Smart City – a concept in stagnation? (and how to fix it)

Average reading time: 6 minutes

We are living in an urban century. 2007 marked an important turning point for humanity: for the first time in human history, more people now live in urban regions than in rural ones. And this change is here to stay. The urban population has grown from 746 million in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014 and is predicted by the U.N. to reach 6.3 billion in 2045. The number of mega-cities with more than 10 million inhabitants will double. The space occupied by urban regions is even going to triple – to then 3 million sq. km: an area more than four and a half times the size of France.

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The new normality for human existence revolves around streets, infrastructure and complexity: the urban life (source: United Nations).

 

The Internet’s early promise of decentralization and “work from anywhere” has fallen flat. In a time, where no one really knew how digitalization eventually would turn out, visionaries like Bill Gates made ambitious assumptions: “Over time, as the Internet brings your work to your home (…) It is possible that when this happens, people will begin to leave the city.” (Gates 1995). The contrary has happened: Many of today’s leading technology firms offer incentives to work in the office, or even flat-out order former home workers back to office, like IBM recently did. Without a doubt we are living in world, where highly-specialized employment, diverse opportunities of culture or recreation, and – last but not least – high-quality internet infrastructure drives people all over the world to their nearest agglomeration. As a consequence, cities and metropolises will get more and more congested.

This however comes at a cost: rising house prices, commuting traffic, overwhelmed infrastructure, pollution, segregation, criminality and the rising demand for more quality of life provides unprecedented challenges to city administrations, governments and regulators all around the world.

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Smog in Cairo, Egypt. The status quo of urbanization is far from ideal.

Smart City – a solution?

By many, the concept of Smart City is seen as a solution to these problems. Smart City revolves around connecting a city’s sub-systems and empowering them with newest technologies, such as Big Data and Machine Learning. The added efficiency can significantly increase a city’s capability and financial stability. Textbook examples of Smart City are street lamps that dim their brightness to save energy when no one is around. Or trash cans that due to a sensor only get visited by a garbage truck when they are actually full.

Of course, to tackle the large problems mentioned above, we need to be much more ambitious. And this is the problem with the reality of Smart City today. It is more of a small step piecemeal approach, with too many projects being labelled “experimental”, “pilot” or “testbed”.

An urban solution, stuck in traffic jam

Publications in 2002 celebrated that “Fragments of intelligent cities are emerging all over the world” and in 2010 the Guardian titles “Why smart cities will help save the world”. Yet, with all the promise, the concept seems to be stuck in pilot phase. Publicly available data shows that the total number of Smart City projects world-wide is far from the expected linear or exponential growth. In fact, the rate of growth seems to be in decline.

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Smart City’s rate of growth is slowing down. Source: own logarithmic extrapolation of Navigant’s public releases of its “Smart City Tracker” (c)

 

And even the types of projects are being questioned. A study of the European Union finds that “more than two-thirds of sampled Smart City projects remain in the planning or pilot testing phases, the numbers of mature successful initiatives remain relatively low”.  A McKinsey study of 50 Smart City projects agrees that “nearly all were launched as pilots with tailor-made solutions rather than as scalable initiatives”. The authors add that in most cases neither city official nor tech companies are willing to invest bigger sums in large-scale Smart City projects. Most financing still comes from government initiatives or science programs, many of which are limited in both scale and duration. It seems clear, that the rate of progress of Smart City as a strategy to solve our urban problems could be much better. But how? Here are a few finds, based on some of my academic research.

 

Stop hollowing out the concept

With all the potential of proper Smart City solutions, the term is clearly a fuzzy one. It is both an attractive identifier and at the same time open to any interpretation. No one can for certain say what Smart City is. Therefore, anyone has the right to call his project one. This is dangerous. Honestly: who doesn’t want to be “smart”?

Using the label Smart City is attractive for every company to market their products and every city to add this touch of innovative, progressive, young flavor to their city marketing – being especially important in a time where competition between cities over the young & educated gets more and more fierce. As a result, we are seeing very different projects of all kinds of types and sizes worldwide getting labelled Smart City, not all aiming for a big solution to the above problems. Sometimes mere construction projects that have been underway for many years get a boost by putting the label Smart City on it.

