30 Jun 17

Finally, a business model for flying cars

The future is like the horizon: constantly approaching, but never arriving. In mobility it sometimes feels like that – massive change is predicted, but always a decade or so ahead. And indeed, Frost & Sullivan's 9th annual Intelligent Mobility event in London had plenty of amazing forecasts, conveniently tucked away into distant 2030. But the day, dedicated this year to digital transformation, also showed that by focusing on the horizon, you might miss the how the landscape is already changing right now. “Even five years ago, this would have sounded impossible”, said one speaker – his company is launching the first commercially available flying car in... 2018. 

Intelligent Mobility is where the automotive and fleet industries come to meet their future. The event is always jam-packed, both with attendees and speakers – more than 40, across 6 panels, from OEMs and startups; and true to its forward-looking nature this year it had its own app, allowing the audience to vote on key questions raised by the panels. 

iPhone birthday
Coincidentally, the event took place on the 10th birthday of the iPhone, and smartphones perhaps more than any other single product category have changed the automotive business and will continue to do so. More than one speaker waved their device at the audience, demonstrating the crucial interface between their product or service, and the car and its driver and fleet manager. 

The arrival of 5G technology by the end of this decade will allow data transmission at 1GB/sec, and could prove as game-changing as the iPhone. Other projections, just a bit further down the road: fully autonomous cars by 2030, the cost of last-mile delivery dropping to less than $1, and B2C automotive sales booming to $4.3 trillion by 2025. 
But the future, to coin a phrase from William Gibson, is already here – it's just unevenly distributed. Said keynote speaker Sarwant Singh: “I spoke to someone from BMW just now. They told me they had sold their first car of the day at 5AM this morning, via their online portal”.

IoT platform
Another of his observations that was borne out during the day: “Future consumers will think of the car as an IoT (Internet of Things) platform. So, platforms will be the commodities of the future”. However, those business models still need some work. OEMs are all busy growing their own new mobility ecosystems, but – as one speaker observed with some emphasis, “if we want to make this industry successful, at some point we'll need to stop individual projects, and move ahead in a single, concerted, industry-wide campaign”.

Some other common threads throughout the presentations: how carsharing and ridesharing will improve the low usage rate of cars (about 5% today), and how automated driving will reduce their high fatality rate (1.25 million people die every year in traffic, with around 80% of fatalities caused by human error). 

Desirable mobility
The first panel of the day zoomed in on OEM visions of the future. Sebastian Peck presented InMotion, JLR's Mobility as a Service platform. Showing a picture of a plastic shopping bag and a Louis Vuitton bag side by side, he made the point that “JLR wants to turn mobility from a merely commoditised product into a highly desirable one”. 

Jörg Lamparter, head of Mobility Services at Daimler Financial Services and CEO of moovel, explained Daimler's three-tier mobility ecosystem: ridesharing (with subsidiaries car2go and Croove), ridehailing (MyTaxi, Blacklane, Flixbus) and multimodal mobility (moovel). He pointed out another recurring theme: “We have to look at mobility city by city rather than country by country. Taxis may be considered affordable in one city, and a luxury in another”.

Mark Adams of Toyota spoke about Yuko, the OEM's carsharing club that just celebrated its first birthday, but also about the steep learning curve that his company – and others – had to accept in building models that consumers both like and, crucially, return to. And he made another prediction that would pop up again and again: “In the future, the City-as-a-Customer model will become widespread”.

The Renault-Nissan Alliance – which recently added Mitsubishi – sees the future as electric, also because it prides itself as being the world's best-selling EV manufacturer, with around 470,000 units sold. But Ponz Pandikuthiran also underlined the role of technology in enhancing safety and utilisation rate. “Some time ago, Beijing experienced a ten-day, 100-km traffic jam. It was so huge that a cottage industry sprang up around it, serving the people stuck in the jam. If we don't act, that could be our future”.

In the second panel, on the digital transformation of automotive, Christoph Stadeler of Facebook drew some parallels between his company and the car industry: “Our big bets for the future are on connectivity, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. That should sound familiar to you”. Facebook wants to join forces with the industry, he said. And he already offered one bit of advice: “Manufacturers seem to focus on placing big screens in cars. That is like airplanes in the Seventies, where everyone had to watch the same movie. No, the future is Bring Your Own Device”. 

