The Future of Mobility (A Panel at Innovfest Unbound)

On my trip to Singapore in May, I was invited to host a panel on “The Future of Intelligent Mobility” at Innovfest Unbound. I was particularly excited to host it for two reasons. First, I was interested in contrasting the Asian context on future mobility, after spending 7 months studying the U.S. context; Second, I was given autonomy to curate the panel’s members and direction. The panelists were people I admire deeply, having known or worked with them prior.

We covered topics ranging from the future of the mobility industry, who should run and regulate mobility marketplaces, the impact of autonomous vehicles, and the strategic advantage of working in Singapore. 
An introduction to the panelists from left to right (I’m sad I didn’t get a better pic of the panellists looking at the camera! This one was taken by a friend in the audience).

Innovfest

  1. Feng Yuan Liu, Director of Data Science at Govtech. Feng Yuan’s interest in transportation analytics was sparked when he worked in the Land Transport Authority. He has since built out an incredible team that serves the data science needs of the Singapore Government. Feng Yuan is interested in how digital technologies enable transportation systems to become evolutionary and ground-up – essentially an exercise in building community – compared to traditional centrally planned, static, fixed lines. Feng Yuan’s team launched a crowd-sourced mobility service, Beeline, a couple of years ago.
  2. Doug Parker, Chief Operating Officer of Nutonomy, a self-driving car company started in Singapore, which is now also testing in Boston. Nutonomy’s mission is to drive the shared cars of tomorrow, and to make transportation as safe and efficient as possible.
  3. Nick Jachowski, Chief Data Officer of SWAT, a start-up that offers on-demand, dynamically-routed bus services (think Uberpool/Grabshare, but for high occupancy vehicles). Its mission is to move the most amount of people with the least amount of vehicles for the greatest public good. Its underlying technologies are mobility optimization and dynamic routing.
  4. Xinwei Ngiam, Director of Strategy at Grab, Southeast Asia’s premier ride sharing company. Xinwei works on “zero to one” projects in Grab, such as GrabHitch and Grabshuttle, where there were no previous business models. Grab’s goal is to provide many different mobility options so that in dense urban cities like Singapore, people will no longer see the need to own a car.

Sharing the key insights with you here.

Part 1: Future of the Mobility Market

  1. The mobility market is in a phase of “a thousand flowers blooming”, as new entrants vie for a piece of the pie, and incumbents seek to transform themselves. Some have estimated that it will be a $5 Trillion market over the next 5 years. What is the future of the market for mobility services? Will there be some sort of saturation and consolidation?

Xin Wei (Grab): The truth is that there are as many business models as there are use cases. We will see many more companies come up. For example, bike sharing is big in China will hit our shores. Some will succeed, many will fail. But overall this is very good for the consumer. We should allow as many different options and use cases to be tested out as possible.

The truth is that there are as many business models as there are use cases.

Doug (Nutonomy): At least for autonomous vehicles, there is lots of room for new players who can work on research and experimentation, as many issues have not been solved.

I would say that the future of the industry lies in partnerships, not consolidation. Nutonomy’s vision is to drive the shared cars of tomorrow. To do this, we are partnering with Peugot (who will supply the cars) and Grab, (which has expertise in car-sharing). There are two other car-sharing partners which Nutonomy has not revealed.

  1. If we have lots of new mobility options, what happens to the commuter’s experience? Will it become increasingly fragmented?

Feng Yuan (Govtech): Seamlessness from the commuter’s perspective is key. We must remember that transportation is a “derived demand” – a commuter’s ultimate demand is to get to a place, not to ride a vehicle. So what people want is the seamless transport experience. If we do it well, people will be willing to move away from the notion of personal car ownership.

We must remember that transportation is a “derived demand” – a commuter’s ultimate demand is to get to a place, not to ride a vehicle. So what people want is the seamless transport experience.

The whole idea of integration and seamless transport is not new in Singapore. It has been baked into the psyche of Singapore’s transport planners. You currently use an EZ link card on both the trains and buses. Other cities have different tickets for different modes. 