 

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Modelling the dilemma of Smart City conceptualization. This mechanism cannot work and will eventually render the concept of Smart City meaningless. Source: own work

 

This leads to the dangerous cycle of hollowing out the concept: the conceptual incoherence allows for a broad interpretation. Yet all the diverse interpretations hollow out the concept even more. In the end, Smart City as a concept gets devaluated – even with all the potential and usage it has for us. This needs to stop now, if the concept wants to play a bigger role.

 

Time for proper standardization

As the incentive for this kind of misusage is way too high, only a high-profile solution can solve this problem: a standardization what Smart City means, along with incentives to undertake ambitious costly implementations.

There already have been quite a lot attempts at standardization, e.g. by the ISO, the ITU, the German DIN or the British BSI. However, these attempts failed to significantly improve the status quo because of two reasons: first, their “standard definitions” are intentionally designed so broad as to include almost all already existing understandings of the concept worldwide. This makes them quite meaningless and additionally too long and complicated to have any impact. Second, the above list already illustrates that more definitions and interpretations just add to the already existing confusion.

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The city of Barcelona – one of the densest populated regions in Europe, with on average almost 16.000 people per sq. km. People in such urban rooms deserve ambitious projects to help them, not piecemeal work.

 

What we need is a big solution. We need to create a fixed, concrete and short definition of Smart City by large supra-national bodies, such as the EU or even the U.N. All underlying parttaking regulatory bodies would then speak with one voice and support the common conceptualization. Also a private corporate initiative would work as well, as long as the support encompasses the vast majority of all relevant Smart City industry actors.

Even more important would be to build an incentive to use this definition. A great idea would be to use the U.N.’s UNESCO cultural heritage certificate as a role model. In case you’re not familiar with it: UNESCO awards a meaningful title to cities of cultural or historic significance – and the will to protect this heritage. As a benefit, this title often comes with higher international visibility and thus increased tourism from all around the world. However, if a city intentionally destroys some of its heritage, that title may also be withdrawn.

In our case of Smart City this would mean, that any city using an ambitious Smart City approach would receive a meaningful certificate, for example as “certified U.N. Smart City” and be featured in a special way. This would create a better incentive for cities and corporate actors to compete in innovation and ambitions instead of marketing.

 

Communicate Smart City credible and believable

Another important step would be to make the Smart City concept one that people understand and actually feel a difference with. It is no wonder, that city representatives are unwilling to invest more time, money and risk when the benefits are either unclear or too abstract for the electorate to honor.

Smart City actors and initiatives should stop seeing city stakeholders as the only ones to convince. Instead, by communicating clear advantages to the citizens, the people could be made to advocates of Smart City initiatives. It actually seems like a natural strategy, but in fact this has been ignored by most Smart City actors until now.

This strategy revolves around two core points: communication and demonstration, that go parallel. First, communication should follow the same guidelines as any good marketing campaign: be precise and easy to understand concerning the advantages of costly Smart City strategies, be believable and transparent, and communicate on channels that directly reach the citizenship, both online and offline.

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Providing and communicating real benefits to the citizens. (c) LinkNYC

 

Second, as projects go along, the benefits for citizens should be clearly visible and highlighted. If your project improves the life of citizens, then by all means emphasize and advertise it, to create public pressure towards more of its kind. This is also a good benchmark about the real utility and relevance of a Smart City project.

An example of such clearly visible benefits with citizens becoming advocates would be LinkNYC, a project by Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs and Qualcomm, to place 7.500 terminals throughout the sidewalks of New York City, which offer free Wi-Fi along with other services, from tourist maps or video telephony to help services for the homeless. After a somewhat shaky pilot phase, the project has attracted millions of users, thus became an outstanding project for NYC’s progressiveness and achieved a role model character. Meanwhile similar projects in 13 other cities, such as Chicago, London and L.A. are in the making.

This shows that large ambitious projects – in contrast to barely visible small-lived “testbed” projects – can also yield large profits, both for the public and the included corporate actors. It is important that the benefits are clearly visible and directly communicated. This approach can work for many Smart City-related initiatives, from parking sensors to traffic apps or cost saving street lights.

Let’s not forget, that the citizens are not only the ones who have to profit from these projects, but also the ones eventually paying the bill – or at least electing those that decide on what to spend their money on. Offering real benefits will always be better than printing shiny labels. Smart City is about solving the urban crisis.

