Traffic jams are every driver and passengers’ worst nightmare. The answer is not more roads but an integrated transportation network that uses real-time data to optimises personal mobility on a massive scale, writes Jeff Nemeth. Photo: Paballo Thekiso.

Johannesburg - The Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry recently hosted the Future of Mobility conference in honour of Ford Motor Company executive chairman Bill Ford.

In an insightful address on the future of mobility, Ford illuminated his long-term vision, not only for smart cars, but smart cities and smart infrastructure. I was so inspired that I felt compelled to reflect on these powerful words.

It is an exciting time for Ford as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Mustang – the world’s most iconic car. When it first launched, it captured the passion, optimism and youthful energy of its time. It continues to do so today and Dubai, one of the most vibrant places on earth, is in a similar phase as one of the world’s newest cities.

At a TED Conference in 2011, Bill Ford delivered a clear, perhaps surprising, message: we can’t keep making and selling automobiles the way we always have. The current industry model will not work everywhere. What happens when the number of vehicles on the road doubles, triples or even quadruples?

RISING TO THE OCCASION

The auto industry has often been cited as a major and unrepentant polluter. But our industry is loaded with talent and has a global footprint: we have the scale to make a difference. We have to rise to the occasion, rather than shrink in the face of it. With new technology, we are improving fuel economy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our products. Clean transportation in this lifetime is a possibility.

We are developing alternative powertrains that will make cars affordable in every sense of the word – economically, socially and environmentally.

There are almost 7 billion people in the world. Within our lifetime, that number will grow to about 9 billion. We also expect we will be living more closely together. Some reports predict that by 2025 more than half the world’s population will live in megacities of 10 million residents or more.

When we look at population growth in terms of vehicles, the problem becomes even more pronounced. There are about 1 billion vehicles on the roads worldwide. But with more people and greater global prosperity, that number is expected to double, and possibly double again, by 2050.

This will create “global gridlock” on a scale the world has never seen. Even while cars are getting cleaner, a traffic jam with no emissions is still a traffic jam.

TRAFFIC JAMS ON THE RISE

In South Africa, traffic congestion is on the rise. According to the latest Traffic Index study by multinational car navigation company Tom Tom, on average and across all major cities, peak traffic increases travel time by 21 percent.

The highest congestion is in Cape Town, with 27 percent, Johannesburg, 25 percent, and East London, 22 percent.

Yet traffic jams are just a symptom. While inconvenient, the bigger issue is how the global gridlock will stifle economic growth. It will limit our ability to conduct commerce and to keep economies moving.

The answer is not more roads. As with “smartphones” the term “smart car” is becoming a catch phrase. Cars and trucks today are being built with increasingly more powerful microprocessors.

We are equipping cars and trucks with new technologies that improve the driving experience, guide you to your destination, manage the car’s functions and keep you and your passengers entertained.

SMART, CONNECTED ROADS NEEDED

Along with smart cars, we also need to build smart roads, smart parking, smart public transportation systems and more. In addition, we need to connect them all using wireless telecoms. When you link the vehicle to the world around it, you begin to attack global gridlock.

To keep traffic moving, we need an integrated transportation network that uses real-time data to optimise personal mobility on a massive scale.

Some work in this area is already happening. Masdar City, in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, for instance, uses driverless electric cars that communicate with one another and travel beneath the city streets with pedestrian walkways above.

Imagine what is possible when our cars begin talking to each other and the roadways and networks around them. The systems that we use today to bring entertainment into the vehicle and help us with directions are the same systems that will help us create a smart vehicle network.

What if there is a pothole in the road ahead? Your car could be warned and you could steer clear, eliminating the potential for damage. At the same time, the information is passed to road maintenance officials and a repair crew is dispatched. Delays are avoided and problems are fixed in less time.

SENSORS FOR PARKING BAYS

One of the priorities in our blueprint for mobility is not about what happens when a car is moving. It is about what happens when it stops; the simple, frustrating act of finding a parking space.

Recent data show that about 7 percent of drivers in San Francisco were able to drive directly to an open parking space. The remaining 93 percent took between two to 20 times longer. University of California, Los Angeles found that up to 74 percent of city congestion is caused by drivers looking for parking. It is a huge waste of time and energy. And it will only get worse.

What if cars are linked to the roadways and can monitor the parking environment? What if we installed sensors in each parking spot? Or used the technology in cars to collect data on open parking spaces and load that data up into the cloud so any driver could find an open spot? Or even use autonomous driving to park your car for you at a nearby parking facility, and bring it back to you when you are ready to go?

EXOTIC MATERIALS FOR NORMAL CARS

Another issue is that with more cars on the streets and energy consumption a serious issue, demands for efficiency will change what cars are made of. Materials like carbon fibre, currently the stuff of race cars and multimillion-rand exotics, will find their way into mainstream cars.

What defines car “ownership” or, rather, “access” to a vehicle will change, too. In congested urban environments, we will see more peer-to-peer applications and “on-demand” transportation networks. In the Middle East, on-demand services such as Uber are taking off in Dubai and other cities. People are looking at new ways to get where they need to go as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Finally, the act of driving itself will change. “Autonomous” driving, vehicles that drive themselves, will help reduce traffic delays. This technology will also improve road safety; a significant issue in developing countries.

As technology quickly evolves, we must push ourselves to look for new opportunities to solve bigger issues. This is the next challenge before us. We must find ways that mobility can improve the human condition.

It is time to stretch our imaginations and set our goals higher. It is time to knock down some new brick walls. In doing so, we will preserve and enhance our incredible freedom of mobility, and the quality of our lives. -Business Report

Jeff Nemeth is president and chief executive of the Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa.