It’s hard to miss the irony in the fact that Europe’s leading electric and autonomous vehicle conference takes place in Killarney, Co. Kerry - a town widely known for its quaint horse and carriages. Yet there I was last week pulling into the carpark of a tech mobility conference behind a pony.
The nascent motor vehicle industry borrowed the term ‘horsepower’ from traditional animal transportation as a means of measuring engine capacity. It was natural to compare the capability of a motor vehicle to it’s equivalent in horses. But this enduring legacy will soon be put to pasture. The conversation amongst OEMs is all about Level 3 or Level 4 or Level 5 autonomy. And it’s not about how or could or what if, it’s about the where and the when.
Autonomous vehicles have been grabbing headlines for decades, with journalists feasting on technological breakthroughs and easily whipped speculation about the impact of driverless cars on virtually everything. However, as is the natural order of technological advancement- the future eventually arrives. Indeed, AVs are very much a reality today, and you don't need to attend a tech mobility conference to see them. Order a Lyft in Las Vegas and you’re as likely to be collected by an AV robo taxi as you are a traditional car.
Or why not head to Jaguar Land Rover’s automotive research centre in Co. Clare? In a pitch reminiscent of futurist fiction-ville films Stepford Wives and Downsizing, or Margaret Atwood’s recent dystopian novel The Heart Goes Last, JLR opened Electronomous by presenting their roadmap for creating a fully connected AV hub in Shannon. Apparently, the West of Ireland provides a perfect test bed for Avs due to its challenging driving conditions. If they can get it right there, they can get it right anywhere.
Other presentations focused on specific aspects of AV technology - weighing up different types of sensors, for example, or showcasing innovations in IoT data feedback compressing. What becomes clear pretty quickly is the need for collaboration and for the integration of bespoke products into an AV rather than a single owner manufacturer developing all parts.
Another thing made clear is the sense that the ‘time is now’. To date, AV technology has been something to invest in. Now that the frontier ship of R&D is reaching green pastures it’s time to start setting up shop. The most interesting aspect of Electronomous for me were discussions from companies like KPMG around how to monetize this technology.
This opens the conversation up to people and culture and cities, into the space of ‘mobility’. Demand, of course, is the steering wheel. Electronomous answers the demand for information sharing and thought leadership on EV and AV technology and markets.
The reason there are so many horses and carriages in Killarney is due to the tourist demand for the classic Killarney sightseeing experience - and since this experience is about evoking traditional pastoralism it’s unlikely to be replaced by AV tours anytime soon!
So, what do people want from transport? It’s probably easier to start with what they don’t. Car manufacturers are more than aware that the demand for private car ownership is in decline. I lost count of the number of presenters who referred to rapidly depleting application rates for driving licenses for under 25s. Car ownership is no longer cool. Instead, people are choosing bike and scooter schemes, subscription models.rideshare and alternative modes of transport.
What goes on outside the doors of a tech summit can often be more revealing than the prophesizing taking place inside. Leaving the conference on Day 1 I met Will, a local wedding photographer hired by the NICE venue to capture the event. Without knowing what the conference was about he showed up for his days' work on his electrically modified mountain bike with a one-wheeler on his back. He spent €6,500 on a second hand Tesla battery which gives him roughly 300km per charge - more than enough to get him around the Ring of Kerry. Taking inspiration from the entrepreneurship at Electronomous. He told me that next year he will be coming to the conference as an attendee and would have 100 modified bikes to sell.
Safe, convenient, sustainable, smart, flexible, reliable, affordable, enjoyable experiences are what people want from transport today. eScooter start-up Bird wraps lots of these up together with a mission to ‘make cities more liveable’. Their rapid growth since setting up 18 months ago is testament to these new transport appetites. A whopping 5% of the population of Paris tried out a Bird scooter during its first two weeks operating in the city.
Business people need to take note. The opportunities in mobility are huge. And while the technical developments in EV and AV have been driven by global corporations, the business of mobility is very much local. So, it’s worth asking yourself - who’s owning mobility in your local area? Could you?
It’s time to think differently about how we move people and goods. AVs may not be in situ just yet, but there’s zero doubt they’re coming. And while financial barriers to entry may prevent AV operations springing up organically, driverless cars are just one piece of the mobility pie. These are exciting times.