 

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Smart City has a lot of potential in increased efficiency, cost savings and improved quality of life – time to do it right.

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Solving our traffic problems with self-driving cars?

Average reading time: 7 minutes

With the progress that has recently been made in computational power, connected technologies and artificial intelligence, the vision of self-driving cars is now finally coming true. Fully-autonomous cars are expected within the next two years. But the potential of this technology goes much further than just adding vehicle safety. It could just be the thing to solve many of our 21st century problems.

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Much more potential than just cool looks.

While our cities get more and more congested and traffic gets out of control, we have to admit: our current model of transportation is not only inefficient but also dangerous. According to WHO, we suffer of 1.25 million traffic deaths each and every year. Why is that? And can self-driving cars be a solution? I want to argue that self-driving cars are not just a cool new technology – but the real completion of the concept of individual motorized mobility. In hindsight, the era of human-driven cars might be regarded as nothing more than a temporary transition era.

The mess of human-driven traffic

The abilities of an entity are usually defined by its purpose. Let’s regard the human body and mind for a moment from a strictly scientific purpose-oriented point of view. When we say, the process of evolution has shaped our body – with what purpose was it shaped? The survival in natural environment. Thus our primary abilities are based (not limited) on surviving. Our ability to react, our ability to estimate situations, our ability to sense dangers – all these are grounded in the two million years of human evolution. When we run on our feet and stumble upon an obstacle, we can react fast enough by mitigating the fall with our hands. We can sense the danger when leaning too far over a bridge’s balustrade. Our abilities have been formed to estimate heights, distances and dangers we encounter in our natural environment.

Cars on the other hand are a new concept. We have getting so used to shaping our world towards automobile mobility that we often forget, we are dealing with a technology that has only been around for a little more than mere hundred years. This is, needlessly to say, far too short for any human evolution to happen. We have to rely on our abilities, shaped to deal with far different challenges, to control them.

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Today’s car traffic: A dangerous mess.

However, we do not have the abilities to measure the difference between 100km/h and 120km/h without even feeling any wind in our face. We can barely judge if 20 meters distance is enough safety distance at a certain speed or 30 would be better. We are tough challenged to observe the behavior of dozens of cars, bicycles, pedestrians around us while other thoughts might be on our mind. Can we brake fast enough in case something unexpected happens – and will the people driving behind us grasp the danger we are reacting to? When driving a car, we are pretending to have abilities which we simply cannot have.

Ultimately, a steering wheel is an interface. An interface between a machine – the car – and a control unit – us. This is the root of the problem: The control unit does not have the abilities needed to control a car in all possible circumstances – because the abilities have been shaped towards far other challenges in a completely different context. Wouldn’t it then be awesome, if we could prevent this incompatibility altogether and make the machine an integrated system – with a control unit that is actually made with the purpose of controlling a multi-ton super-fast vehicle?

The formal rules… and the informal

Self-driving cars are not a new concept. We have been using cars for 130 years. We have been using computers for many decades. Why did it take so long to build a self-driving car? Because it is vastly different from building any other machine.

Most machines we are building today operate in a controlled environment following pre-defined formal rules for their actions. The purpose of a self-driving algorithm however is to control a car in the real world. We sure have extensive regulations on how to behave in traffic, pretending to organize the relationships of all actors on the streets, but let’s be honest: Traffic regulations are only an illusion of control – and just a part of the abilities needed to drive a car.

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Formal traffic rules are the defining parameters of the traffic system… are they?

Many modern cars today already master limited self-driving capabilities such as holding a lane. This is effectively a machine operating under a (fake) controlled environment. The driver tells the machine, when he’s on the highway, the traffic is easy and the streets and lanes are in good condition. However, for a car to operate really autonomously in the real world, the environment does not stop at the lane borders (if there’s even any). Unforeseen things can and will happen. New actors can anytime suddenly enter your environment. Other road users will improvise or simply make mistakes. Construction sites may spontaneously change the flow of traffic. There may even be places with no fixed regulation after all, such as the progressive shared space concept, increasingly being put to use in urban environments.

