Digitalised mobility – a turning point for engineers

Digitalised mobility – a turning point for engineers

19 June 2019
digitalisation digitaltransformation Mobility transportation
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Digital transformation is reshaping all modes of transport, from design through to use. The objective is to create smooth traffic flows, enhance user comfort and safety, anticipate maintenance and, ultimately, offer made-to-measure mobility for each traveller. In order to deliver on these aims, engineers need to look at mobility in a new way, drawing on the huge amount of data available to them.

Having met the challenges of providing fast travel and transport for everyone, engineers now need to tackle the mobility challenges of today and the future. These are numerous and highly technological. First and foremost, the carbon footprint of transport needs to be drastically reduced – an absolute necessity in view of the global climate emergency.

Second, mobility offers need to be aligned with society’s new usages. Accustomed to surfing on their smartphones across the globe, people want to be able to travel around the world just as easily and quickly.

With today’s urban transition and the drive to build smart cities, we have to rethink infrastructure and vehicles so they can be seamlessly integrated into a complex network for increasingly diverse, on-demand usages.

Transport operators are also relying on engineers to provide them with predictive tools to boost profitability and enhance passenger safety and satisfaction. “Digital technology is going to yield real performance gains for project management and cost control. For example, if SNCF Réseau can use a €7 billion budget to carry out 20% more projects in the future than it can today, that can only be an advantage for daily rail users”, says Thomas Branche, SVP Energy Transition & Infrastructures at Assystem.

Meeting these challenges won’t be possible without mastering the available data. And that’s why engineers are now working on how to leverage its full potential.

The future – Mobility as a service 

We use data first of all to make mobility easier. For instance, we know that 30% of inner-city vehicle traffic arises from people looking for a parking space. Engineers have come up with a solution to eliminate this unnecessary, polluting and exasperating form of traffic. The idea is to use data made available by municipalities, drivers themselves and car park companies to either provide real-time information about available spaces or to reserve a space in advance. This is what BMW is offering, for example, with its mobile app, ParkNow.

In the same vein, the deployment of the Internet of Things (IoT) in vehicles (cars, trucks, trains, etc.) is increasing the amount of data available. By using this Big Data, we can build highly-performing algorithms to better anticipate wear and tear of equipment or traffic congestion. The emergence of “smart roads” is an example of this. Equipped with sensors, these roads can transmit extremely useful data to operators, such as average vehicle speeds, weather conditions, traffic measurements or accident alerts. This “will lead to optimal road use” and “will enable us to predict road traffic several hours ahead and warn motorists in advance of any journey complications”, says Mohammed El Kettani, an urban planner and the founder of SMARTKETS Lab.

Similarly, by digitalising railway signalling plans we can create models for pre-detecting the potential situation of trains coming into contact with one another. Although conventional signalling systems are already very safe this will reduce the risk of accidents even further and, above all, avoid delays. So digital systems will improve journey reliability without passengers even noticing”, Thomas Branche explains.

These innovations improve the environmental performance of road transport while enhancing user safety and peace of mind. They are also playing a part in the development of multi-modal transport offerings. In order to meet the logistics challengers of transport sector players as well as modern-day passengers’ expectations for a smooth journey and full travel information, data is once again a precious asset.

In the future, mobility sector players will be able to work in conjunction with one another so that users can access real multi-modal mobility. To achieve this we’ll have to draw on large amounts of data– both situational (“what’s the weather like?”) and contextual (“I know there are often traffic jams on this road at such or such a time”), says Bertrand Billoud, Head of Marketing Communications at Kisio Digital. “But what for? To give the right information to the right person at the right time. That’s responsive mobility”.

The design and lifecycles of infrastructure itself are also being revolutionised by digital technology. “We’re going to need to design modular railway stations so they can adapt to changes in usages and innovations that are still unbeknown to us but which we know will be arriving in the coming years”, says Thomas Branche. “In the past, to build a station, we drew up a brief, designed it to that brief and then built it. After that we only had limited scope for adaptation. Today we design the digital twin of a new station at the same time as the station itself so we can constantly re-engineer. For instance, we can test adaptations in immersive simulation rooms before a station is even built.”

All of this engineering and co-ordination work is aimed at strengthening the concept of “mobility as a service” and enabling new usages and transport modes to be integrated in the near or more distant future.

Autonomy: an attainable holy grail thanks to digital?

If we take the idea of flying taxis, Anita Sengupta – an aerospace engineer and COO of the start-up Airspace Experience Technologies – thinks their first commercial flights will be possible in five years’ time. “These new vehicles are small electric-powered vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOL). But they won’t be private individual vehicles”, she explains “They’ll be part of a fleet and we’ll be able to access the service via an app. In the same way we use Uber or Lyft for cars now, we’ll have this type of on-demand service for small aircraft.”

It’s digital technology that will be needed to give these vehicles – and the road vehicles of the future – the autonomy they require to run and therefore to fulfil their promises. As long as they are given the information they need in real time and thanks to self-learning artificial intelligence, the transport modes of the future will be able to provide safe and fluid mobility and adapt their flows in line with the demand of users who will be “freed” from all forms of constraint (driving, stress, wasted time, etc.). The vehicles of the future will also be able to communicate directly with manufacturers and transport operators about their wear and tear or any technical faults.

To attain this holy grail, engineers still have a lot of work to do to channel all of the data. “People are going to expect updates to electric vehicles to be as fast as those for their telephones. This is going to require rapid technological development”, points out Carla Bailo, Head of the Center for Automotive Research. “For powering information systems (algorithms and data processing), increasing battery capacity, and running these new vehicles on electricity. The whole production chain is going to be disrupted”.

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Thomas Branche

SVP Energy Transition & Infrastructures Assystem

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