Stuart Blyde of Shell Retail admitted that his industry is on the receiving end of much of the change happening: “So our strategy is: Be courageous, adapt quickly, and engage”. As the world's largest fuel retailer, with 43,000 sites and 30 million daily customers, Shell is already thinking on how to interact with the robot cars of the future: “We have to prepare to pivot into an algorithmic world”.

Public transport
What will the mobility business models of the future look like? Panel three foresaw the rise and rise of carsharing and ridesharing, but also of ehailing and smart parking. “Private car ownership is fragmenting”, said James Molloy of Uber. “Close to 25% of London millennials do not have a driving license, for instance. Ridesharing now represents about 4% of all trips; by 2030, that will be 25%”.

Vivek Vaidya of Frost & Sullivan underlined the particularities of Asia, the world's largest mobility market: “It may not be as sexy, but the business opportunities are real, scalable and huge. Public transport is crucial to the future. Solar is huge in India. Carsharing has increased tenfold in China. But automated driving is a non-starter: everybody has a chauffeur in China. In Japan however, automated driving will be mass-marketed from 2025”.

Boyhood fantasy
On to the flying cars. Formerly the preserve of science fiction and wishful thinking, flying cars are currently being researched by 15 companies, including some pretty big and serious ones. Speaker Benny Daniel urged the audience to think of them as “3D transportation”, to fully remove the stigma of boyhood fantasy. 

Robert Dingemanse of Pal-V presented a combination car-helicopter that is ready for market introduction next year, and requires no further regulatory adjustment: “On the road, it's a car, in the air, it's a light aircraft”. 
The Pal-V is aimed at medium-distance travel between cities, while John Mohyi presented his bladeless drone, an invention that makes flying practical and safe in densely populated areas. The potential of flying cars – sorry, 3D transportation – is huge: from firefighting and ambulance services to easing congestion and applications to improve surveillance and policing.

Dragons' Den
The first panel after lunch was conceived as a Dragon's Den-type session, with five young startups pitching their product or service to the audience (including doubtlessly some very interested investors). They were:

→ Tony Lynch of Faxi, a system for corporate carsharing that gives incentives to commuters to carshare, allowing companies to save on parking space.
→ Felix Leuschner of Drover, providing MaaS for the unserved long-term market – for periods from one day to one year and beyond; as yet only in London, but with plans to expand to the rest of the UK and beyond.
→  Kaj Pyythiä of MaaS Global, providers of WHIM, a single app designed to serve any mobility need, anywhere – via pay-as-you-go or a subscription. Live in Helsinki.
→ Callum Campbell of AutoNative, a one-stop digital services provider for automotive suppliers who want to take their business to the next online level. 
→ Pavana Jain, of SHIFTMobility, using mass vehicle diagnostics data collection to facilitate fleet maintenance and management.

Advanced Tetris
A fifth panel focused on the future of freight delivery. Frank Tinschert of MAN Truck & Bus denounced the old-fashioned architecture of today's supply chains, because of the “information silos” that each link in the chain is stuck in. MAN has set up Rio as an open platform to remedy just that. And there is a great potential for logistics optimisation: “At any given time, only 30% of trucks are in motion, and when they are, 60% of their length is not used for freight. In the future, every piece of loading space will be used, like an advanced game of Tetris”.

The delivery robot roaming the halls of the Jumeirah Carlton, the hotel where the event took place, belonged to Starship Technologies. Starship, founded by the guys who brought you Google, is already using its robots to do actual deliveries (see image), and has also started up Robovan, a project with Daimler, which will see vans releasing a swarm of these bots around specific neighbourhoods. 

Innovate continuously
The final sessions of the day focused on future business models for connected and autonomous vehicles, and on the car as a diagnostic tool, continuously monitoring the vital statistics of its drivers. One of the speakers in the penultimate sessions was from Nokia, now eager to connect vehicles via its wireless infrastructure rather than people via its mobile phones.

Concluding the day, Sarwant Singh mused: “Listening to Nokia made me think: we don't make mobile phones in Europe anymore. At some point, we forgot that we need to innovate continuously. We should not let this happen in the mobility space”.

Image: Starship Technologies

Authored by: Frank Jacobs