In the real world, traffic is governed by complex rules and relationships in which formal traffic rules only take a small place. In a traffic system dominated by human-controlled cars, a self-driving car being limited to just the knowledge of formal traffic regulations, is an alien.

Complexity

Imagine a bus stopping in a crowded street. On the opposite sidewalk, a group of people are starting to run. A human driver may conclude, that the pedestrians most likely will try to cross the street in a non-cautious manner in order to reach the bus. As a result, he will lower his speed and increase his attention. This conclusion not only requires registering all potential actors around the car, but also interpreting their behavioral context.

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Making context-sensitive predictions with limited knowledge.

The conclusion is that self-driving cars both need the ability to follow regulations and at the same time the ability to recognize human interactions, as fixed regulations are spontaneously altered. How can you even predict human behavior? Sometimes the conditions for certain actions may be different. Or the actions taken by actors may change. Example: As a traffic light is turning from green to yellow, some drivers will hit the breaks – while others will accelerate to pass before red light, sometimes well above the speed limit. To make matters worse, different actors are often influencing each other, eventually creating a complex system. Drivers surpassing the speed limit will lead to other drivers to act just the same. Drivers ignoring certain impractical rules will incentivize others to follow. A group of pedestrians crossing a street will incentivize others to follow, even if a car is approaching. So, how is a machine supposed to interpret human behavior, act upon dynamic rules that are being established on the fly?

Building a real self-driving car is only possible by the usage of artificial intelligence – a technique that has only risen to real success recently, and thus explaining why we could not build such cars in the past. A self-driving algorithm needs to learn from its experiences and incorporate a kind of adaptivity not possible for regular algorithms.

Training the A.I.

All approaches on true artificial intelligence incorporate a learning process. Well, what do we need to learn real-world traffic rules? Experiences in the real world.

Last month, Tesla announced, it had 780 million miles of semi-autonomous driving data, adding another million every 10 hours. Beginning in 2014, Tesla has equipped its cars with the hardware and software for its Autopilot. This is the incremental approach: Tesla is rolling out cutting-edge technology to its users and receives data when it is used. This way, the company has created an unmatched wealth of experience of its autopilot algorithm in the real world. Every experience helps in making the algorithm to get better. As updates are delivered via wireless connections to the cars, customers directly profit from advancements. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk predicted the first fully self-driving cars to be ready in just about two years. On the other hand, of course, putting an in-development software on the streets, requires a high amount of responsibility of the driver, to judge what is possible with the system and what is not, and also a lot of self-discipline, to not get careless when being driven around (UPDATE in July: A Tesla driver died in an accident while autopilot was enabled. It seems to be both an error on the driver side, not paying attention anymore, and of the software, not recognizing a large white trailer on the highway against the bright sky. Tesla emphasizes that each driver has to acknowledge that Autopilot is an “assist feature” and does not provide full autonomy. For more info see Tesla Blog).

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Tesla’s autopilot with the ability to change highway lanes. © Tesla Motors, Press Kit

Google uses a different approach, a more direct one. Their currently 58 self-driving cars – not even equipped with traditional steering wheels – drive through four selected U.S. cities using professional test “drivers” (or rather: observers), and gathered data of 1.6 million miles since 2009. While the Google approach obviously creates much fewer data than Tesla’s, it also allows for a more progressive and also more safe approach. When not having to worry about practical customer considerations, they can directly aim for full self-driving capability. As Google will need more and more experience data, the test program is expanded. Positions as a self-driving car test driver are currently open. (Update in July: Google’s cars now learned to predict cyclist behavior and hand signs using an A.I.-driven learning approach – very impressive! Source).

While both strategies have their advantages, it is foreseeable for both companies to have leading positions for self-driving algorithms in the foreseeable future. Traditional closed-environment small-scale testbed strategies can only advance to a certain point (mostly revolving around learning formal rules), but for fully autonomous driving and interactions with human-driven vehicles, extensive real world data is necessary. For example, Google is currently learning its cars when to honk – useful for situations of urgency and warning in the real world, not defined by formal traffic rules: “Our goal is to teach our cars to honk like a patient, seasoned driver. As we become more experienced honkers, we hope our cars will also be able to predict how other drivers respond to a beep in different situations.” (Source) Real-world data is key for learning processes revolving around self-driving cars.

