One of the main topics of conversation during the NOAH Conference, which took place in Berlin on 8 - 9 June, was the future of mobility, given the on-demand transportation revolution and the much-heralded advent of the self-driving car.

Uber, Daimler, BlaBlaCar…where does the future of mobility lie?
In Europe, 1% of GDP is lost every year due to traffic jams, while in France 12% of all CO2 emissions come from cars,” pointed out Uber CEO Travis Kalanick during a round table session at the NOAH Conference. He reminded the audience just how important it is to make better use of vehicles, given that there are currently a billion cars driving around on the planet and that the average number of people travelling in a car in Europe is 1.7. “Owning your own car has an enormous ecological and economic impact when after all an average driver only uses his/her car 4% of the time and during the other 96% it has to be stored somewhere, taking up a lot of space in our already-saturated cities,” he underlined.

Sitting next to him at the conference was Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of the Board at German carmaker Daimler AG, and we were also able to meet BlaBlaCar co-founder Nicolas Brusson. While each fights his own corner when it comes to the future of road mobility – carpooling, ride-sharing in a chauffeur-driven car and self-driving vehicles – all three agree that cars will continue to play a central role in getting people from place to place. However, one big question – ownership versus on-demand hire – is still pending.

The environmental and economic argument for car-sharing

“I came to realise that many users start their journey from pretty much the same place and want to get to the same area. That’s how I got the idea for UberPool,” Travis Kalanick told the audience, asking: “If two people are going to the same place, why use two vehicles?”  These days 40% of all Uber journeys from San Francisco are completed using UberPool. In China, a large Uber market, there are 30 million UberPool journeys a month. In fact, nowadays 20% of all Uber journeys are UberPools shared with a number of users. Kalanick therefore argues that the future of the automobile must lie in car-sharing.

He went on:“Of course they told me that people might not appreciate sharing a car with others they didn’t know, but basically is that any different from sharing the metro or a bus with people you don’t know?”  He concedes that public transportation is a good start to finding a solution but unfortunately it does not serve all areas, especially as you get further away from the town centre. “In Paris, 10% of all journeys start or finish in an area which is not served by public transportation,” he pointed out. Add to this the fact that the vast majority of public transport networks close down at night and it seems clear that cars still have a part to play in the transport spectrum.


The future belongs to self-driving cars and mobility-as-a-service

Daimler would certainly not contradict this statement since the German auto manufacturer is currently developing a number of self-driving vehicle models. Says Dieter Zetsche: “Today the average German spends two and a half years of his life sitting in his car. I’m convinced that very soon time will become a luxury item and autonomous vehicles will allow people to take back the time they’re now losing as they’ll be able to do other things while riding in their cars. Self-driving cars will also help to cut down on the number of accidents and reduce deaths on the roads.
With the figures showing that every year one million people die on the roads and ten million are injured, the importance of this technology can hardly be overestimated. Daimler is currently working to ensure that its self-driving cars can adapt to the different regulations from country to country, and have installed Deep Learning technology in the cars for this purpose.  However, Dieter Zetsche admits that the company is also looking at another concept –  a multi-modal app, which takes the view that mobility is a single overall service, rather similar to young Finnish startup MaaS. “This new approach is going to be huge and our industry will be completely turned upside down, but we intend to be part of the change,” insists Zetsche.


…but the car ownership model is not yet obsolete

Meanwhile BlaBlaCar co-founder Nicolas Brusson does not think that the advent of the self-driving car and the general success of the sharing economy will necessarily sound the death knell for automobile manufacturers looking to sell vehicles. “I very much doubt that car ownership will disappear. I think there’s some confusion surrounding the car-owning model and the self-driving car model. We often hear that self-driving cars are going to make car ownership disappear, but I can’t see that this is a given. If you really believe that in the near future a car will be like a sort of droid driving around non-stop, of course there’ll be fewer cars on the roads, but then again they’ll have to be replaced more often,” he argues.
There are a number of factors which lend support to his theory. Firstly, people’s enthusiasm for new technologies: “At the moment, the average age of cars on the road is seven years, but it’s worth noting that at car hire company Hertz vehicles last a maximum of six months. Technology becomes obsolete and people will always want the latest innovations.” He does however think that the question of how often people use their cars will be important. People who drive their cars every day generally want to have their own vehicle, but for those who do not, the question is: who will buy cars? “Business people and other private persons who decide to invest in the self-driving car business, perhaps? At the end of the day that won’t matter much for the people who use them, but there will still need to be someone to finance these new vehicles,” stresses Nicolas Brusson.

By Constance Guyon
Journaliste / attachée de production