José Viegas: The transportation sector is primarily being shaped by factors associated with climate change, which is a threat to our way of life. Closely connected to this is the fact that many cities suffer from poor air quality, which is largely related to transportation. On the plus side, however, traffic safety technologies are also shaping the transportation sector. For instance, driver assistance systems are increasingly helping us to avoid accidents. The transformation is also being driven by the digital networking of vehicles and people as better information leads to optimized routing. As always, competition is helping to speed up this development, because companies are always on the lookout for the next innovation.
The Future of Mobility
Heading for a World without Privately Owned Cars
Roads are congested, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are rising, and the Paris climate targets are being undermined. Although the targets call for transportation to be decarbonized worldwide, achieving this goal will be a tall order, given the fact that the number of vehicles is increasing. How can electric mobility and alternative fuels such as hydrogen help? What are the major obstacles facing the transportation sector? Find out in this interview with renowned transportation expert Prof. José Viegas, who was the Secretary-General of the International Transport Forum (ITF) at the OECD in Paris from 2012 to August 2017.
Professor Viegas, in your view, what forces are driving the transformation of the transportation sector?
What are the primary obstacles to reduced carbon output in the sector?
Viegas: As is almost always the case, the biggest obstacle is the status quo. Over the 20th century we adjusted our cities and even our lifestyles to the private car. Consequently, there are companies that cling to old business models, people who don’t want to change their habits, and the fact that so many things have to be changed simultaneously to make the transportation transition possible. By its very nature, this generates resistance.
In your opinion, will we be able to overcome this resistance?
Viegas: The desire for change will definitely win out in the end. The automation of driving, electric mobility, and the digital networking of vehicles and people are opening up opportunities that nobody will be able to refuse, not only because of the problems caused by CO2 emissions, but also because new forms of convenience will be offered.
Will digital networking, in your view, help to cut emissions by providing convenient ways of car pooling?
Viegas: Over the long term, all of the developments I mentioned will help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But if you want to reduce the CO2 burden as fast as possible, you will also have to promote the shared use of vehicles. Nothing reduces CO2 as much as increasing the number of occupants per vehicle.
Many drivers aren’t exactly thrilled by this vision.
Viegas: That's true. But you have to think of the potential benefits. For example, if tomorrow’s driverless taxis still transport as few people as our privately owned cars do today, the total number of vehicle kilometers will double. The solution is therefore to turn mobility not only into an individual service but into a shared one. If we do that, we won’t need privately owned cars.
What are the major advantages of vehicle sharing for individuals and cities?
Viegas: When I was at the ITF, I conducted a simulation study of transportation in Lisbon. What we found was that even without expanding the subway system, if private vehicles were shared around the clock, the same level of mobility could be achieved with only about four percent of the current number of automobiles. Vehicle sharing costs only one fourth as much as taking a taxi. It also reduces CO2 emissions and traffic jams, improves air quality, and increases the amount of living space. The benefits are even greater with demand-responsive buses, which cost only one third as much as today’s local public transport systems.
Are you advising politicians and companies to move in this direction?
Viegas: Of course. I even encourage them to go a step further. During a decarbonization project at the ITF, we used the data sets of around 160 cities with more than one million inhabitants each to advise several municipalities about what would happen if privately owned vehicles were replaced to varying degrees by public transportation systems. This advice clearly provides very valuable help for making decisions.
Everybody’s talking about electric mobility. But can’t hydrogen also help to decarbonize transportation?
Viegas: Hydrogen-powered vehicles basically run on electricity too, but batteries use a chemical process, whereas fuel cells us a more physical one. The problem here is that hydrogen production is still very energy-intensive. Once this problem is solved, I think that hydrogen drives will become the system of choice for vehicles because they have the highest energy density.
In addition to facilitating vehicle sharing, in what ways are digital systems helping to support decarbonization?
Viegas: They are playing a big role, of course. This interview is a great example of that, because it’s being conducted over the Internet. Digital sysstems enable us to interact almost anywhere without having to meet in person. Apps enable people to share automobiles, and digitally connected vehicles save fuel by warning drivers of traffic jams and obstacles.
Despite these developments, the number of vehicles with combustion engines is still increasing dramatically, particularly in emerging economies such as China and India.
Viegas: This is a difficult situation from both a political and a technological standpoint. We can’t prevent people in developing countries and emerging economies from striving for prosperity. For most people, that includes having a car. That’s why we should help these countries think about how they can limit their CO2 emissions in spite of rising numbers of vehicles. China, for example, is doing this by specifically promoting the sale of electric cars.
What role do companies such as Siemens, which is a member of the ITF’s Corporate Partner-ship Board, play in this process?
Viegas: They play an important role by helping us to identify topics that we should study. For example, we might examine how regulatory frameworks should be organized so that innovative companies, including mobility providers such as Lyft and Uber, can responsibly access the market. In another example, we recently worked with businesses, governments, and trade unions to study autonomously driving trucks that will not only save transportation costs, cut emissions, and make roads safer in the near future, but also cost many driver jobs. Together, we developed a concept for managing this transition.
And Siemens specifically?
Viegas: Siemens is a recent, but highly active member of our Corporate Partnership Board. It is working with us on three ongoing projects. Together, we’re examining the “shared use city,” which focuses on the implications for infrastructure and pricing of innovative urban mobility services. Second, we’re looking at how safety and security can be ensured in a world of automated transport. And third, we are examining how blockchain and similar technologies may affect tormorrow’s transportation systems.
A native of Portugal, José Viegas was the Secretary-General of the International Transport Forum (ITF) at the OECD from 2012 to August 2017. The ITF acts as a transportation-focused think tank and a platform for global policy dialogue in the transport sector. Before his appointment to the ITF, Viegas was a Professor of Transport at the Technical University of Lisbon. There he served, among other things, as Director of MIT Portugal’s Transport Systems focus area and founded TRANSPORTNET, a group of eight European universities that conduct extensive research in transportation systems. As chairman of the consulting firm TIS.pt, Viegas has advised governments and international institutions such as the World Bank and the European Commission. In 2016 Viegas initiated a five-year research project at the ITF for studying the decarbonization of transportation. In addition to scientists, international politicians, NGO’s, and businesses are also involved in the project.