The next step

In a world with ever expanding cities, how do we prevent the total traffic collapse? At a certain urban density, there is just no more room to increase the traffic capacity. The solution in fact could be self-driving cars. If we take traffic capacity as a limited good, traffic lights are always a very inefficient way of distributing this good. Intersections become bottlenecks. By using self-driving cars and thus removing the need for traffic lights, the capacity and efficiency of streets could dramatically be increased, possibly doubled, as Italian researchers have just recently shown.

Moreover, by combining ubiquitous connectedness with artificial intelligence, we could utilize intelligent traffic management to organize and spread daily commuting routes and thus make the most out of a cities’ existing infrastructure at peak times. If combined with the revolution towards electric vehicles, which is just getting started right now, and the expansion of regenerative energy sources, pollution could be drastically reduced and quality of life and health increased. Hopefully, self-driving cars are just the first promise to come true towards a more reasonable solution of mobility.

It is about time.

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How can we improve mobility to ensure quality of life in the urban age?

 

Tesla becoming a mobility service provider. A whole industry’s future?

Average reading time: 5 minutes

Just recently, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk released his second “Master Plan”, detailing the car manufacturer’s future development goals. And it did not fall short of expectations: Tesla in fact is not anymore just a car manufacturer, but it is about to become a mobility service provider – pursuing a development looking to transform the whole automobile industry.

Let’s remember: 10 years ago, Elon Musk published his first Master Plan. It laid out the grand strategy that we actually still see unfolding today: start by building expensive electric sport cars in low numbers for premium customers, use the margin to advance production and technology and eventually be able to mass-produce affordable electric cars: the upcoming Tesla Model 3. So in conclusion, the first Master Plan was basically a strategy of scaling – how to transform a promising start-up with a lot of ideas but much less abilities into a mass producer to deliver just the kind of product you aim for (this, by the way, is in some way very similar to Musk’s other big company – SpaceX).

 

The Big Picture

According to Musk (if we believe him) his efforts of electric cars are not just because they’re so popular and generate so much cash – they are not – but as means to a bigger picture: to contribute while humanity reaches a sustainable long-term solution for mobility, dealing with all of its current problems we observe every day. We have to realize that our model of mobility currently in use is not made to last and comes with great draw-backs: Pollution, accidents, inefficiency. To arrive at a sustainable mobility future, we will need to deal with all three of them.

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The cliché of individual motorized mobility: Going where you want, when you want. But it comes at a cost.

Pollution is to be dealt with by electrification of cars, with the energy at best coming from renewable energy sources.

The accidents and resulting 1.25 million yearly deaths are to be dealt by increasing abilities of autonomous vehicles, surpassing the reaction ability of human drivers (A.I.-driven mobility might be the natural solution). Elon Musk wants to “Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning”. Despite the latest setbacks, not only Musk, but everyone in the car industry expects fully autonomous vehicles to arrive in the next few years. BMW just announced its first fully-autonomous car for 2021.

But what about inefficiency? Now things are about to get really interesting. This might be the core message of Musk’s new Master Plan.

 

Taking the best out of individual and public mobility

Individual mobility is great. It offers the possibility of driving anywhere you want at any time of the day, every day – planned or spontaneous. The world transformation we have experienced in the last 130 years of individual motorized mobility is easily explained by looking at the freedom and utility privately owned vehicles offer to us. Cities today basically are formed by webs of streets – or in other words, cities are made out of pathways of individual mobility. The concept is that popular, we have shaped our world after it.

However the concept also has a huge drawback: It is totally inefficient. When we look at the streets, we mostly see cars with one or two persons in it, while the maximum capacity of five, seven or even more is almost never utilized. The results are not only pollution but also traffic jams, cost of infrastructure and generally decreasing quality of life both for drivers and citizens. Moreover, when we arrive at our target destination, the car just stands around, waiting for us to come back. Most cars are only used 10% of the day, being idle the rest of it and using up precious parking space in our ever-more congested cities.

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Public transport: Efficient but unpractical.

On the other side, we have public transportation such as busses. They are great, because they move a large number of people at the same time, thus getting energy-efficient. At the same time, they offer a lot of mobility for people not owning a car. This is great because it does not fill up the streets even more and also provides some social equality – as in today’s economy, mobility is not luxury anymore, but a requirement. However, public transport naturally restricts the “when” and “where” and also has limits in utlity and comfort.

