Mobility as a Service is the one of the current ‘darlings’ of the ITS sector. But is the concept wholly new? Like many other trends within the mobility sector, there is the opportunity to learn more, and more quickly, if only the net is cast more widely. Jason Barnes writes
We have seen various concepts and application areas come into and out of vogue in the ITS sector over the years. Some have been quietly assimilated, or else have quietly assimilated traditional ITS — ‘traditional’ in the sense of pure roadway operations. An example might be Homeland Security, which has seen the public safety/security and traffic management sectors become common bedfellows.
We have seen others develop independently, and either accept ITS’s offer of closer relations, or else force ITS’s hand in terms of some form of coming together. An example might be Smart Cities, together with associated concepts such as e-payment and ticketing, mass-market communications protocols such as Cellular IoT, Big Data and so on. These things were and are going to happen whether ITS existed or not, but make perfect sense in terms of adoption.
ITS continues to take strides forward. We are seeing the beginnings of the influences of several of what many call ‘disruptive technologies’. Although these may bring about profound changes, it is worth considering whether ‘disruptive’ is the correct adjective to use as, far from being unplanned, the use of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs), for instance, has been very carefully considered and they are the product of a prolonged and tightly structured release to market.
However, although we stand on the verge of significant deployments such as Cooperative ITS (C-ITS, that next generational step that will bring CAVs into the fold), it is worth stopping to consider whether the terrestrial mobility sector — if we might use that broader term and include modalities which even now maintain a most passing of relationships with road-oriented transport and travel — is still not casting its net widely enough. The contention is that, were it to do so, we could accelerate deployments and even end up with solutions of far greater intrinsic capability and worth.
Looking more widely
To illustrate this, CAVs — and in particular autonomous vehicles — are perhaps a good place to start. Whether they be ‘disruptive’, a ‘paradigm shift’ or some other form of description, they are regarded within the ITS sector as something wholly new and yet, if you step outside ITS, the underlying concept is decades old.
Vehicle-to-X (V2X) — whether ‘X’ be another vehicle, roadside infrastructure or a smart device — is just another form of Machine-to-Machine (M2M), and M2M has been around in the manufacturing and logistics sectors in some form or another for the better part of 50 years. In automated factories which make complex goods, the machining and conveying plant communicate with each other to let each other know when they are needed, and to orchestrate and concertina their movements to allow for tool changes, manual interventions and so forth. In ports and logistics centres, vehicles already routinely ply their driverless trades. To many outside the ITS sector, therefore, V2X could actually seem quite quaint.
That is not to deny the realities or the efforts of those involved. Sterile and controlled industrial or tightly bounded and sparsely populated logistics environments do not have to take account of the near-anarchy which can exist in some of the outside world; V2X and C-ITS will in many ways have to cope with far greater levels of complexity and stakeholder (non-)compliance.
Nevertheless, there is clearly some learning that can be done by stepping outside of the accepted space. That this is so is evidenced by what is now happening with future autonomous ships.
Maritime vessels operate in wholly different circumstances to cars, trucks, buses and so on. At sea, a ‘near miss’ can involve vessels that are several miles or kilometres apart. That changes in and around ports, however, where the notifiable distances reduce to tens of or even single yards or metres, and become rather more recognisable from a land-based perspective. Recognising this, the research projects that are looking at the development of un-crewed ships are actively inviting those with the relevant experience to detail the work that has already gone into autonomous vehicles. The maritime projects’ managers acknowledge that although the terrestrial solutions may not provide a perfect technological fit, there is probably at least something to be gained and that there is little or nothing to be gained by trying to wholly re-invent the wheel.
If one were asked to select the main areas of interest within ITS at present — those beyond the long-standing strategic aims of improving safety, minimising emissions and reducing congestion — then arguably CAVs and Mobility as a Service (MaaS) are the two front-runners.
The premise of MaaS is a simple one: the seamless, infinitely adaptable delivery of mobility, together with associated information and payment services, across all modes of transport. All of this is to take place in real time or predictively, wirelessly, securely, and with the end-user being unaware of the potentially huge number of behind-the-scenes stakeholders and facilitators. A simple premise, then, conceals a complex inter-weaving of different technologies, platforms, protocols and public/private-sector entities into a single front-end that is extremely simple for the consumer to use or interface with.
MaaS, like V2X/C-ITS, is regarded by many, or is being portrayed, as something entirely new. And yet, there are already distinct shades of MaaS discernible around the world, both within the ITS sector and without. Countries such as Singapore and Portugal have effectively been MaaS-enabled for some years, although they had not adopted the more recently arrived MaaS moniker. Finland’s capital, Helsinki, and the UK’s West Midlands region are also making very positive progress towards enablement.
But if we look outside ITS, to the wider terrestrial mobility sector mentioned earlier and beyond, we can again see that what the ITS sector regards as new is in many ways already very well-established. Businesses such as Trivago and Hotels.com already offer fully featured MaaS-type services, as do the major airlines, includibnng budget brands.
Making an online booking will lead to prompts relating to vehicle or taxi/concierge hire, bus and rail options, restaurant bookings, tickets for the theatre and other experiences, and so on. In many cases, it takes a conscious decision and a swipe/mouse-click to say ‘no’ to the numerous things on offer.
The non-terrestrial mobility and service providers have already cottoned on to MaaS in a big way. The motive may be profit-driven — as distinct from the public sector’s more service-driven influences — but the underlying theme of convenience to the user is the same. So, does the ITS sector in turn have to try to reinvent the wheel, or can it plug into some of the expertise and solutions already out there? Moreover, given that an aim of MaaS is to have a single platform for apps, much like Apple’s App Store or Google Play, is there the opportunity to constructively restrain or consolidate further the numbers of platforms used by those searching for mobility and other options? It would appear that we could engage in some useful blurring of the boundaries between the public and private sectors’ ambitions, and between public and for-profit services.
Levels of MaaS
MaaS can borrow further. One of the key enablers of CAVs has been the Society of Automotive Engineering’s (SAE’s) outlining of a series of levels of vehicle autonomy. These have been adopted universally and set out clear definitions of a roadmap from wholly unassisted to completely hands-off driving.
A similar ‘Levels of MaaS’ (LoM) roadmap would provide MaaS stakeholders with a common framework within which to promote communication effectiveness and foster smoother discussions that will focus the energy spent by each stakeholder on the emerging issues and shared needs, while focusing on the end user. It could even have a similar number of stages, from zero to six, as the SAE’s roadmap for CAVs.
With the levels of service outlined by the SAE for CAVs, one does not have to know the details and underpinning technologies. The same holds true for LoM. Nevertheless, the framework provides a common understanding of the roadmap of how stakeholders – public and private, government and technology providers — can describe their long-term goals. Everyone can have a clear vision of where they are on the path to a fully automated MaaS reality.
Because it is still so new, it is a real challenge to provide a business model for all MaaS stakeholders. This is precisely the point at which clarity is needed, and should be fostered. LoM provides that clarity.
Jason Barnes is senior writer and editor at MaaS-A, the Mobility as a Service Association, co-founded by Jack Opiola and Tim McGuckin.