The Malta Independent 22 August 2019, Thursday

Commuting in the future

George M Mangion Sunday, 3 February 2019, 08:50 Last update: about 8 months ago

Landing at Schiphol airport to attend a blockchain conference, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a fleet of all electric (Tesla) taxis waiting silently to pick up passengers. Airport authorities in Amsterdam recently decreed that emissions from conventional engines were far too high and only electric taxiswould be permitted to queue at the taxi stand.

This is not surprising since new restrictions will come into force shortly in Frankfurt when gas or diesel engine cars will not be permitted to enter the city. Such is the awareness of the health hazards of nitrogen oxides emitted from diesel engines that drivers in Germany will soon have to change their engines or buy new electric cars in order to comply.Needless to say, electric vehicles have an instrumental role in driving the transition to a low carbon economy and European cities look forward to a future dominated by them. This will certainly make it easier to live and breathe in the major cities, especially so in Malta where emissions are high.


The question is: can we afford to plan for an all-electric transition given the thousands of ageing oil burners roaming the streets.Having registered a 7.5 per cent of GDP increase in the third quarter of last year, this augurs well to afford the extra millions needed to plan how to cut emissions. The other cherry on the cake is the good news about government debt. This is on a firm downward trajectory thanks to economic growth, with GPD dropping to 48.1 per cent from ahigh of 73 per cent in 2012 due partly to private consumption.This is projected to remain the main driver of growth, while capital investment is to increase mainly on the back of the frenetic growth in construction. Net exports are expected to contribute only modestly to GDP growth, as domestic demand fuels more imports.

Apart from the worries about car emissions, there are other headaches caused by our race for economic growth.Employers face lack of trained staff, but on a positive note, last Christmas retailers were making hay due to improved consumer confidence and a growing disposable income. BlackFriday last year, was the best ever for retailing. Even the latest Central Bank report is upbeat. The fly in the ointment is the rapid increaseof private cars which as stated above is partly the result of affluence and the unpopularity of public transport. Close to 380,000 ageing vehicles (almost one for each resident, mostly imported second-hand) clog the narrow streets and make commuting a daily nightmare. Welcome to the streets in Istanbul.

The government is allocating €100 million to upgrade the roads but thisis only a palliative. The solution to traffic congestion is not an easy one. Needless to say, car emissions are exacerbated by an increase in tourist arrivals (now planned to reach three million) which creates a bionetwork of a carcinogenesis cloud. Malta's air quality is slowly becoming like Beijing's. Efforts have been made to remove the registration tax on electric cars (not hybrid) but they are still expensive and the island has a limited number of charging bays. The concept of a robotaxi pool is still alien and Uber does not operate here. As stated earlier, car ownership is endemic. The good news is that we read about the future use of self-drive carsin Europe and the prediction that if this is successful in Malta, it will make car ownership less popular.

Imagine a future scene when robotaxis become mainstreamand there will be a drastic drop in the number of cars on roads. Driverless cars are the future and firms like Tesla in Silicon Valley are investing heavily in such technology. There is no denying that conventional car manufacturers, like Mercedes, GM, Ford, Volkswagen, BMW and Toyota are keen toget on the gravy train. They aggressively invest in auto tech which they hope will enable them to be among the first to produce autonomous cars. By 2025, one anticipates that Europe will witness a number of fully tried and tested autonomous vehicles. The question is, are we ready to face this transformation. Will our town planners embrace the challenge of fewer cars on the roads and design new flyovers and super highways to meet the future demand for more enlightened commuters.

In the USA, a massiveinterest in autonomous vehicles has slowedthe design of conventional vehicles running internalcombustion engines. It is a race to the bottom.Europeans want to replicate Tesla's adventure and develop its own technology and softwarethat leads to the manufacture of safe and efficientelectric cars. Tesla is experimenting withautonomously driven vehicles-all relying onmultiple sensors and advanced computers totransport passengers from A to B in comfort. All this atone third of the cost of traditional car ownership. Manynow see technology firms as being better placed thancarmakers to develop and profit from the software thatwill underpin automated driving (The Economist,2016).

 Is this the death knell for future car ownership inbig cities? In the UK, Jaguar Land Roverannounced itspolicy to invest more to enhance its expertise inautonomous and electric technology, mainly employingmore electronic and software engineers. It goes withoutsaying, that autos of a bygone age such as the legendaryFord 'T' cars, once a superlative feat of mechanics,have gracefully given way to electronic marvels onwheels. Armed with sensors like Mobileye, they nowhave the capability of parallel parking, seeing andheeding oncoming traffic, predicting merge time andgauging accurate speed. Readers may ask is this fantasyland or a true prediction of what could hit our roads inthe medium term.

Transport technology based on AI will permitcommuters to use cars temporarily charged to theirsmart phones and drop them off where they want. Carownership will gradually become merely a statussymbol for enthusiasts/collectors but the general publicwill rejectcars and gradually get used to cheaprides on shared cars. It would be a joy not having the hassleof finding a place to park.

It seems like something out of a fantasy movie where autonomouscarswill not need drivers, and could theoretically cometo your door. In fact, some predict that Europeans willonly buyautonomous, electrical powered cars by 2035and in time, fossil-fuelledvehicles will be regarded as dinosaurs. This encouraging scenario,which promises clean air and blue skies, warmsour hearts and makes us hope for a better island to liveon.


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Mr Mangion is a partner in PKF, an audit and businessadvisory firm.


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