The core point of Elon Musk’s Master Plan therefore –this is my interpretation – is to combine the best out of individual and public mobility by adding fully-autonomous driving with managed car sharing to the equation. Linking multiple new innovations together leads to a solution that offers both freedom of travel and efficiency.

 

Progressing the Uber approach

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Screenshot of Uber. (c) Uber, PressKit

It hasn’t been that long since Uber started a worldwide revolution of car sharing, allowing just about everyone to become a taxi driver. You press a button in the App and an Uber driver will arrive.

Tesla is taking this one step further. It will allow every Tesla owner to let his car drive around others while it is not needed by the owner. Or if you don’t own a car yourself, you just press a button in the Tesla App and a driverless taxi, owned by someone else or by Tesla itself, will arrive, taking you automatically to your destination. “Once it picks you up, you will be able to sleep, read or do anything else enroute to your destination.”, Musk says. Just like in public transport, you would not need to be attentive.

This concept would be very efficient, because it allows cars to be used all the time, and not just the 60 minutes of commute a day. If there would be an option to share the ride with others (on A.I.-optimized routes) – and I guess there will be – it would get even more efficient. But at the same time it offers a lot of the flexibility of traditional individual mobility.

From an economical point of view, the generated revenue will both incentivize the usage of the feature by the car owners and also create multiple additional streams of income for Tesla itself (via the platform itself, the appeal to users and the customers’ cost considerations) that traditional car manufacturers do not have access to. Car owners can let their car earn money for them while being at work or asleep.

 

The integrated strategy: Becoming mobility infrastructure

In the end, this means, Tesla is about to become a sort of infrastructure for mobility – with infrastructure certainly being the most influential position in an industry sector you can have (recently blogged about Google becoming digital infrastructure).

Beginning with this new Master Plan, and Tesla’s ongoing merge with SolarCity, Tesla is saying farewell to the time of being just an automaker. Instead, the company is aiming to become an integrated mobility service provider, spanning the full circle from energy generation (solar power on home roofs, SolarCity), energy conservation (batteries at home and in cars, produced together with Panasonic), energy consumption (electric-powered cars) to mobility distribution (new autonomous car sharing platform) and even recycling (recycled car batteries become home batteries for storing solar energy, Tesla Energy). The goal is clearly an “everything out of one hand” strategy. Building the actual car is only one part out of it. This is a revolution in an industry that has been focused on selling the best car product again and again for 130 years.

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Cornerstones of Tesla’s long-term strategy. Mobility infrastructure instead of just a car producer.

 

A whole industry is about to transform

When we now look at the industry’s big picture, it becomes clear that the role of traditional automakers is challenged. And indeed, the revolutions of the likes of Uber, Google and Tesla have not gone unnoticed.

Toyota has just recently announced a strategic partnership with Uber. Volkswagen has invested 300 Million Dollar into Uber competitor Gett. General Motors has invested 500 Million Dollar into Uber competitor Lyft. Last year, BMW, Daimler and Audi together bought Google Maps competitor HERE for over 3 billion Dollar to be prepared for “future mobility”. BMW has also started an App-based car sharing service for certain models, including the electric i-series in major cities. Volkswagen is currently deciding on whether to build its own multi-billion $ battery factory, just like Tesla did.

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These will become core sectors for automakers soon. A whole industry will look different.

These disruptions are tough calls for an industry petted in success for decades. It will be interesting to observe, to what extend well established automakers will be able to adapt to the challenges and how new players such as Alphabet’s Google, Apple or Faraday Future will perform.

But then again: Change in the mobility industry is more than welcome. We need to realize, that the current solution for mobility with all its downsides and inefficiencies can only be a temporary one. Even if we just want to maintain the quality of life we currently have, we need to find a durable, a sustainable solution. And by being sustainable, we can actually grow as a society.

 

Interested in more news and blogs about innovation, mobility, artificial intelligence, smart city and the web? Follow on Twitter or via e-mail below.

 

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The mobility of tomorrow will need to answer a lot of questions. But maybe we are just about to find that solution by linking several new innovations together.