What is interesting now is the blurring of lines between private and public transport, and the need to integrate the experience between the two. 

Traditionally, the Government has provided public transport infrastructure in the form of new rail lines and bus stops. Now, we have to think about the digital infrastructure that will allow the mobility ecosystem to thrive.

Traditionally, the Government has provided public transport infrastructure in the form of new rail lines and bus stops. Now, we have to think about the digital infrastructure that will allow the mobility ecosystem to thrive.

To achieve seamlessness between different modes, it is important that there is an open platform which allows different players to integrate. We also need to enable data and information sharing between players, to enable seamlessness. When we launched Beeline, we designed it such that all APIs in Beeline are open. This allows a coordination point for systems to integrate around.

Doug (Nutonomy): In the future, there will be many different providers of mobility services plugged into platforms like Grab or Googlemaps. Using a single platform, people can pick their options based on waiting and commute time, for example. Nutonomy’s question is how we can get a fair share of market – we believe that autonomous vehicles will allow us to scale up our services quickly, and that will give us an advantage.

Xinwei (Grab): Some people call this a “Mobility Marketplace”.

Feng Yuan, do you think Google or the Government should build this marketplace? Once you have a marketplace, new liability issues emerge. For example, if someone sells an illegal service on eBay, what are eBay’s liabilities? This surfaces new issues for the Government.

Feng Yuan (Govtech): The Government is happy to allow the private sector to innovate. But from our perspective, what is important is whether it will be a truly open platform, where open competition takes place. The idea of a marketplace is to allow people to plug into it easily. It cannot be closed off.

Issues around marketplaces will evolve. In the early stages of eBay, there were questions about liability too, but those are resolved. We willl tackle the issues as they come. The question is what is the value of marketplace and who will be the one to drive it. We are keen to see how we can encourage a mobility marketplace but are still exploring the options.

What is important is whether it will be a truly open platform, where open competition takes place.

Part 2: The Future and Impact of Autonomous Vehicles

  1. Let’s turn our attention to the topic of autonomy. Doug, tell us about Nutonomy’s next steps, now that you are testing in Singapore and Boston.

Doug (Nutonomy): What many autonomous vehicle companies are working on does not look like true urban driving like we see in the One North test circuit, where cars have to queue, bypass a construction site, and deal with jay-walkers. Nutonomy’s technology is uniquely suited to urban driving. We believe the best use case is urban taxis which can drive anywhere in an urban environment.

Singapore is a unique first market because of the strong Government support, geography and people. Boston may have the most complicated driving scenario in America. For one, it has the highest insurance claims. In the future we want to test with more cultures and road conditions, to ensure that our software is global and takes into account cultural information. Then we will scale across the globe with partners such as Peugot and Grab.

  1. You mentioned the importance of cultural information. Given different cultural contexts, is self driving technology scalable across borders?

Doug (Nutonomy): That is a great question. In Singapore, drivers are attentive, but margins between cars are slim. In the US, drivers are less precise, but margins are wide. We need to learn market by market. One of the hardest pieces is negotiating with the human. At One-North there is a junction where people jaywalk (cross illegally). Just the other day, a group of teenagers started playing with the car – stepping forward and backwards in front of the car to get it to stop and go. They did not stop until we gestured to them. It is not a scalable solution, but it is part of every day urban driving so it is important for us to tackle it.

  1. Nick and Xinwei, your companies work on the commuter-facing portion of mobility services. Tell us how your business model will evolve with the advent of autonomous vehicles?

Nick (SWAT): We designed our company for the autonomous future. We started off by thinking: what is the transport landscape going to look like 10 years from now? What type of tech will support that future, but work right now?

If you think about it, all of our cars today are autonomous. Drivers are in the car independently and autonomously making decisions about where to go, and when. This is a non-optimizable system. The future of autonomous cars is that you can combine all the vehicles into a hive mind, and they can work together to solve the problems your city has. Autonomy at the vehicle level allows us to make transportation efficient for both the individual and the city.

