over recent years, has significantly impacted the mobility mix. We might now expect the pandemic to influence social trends in favour of autonomous vehicles. For example, the implementation of driverless vehicles could reduce the risk of viral transmission, especially in situations where drivers have been particularly exposed during the COVID-19 crisis. However, if there is going to be a significant shift in our personal transportation habits, it will probably require some infrastructural modifications to support this change. The use of electrically powered vehicles will likely increase demand for charging services and utilities infrastructure. Once such solution would be to devise innovative ways of concealing charging infrastructure, with a view to reducing range anxiety and increasing the utility of these vehicles.

It's not just people - we also need our stuff

During lockdown, consumers have increasingly ventured online for their shopping. As e-commerce has accelerated, so too has the demand for delivery services. Even before lockdown, there were moves to reduce our reliance on diesel-powered delivery vans which have become ever more prevalent in recent years. Even as we come out of lockdown and restrictions are relaxed, we are unlikely to see a significant reduction in the demand for cargo deliveries.

The UK government has a longstanding ambition to transform the ‘last-mile’ of cargo deliveries. This typically refers to the moment where trunk freight is distributed to businesses and consumers. It’s thought that progress in this area could have a significant impact on improving urban air quality and traffic congestion. According to a 2014 Cyclelogistics study, some 50% of motorised cargo trips in European cities could be switched to cargo bikes. This is, in part, due to the under-utilisation of the storage capacity of traditional delivery vehicles. Cargo bikes have already shown their value as a means for freight transportation when operated under the right circumstances. For example, during London's lockdown, organisations such as Pedal Me have operated a fleet of e-cargo bikes for essential deliveries of food and medical supplies.

Some companies are looking towards drones as a futuristic means of delivering cargo. However, aside from the technical and social issues with drone delivery, there are real questions about whether drones deliveries will be efficient and cost-effective, especially in congested urban environments. A perennial problem with aerial drones, in particular, is that they tend to run on batteries, which can substantially limit their effective range, especially once you load them up with cargo. One approach to offsetting the low range of delivery drones is to fly them from delivery vans, which then serve as mobile base stations. An alternative approach would be to rely on public buses to provide a moving platform from which to deploy the drones, which could quadruple their delivery range.

In general, the smaller dimension of cargo bikes and drones makes them better suited to tackle denser urban road networks. In the months and years to come, we could see more of our everyday food supplies and household essentials being delivered in this way.

So, where to then?

In this article, we’ve taken a brief look at how innovative technologies could change the way we move both people and goods around, in a post-COVID world. Whilst many of these technologies can help enhance delivery services and the daily commute, they also have the potential to affect greater societal change. Not just in terms of personal mobility, but also helping to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Ultimately, it will be down to consumers and governments to determine our future mobility landscape. Here at Mewburn Ellis, we’ll be keeping a watchful eye on how things progress, whichever route we end up taking.

Chris has experience of drafting and prosecuting patent applications across a variety of materials science and engineering fields. He has also gained direct experience of the management of a large patent portfolio, whilst on secondment in the patent department of a UK automotive manufacturer.

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