Automated vehicles - auto industry takes the lead

This recently released report from Navigant made me think hard about the impact of who is leading advances in automation.

The report states that the big auto manufacturers are now moving from their research phases into production engineering for launch in a couple of years. An example of this is that GM has voluntarily sent a safety report to the US Federal government along with a request for permission to start real-world testing of vehicles without steering wheels from next year (2019).

The leaders chart in Navigant's report also shows is that all the hyperbole about Apple, Uber and Tesla is misplaced. Auto manufacturers are now far ahead having not only the financial capacity to run rapid development, but also the market knowledge to shape its introduction to the public.

AV Industry Leaders Chart - Navigant Research

Navigant 2017 AV leaders.jpeg

On the plus side, the advances in AV technology are clearly moving faster than many forecasted. This is great news for the development of machine learning, road safety and vehicle efficiency. On the negative, we have to look at the nature and motivations of the industry leaders. Not that tech companies are beneficent by nature, but the auto industry has grown on retailing and so will naturally favour the business they know by marketing and pricing strategies to promote sales of private AVs. 

Making AVs affordable may mean that GM, Ford, Volkswagen etc. accept loosing billions early on until a few gain market dominance through either technological break-throughs (think AVs in snow) or, less positively, through effective lobbying to reduce regulation. These losses will be an acceptable business strategy and there is no shortage of speculative investors as we see from stories about dockless bike sharing. 

If new AVs fall within reach of the average car-owning household the pessimist in me sees a series of knock-on effects.

  1. Private vehicle owners don't seem keen on peer-to-peer car sharing, so one efficiency option is doubtful.
  2. We know that vehicle ownership induces more vehicle travel and dramatically less use of alternatives.
  3. With the ownership market unchanged,  'Robo-Ubers' will be forced to fight harder for the transit dollar to turn a so-far elusive profit.
  4. Public transit services will have to reduce under less revenue and creeping privatization.
  5. Low-income people and people priced out of living downtown, will become more isolated.
  6. With more vehicle mobility and a downward spiral of public funding, it will be easy to restrict access and rights to walk and cycle. 

This does not produce the cities we are planning for. 

But the optimist in me can't shake the idea that we still have the chance to put the incredible advances in technology to positive use. To achieve this we need government to work with industries to:

  • Make brave political decisions to regulate services and instigate price controls to meet publicly debated environmental, social and economic commitments.
  • Describe and accept a new reality of sustainable auto-based mobility with an increasing role for private companies in diverse public networks.
  • Actively protect our downtowns and neighbourhoods as spaces for people.
  • Create a social safety net for personal mobility.

We can't stop private investment literally driving the future of mobility, but we can steer it before it goes on auto pilot.


Is it time TDM had an image makeover? While we cherish our custodianship of GHG reduction, health promotion and active transportation like some sort of CSR team for the transportation industry, with few exceptions, we aren't taken seriously when the big money decisions are taken.

The timing is perfect, the shift towards mobility services is creating turmoil in traditional transportation planning because never before has the threat to public transit as we know it, been so existential. City bikes, car sharing, ride-sourcing, micro-transit and ultimately automated taxis are seen by many as setting the scene for a series of adapt-or-perish decisions by transit agencies.

Consider also that within 2-3 years, multiple cities will have service providers offering monthly or pay-as-you-go contracts covering multiple modes (transportation-as-a-service or TaaS). The opportunity here is to influence the necessary legislative framework for taxation and for this revenue to flow back to the public agencies that will be providing the infrastructure, if not the services. Where there is a taxation mechanism there is an opportunity to create a tariff structure based on policy. This means TDM could become choice architects and decouple vehicle ownership from mobility by defining credits for cycling or sharing, levying premiums on solo peak time driving and designing concessions.

New terminology is already entering the lexicon, 'Integrated Mobility' and 'Mobility Management' are not necessarily new, EPOMM (European Platform on Mobility Management) has been existence since 1997, but the meaning is evolving fast. In North America especially, cities are scrambling to be 'smart' and mobility management is beginning to represent the technical rather than the behavioural aspects of transportation. TDM needs to reclaim this emerging field based on hard-earned skills in the field working between private and public agencies and adapting to all sorts of opportunities.

My hope is that soon governments will start establishing mobility watchdogs, let's use the UK phraseology and call it The Office on Mobility or OFFMOB. OFFMOB would be responsible for the taxation and financial framework necessary to manage the business of mobility. It would enact policy through taxation of these services and be able to reinvest hypothecated revenue to support research, innovation and service subsidies not likely through commercial development alone. OFFMOB could lead a root and branch review of the role and definition of public transit, creating new agencies, and placing more risk (and reward) in the private sector to operate regulated services while protecting public interest by retaining the infrastructure assets.

OFFMOB would be a place where TDM would come out of the shadows to be the real business of transportation planning in a world where transportation is in your pocket.


