Brett Wheatley is the CEO of TransLoc, a transportation software solutions company that’s part of Ford’s mobility portfolio.
As we reflect on two consecutive years of community disruption, one area has remained a critical lifeline: our transportation systems. From personal cars to buses and trains, Americans have relied on transportation to get to work, access critical amenities or care for their families. Although the pandemic presented new challenges for the transportation industry, it also created new opportunities for innovation. In turn, we’ve seen significant progress in upgrading vehicles, enhancing transit accessibility, creating better rider experiences and even reducing emissions — and technology is at the core of all these improvements.
In 2022, innovators must ensure new technologies — such as autonomous vehicles (AV), electric vehicles (EV), on-demand services and smart city integrations — pave the way for enhanced transportation systems that will drive the industry and our communities forward.
Consumers Demand On-Demand Solutions
Unfortunately, Americans’ rising health and safety concerns significantly impacted the transportation industry during the pandemic as riders avoided crowded vehicles that put them in close quarters with others. These fears pushed many to single-occupancy vehicles or appointment-based transportation services to control vehicle occupancy while increasing reliability.
In fact, ride-hail services have seen a modest comeback, and their value is extending into public transportation systems. On-demand technology is starting to support microtransit shuttles and buses, helping improve the timeliness and efficiency of public transit while also aligning with riders’ new demands for health and safety. In 2022, we expect to see more transit agencies deploy on-demand services, more riders adopt them and continued innovation for the platforms that deliver these offerings.
More Clean, Green, Moving Machines
Despite mobility declines, transit emissions were the nation’s largest driver of climate change in 2020, and Americans want to see change. As of 2020, nearly 1.8 million EVs were registered in the U.S., which is more than triple the amount in 2016. However, the benefits of EVs extend beyond personal use, and consumers have an appetite for sustainable public transit options. In fact, my company’s Transit Value Index report revealed that 52% of American transit riders want their local agencies to implement more sustainable practices.
As EV innovation advances, EV companies, transportation agencies and city officials must work together to ensure this technology is accessible for all. This includes deploying universal charging stations and making necessary investments into redesigning city structures to support electric fleets. With the new infrastructure bill allocating significant funding toward sustainable transportation, 2022 will be a landmark year for seeing widespread innovation around the electrification of buses and trains, as well as micromobility services like e-scooters and e-bikes.
Micromobility Tech Fills Transportation Gaps
Micromobility is a critical building block to creating a more resilient transportation system. It helps break down barriers, allowing every American to access affordable transportation regardless of socioeconomic status or geographic location. In fact, when the pandemic forced public transit ridership to drop, many cities saw a drastic increase in the use of micromobility.
As Americans began experimenting with smaller, personal-use vehicles such as bikes and scooters, many found that these services help fill gaps in their commutes, creating a seamless and efficient travel experience. For example, my company recently started more closely collaborating with another Ford Motor Co. subsidiary to launch an integrated mobility ecosystem on the University of California San Diego’s campus, optimizing how its 75,000 students and staff move around via buses, carts, e-bikes and e-scooters.
Not only does micromobility enhance the commute experience, but this technology also creates safer communities. Micromobility companies are working with tech providers to deploy smart safety features such as sidewalk detection and speed monitoring to make our roads safer for all. As multimodal transportation increases in 2022, we will see new micromobility services and technology disrupt how we get around.
Autonomous Tech Inches Toward Reality
Autonomous vehicles continue to advance and are inching toward consumer adoption. Similar to EVs, self-driving vehicles are not limited to personal use and are expanding into our public transit systems — including shuttles, buses and ride-hail services. In 2021 alone, Ford launched a pilot program to test self-driving ride-hail in major cities across the U.S., and the North Carolina Department of Transportation launched autonomous shuttles to enhance efficiency and safety in mass transit.
Autonomous vehicle deployment is not just about the technology itself, but the ways we integrate it into our communities to enhance safety and revitalize how we move around. In 2022, we’ll continue to see innovators develop technologies and platforms that ensure AVs are a success when they’re finally on our roads and fully embedded within our transit systems.
Test Before Deploying: Benefits Of Simulation Tools
As we prepare for these innovations to enter our communities, it is critical that city leaders and transportation companies ensure the right plans and investments are in place. Given the diverse, ever-changing needs of riders, deploying new transportation technology cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. For a successful rollout of on-demand services, EVs, AVs, micromobility and more, simulation software is critical to accurately estimating costs, identifying commute patterns, predicting outcomes and optimizing services.
The pandemic emphasized the importance of demand-response capabilities, and simulation tools help transit operators stay nimble and prepared for any scenario. For example, infrastructure engineering company Bentley Systems recently acquired mobility visualization tools to enhance the use of digital twins for smarter transportation planning. This is the level of innovation needed to be successful with transit deployments in 2022 and beyond. Tech providers must ensure the data they provide is easily accessible and transparent, therefore allowing users to analyze transportation trends and effectively inform future roll-out strategies.
As we overcome Covid-19 challenges, innovative technologies will help rebuild our transportation systems and march us toward a more resilient, sustainable and equitable future. However, transit agencies and city leaders cannot do it alone. By collaborating with tech innovators and industry thought leaders, we’ll soon see an influx of next-generation technologies entering our cities to improve freedom of movement.