The future of autonomous cars is that you can combine all the vehicles into a hive mind, and they can work together to solve the problems your city has.

While what we are doing now is providing dynamically routed buses, SWAT’s underlying technologies – mobility optimization and dynamic routing, will form the basis of optimizing autonomous vehicles at the city-level.

Xinwei: I would be lying if I said we set up the company with autonomy in mind. A few years ago when Grab was established, the idea of hailing a car with a mobile phone was strange, which shows how quickly technology evolves.

My guess is that in self driving, public acceptance is going to lag behind technology readiness. We are going to start by using it in smaller, more acceptable cases and then transitioning to widespread uses. The first few use cases will be for remote locations where drivers don’t go because they don’t get a return fare, or serving the transportation needs of rehabilitation or old folks’ homes. These niche use cases are not well-served by current business models, but the economics could work with an autonomous vehicle. We will start there, and slowly we can move towards a fully autonomous future where the efficiencies Nick talked about will come to fruition.

The first few use cases will be for remote locations where drivers don’t go because they don’t get a return fare, or serving the transportation needs of rehabilitation or old folks’ homes.

Part 3: Why Singapore? 1

1. We have five minutes left. To close us off, I want to ask everyone: “why Singapore?” – is this a strategic market for you? How does it fit into your international expansion plans?

Doug: Three-quarters of our team is in Singapore and most of our fleet is in Singapore. One of the reasons is great tech talent, for example, coming out of the Singapore-MIT alliance. Many of our robotics experts came from there. Computer science talent is also strong. Second, there is clear government support and no regulatory blocks. Third, it has a great marketplace for ride-hailing because of the high taxi penetration. Fourth, it has great roads to test out autonomous cars.

One of the reasons is great tech talent, for example, coming out of the Singapore-MIT alliance.

Nick: When we were setting up our company we studied many markets, but they all paled in comparison to Singapore. The first reason is that Singapore has the lowest car penetration in any major developed country. Less than 10% of individuals own cars, the vast majority take public transport or taxis. If we want to launch some sort of new mobility technology, there is no better place than Singapore to give it a try.

The first reason is that Singapore has the lowest car penetration in any major developed country. Less than 10% of individuals own cars, the vast majority take public transport or taxis.

Besides the high density of commuters, there is also a high cost differential between taxi and bus ($1.50 for a bus, and $20-$30 for a taxi depending on your journey). It suggests there is a massive gap that people aren’t filling, and a big canvas that’s open for companies to come in and provide more solutions for commuters.

Feng Yuan: Nick makes a great point about the economics of density. In transportation, the economics of density matter more than economics of scale. I would say that Singapore is a great place for two reasons. First, Singaporeans have high expectations and demand for quality. We once asked ourselves what is a reasonable punctuality score for buses? In some cities, 20 mins is acceptable. In Japan, 1 min late is too late. Singapore is more like Japan because of our high stress urban environment.

Second, there is a big commitment from the Government with Smart Nation Initiative. There is a strong call to action to use tech and data to improve mobility. We can move faster as a small city, and there alignment from Government on that.

Xinwei: Singapore is very different from Grab’s other markets, one prime example being cash versus cashless penetration. But it is important to us for several reasons.

First, the standard of public transport is so high that if you want to deliver something people use, you need to exceed that standard. It is an aspirational benchmark which we can then apply to other markets.

Second, there is a lot of regulatory clarity. For example, when I was working on Grabhitch, we had clarity on how many carpool rides each driver could give a day. We also introduced fixed-fare taxis, and without Government support we would not have been able to do that.

Finally, Singapore is probably one of the only cities in the world where the newest technologies can be tested out. The Government has an open stance towards these technologies. Singapore is a lab and incubator for things we can see the rest of the region and the world working towards.

Singapore is a lab and incubator for things we can see the rest of the region and the world working towards.

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End

 

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