6:30am on a hotel shuttle to the airport for an 8am flight is when I read the check-in time advice. "Travelling to the US from Canada? We advise arriving 2.5 hours in advance of your flight". Of course, I understand that airports build in safety factors and think about peak times so I assume I am in good shape. Arriving at the Toronto Pearson Terminal 1 at 6:40am I was therefore stunned to see the line up for security, 2.5 hours seemed accurate, I began to worry.

While standing in the line, I took a deep breath and drifted off to think about airport wayfinding design. Before 9/11, the ground-side - that area outside of security - was populated by newsagents, cafes and concessions. Now architects realize that the time and stress of getting through our various layers of security have moved the enjoyment of flying and the balance of commercial space to the airside. Outside of airside, the world is all about finding check-in, processing baggage and negotiating border controls - it's more about crowd-management than experiential design. 

For the wayfinding designer, there is hence a special need to make ground-side navigation simple and unmistakeable. Visual cues are much more important than signage and maps in busy and frenetic environments where people want to follow the herd and find it difficult to stop and read. Where information is needed, it must be unmissable, paired down to the minimum to avoid misunderstanding and even so, repeated several times. 

Airside however, modern airports transform in tandem with the almost audible sigh of relief from passengers. Airside the experience begins. Now the wayfinding designer is playing negotiator between the interests of the airline to get people to the gate without delay and the interest of the airport to have people indulge in the retail therapy that goes hand in hand with the vacation spirit.

Of course, like me, not all travellers get through to airside with time to browse the scents, small leathers and books. For me, on this day, airside means gate identification, estimating the journey time and wondering if there's time for coffee en route. Here wayfinding designers must practice the careful, considered process of progressively disclosing a hierarchy of information, a bread crumb trail providing just enough information to provide confidence but not overwhelm. 

I made my flight sans coffee, but with a renewed appreciation for how wayfinding is often the unsung hero of our busy lives.

Wayfinding collector

I am willing to bet that anyone who has worked seriously in planning or designing wayfinding will sooner or later fall into the habit of taking pictures of great or terrible signs and maps. I freely admit that amongst the family pictures and landscapes of my vacation photographs are a suspiciously large number of directional signs, bus stops, maps and wayfinding ephemera. 

It is not just the endless demands of presentations and case study references that drive this collecting of examples but the endless variation in style, form, successes and more often than not, failures to communicate where you are, which way you are facing and what your options are that fascinates me. What my growing library suggests is that the seemingly simple task of navigating our cities is just as much hindered as helped by attempts to give information. 

While there are examples of utterly terrible clutter, inaccuracy and carelessness, more often than not some of the smaller details are the ones that get to me now. I cannot claim absolute authority on anything of course, especially as I am not a trained graphic designer, but some ideas have seeped into my head so solidly that when I see different direction arrows all ranged to one side of a sign, or more than five destinations stacked one on the other, I sigh inwardly.

Maps are infinitely more complex to get right than directions and so examples able to stand next to the British Ordnance Survey are hard to find. I have a bookshelf stuffed with maps collected from transit systems, tourism agencies and assorted retailers from around the world, few offer the 'glance or study' opportunities of skilled cartography . Of course, one of the reasons for this is our love affair with driving. While the Ordnance Survey was, as the name suggests, prepared for mostly unmotorized military logistics, the major growth in maps in North America at least, came about as a response to our enormous road building projects.

The needs of the driver are in many ways much simpler than those on foot or horse, gradients and landmarks become obsolete as references, tracks and other paths not accessible to the automobile disappear from relevance and the map becomes a series of wider or narrower tracks on a featureless plain between indistinct settlements and attractions. Re-building our understanding of the walkability of our environments could be greatly enhanced by better maps (IMHO) - they are expensive but so, so worth the effort.


A map fresco from the Vatican. The scale may be fanciful, but you bet the cartographer understood what it was like to walk

A map fresco from the Vatican. The scale may be fanciful, but you bet the cartographer understood what it was like to walk

Who, what is the near market?

I first encountered the idea of a near market while working at Transport for London with the cycle planning legend Rose Ades. Having created the Cycling Centre of Excellence at TfL, Rose had commissioned market research into who could be encouraged to ride more in the UK capital. The resulting study suggested a segment of about 10% who clearly intended to start cycling but had not yet done so. Their 'nearness' to the objective of increasing the number of cyclists provided a name for this group and a focus for TfL's subsequent marketing work.  I think anyone visiting Central London now would agree this strategy has helped cycling become a huge success and one that has diversified the demographic make-up on cycle routes there.

The advantage of segmentation like near markets for cycling, transit, walking or vehicle sharing, is that it allows real focus on people who have intent even if habit and conditions mean they are holding back. Narrowing down the barriers to cross makes behaviour change that little bit easier. Those with fewest barriers might only require application of a behavioural insight to nudge them into trial and from there into new behaviours. Others may find the opportunity and confidence through more structured site-based travel plans to address the remaining barriers to express a latent choice.

Near market analysis does however represent a bit of a change of mindset from traditional 'information-out' transit  marketing. Near market projects are sharply focused and require the sometimes difficult realization that many people might only change over time or with enormous effort.