Mobility is an interesting term. Here in the UK, I've grown up seeing mobility as something to do with getting old and grey, when you need mobility aids around the home, or even a mobility scooter. Which is why I was curious about Audi (who make cars) hosting an innovation summit at their global headquarters in Germany to explore the Mobility Quotient. I'd never even heard of that term before. The fact that the opening keynote was set to be given by Audi's CEO, Rupert Stadler and Steve Wozniak (who co-founded Apple Computers) made be think that this would be an unusual event. I applied for a ticket, got accepted and what follows are my thoughts after the event that took place a few weeks ago. In this post, I will be looking at this through the lens of what this might mean for our health.
[Disclosure: I have no commercial ties with the individuals or organisations mentioned in this post]
It turns out that 400 people attended, from 15 countries. This was the 1st time that Audi had hosted this type of event, and I didn't know what to expect out of it, and neither did any of the attendees I talked to on the shuttle bus from the airport. I think that's fun because everyone I met during the 2 days seemed to be there purely out of curiosity. If you want another perspective of the entire 2 days, I recommend Yannick Willemin's post. A fellow attendee, he was one of the first people I met at the event. There is one small thing that spoiled the event for me, the 15 minute breaks between sessions were too short. I appreciate that every conference organiser wants to squeeze lots of content in, but the magic at these events happens in between the sessions when your mind has been stimulated by a speaker and you have conversations that open new doors in your life. It's a problem that afflicts virtually every conference I attend. I wish they would have less content and longer breaks.
On Day 1, there were external speakers from around the world, getting us to think about social, spacial, temporal and sustainable mobility. Rupert Stadler made a big impression on me with his vision of the future as he cited technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) and how they might enable this very different future. He also mentioned how he believes the car of the future will change its role in our lives, maybe being a secretary, a butler, a courier, or even an empathic companion in our day. And throughout, we were asked to think deeply about how mobility could be measured, what we will do with the 25th hour, the extra time gained because eventually machines will turn drivers of today into the passengers of tomorrow. He spoke of a future where cars will be online, connected to each other too, sharing data, to reduce traffic jams and more. He urged us to never stop questioning. Steve Wozniak described the mobility quotient as "a level of freedom, you can be anywhere, anytime, but it also means freedom, like not having cords."
We heard about Hyperloop transportation technologies cutting down on travel time between places and then the different things we might do in an autonomous vehicle, which briefly cited 'healthcare' as one option. Sacha Vrazic, who spoke about his work on self driving cars gave a great hype free talk and highlighted just how far away we are from the utopia of cars that drive themselves. We heard about technology, happiness and temporal mobility. It was such a diverse mix of topics. For example, we heard from Anna Nixon, who is just 17 years old, and already making a name for herself in robotics, and inspired us to think differently.
What's weird but in a good way is that Audi, a car firm was hosting a conversation about access to education and improving social mobility. I found it wonderful to see Fatima Bhutto, a journalist from Pakistan give one of the closing keynotes on Day 2, where she reminded us of the challenges with respect to human rights and access to sanitation for many living in poorer countries, and how advances in mobility might address these challenges. It was surprising because Audi sells premium vehicles, and it made me think that that mobility isn't just about selling more premium vehicles. What's clear is that Audi (like many large organisations) is trying to figure out how to stay relevant in our lives during this century. Instead of being able to sell more cars in the future, maybe they will be selling us mobility solutions & services which may not even always involve a car. Perhaps they will end up becoming a software company that licences the algorithms used by autonomous vehicles in decades to come? It reminds me of the pharmaceutical industry wanting to move to a world of 'beyond the pill' by adapting their strategy to offer new products and services, enabled by new technologies. When you're faced with having to rip up the business model that's allowed your organisation to survive the 20th century, and develop a business model that will maximise your chances of longevity for the 21st century, it's a scary but also exciting place to be.
On Day 2 attendees were able to choose 3 out of 12 workspaces where we could discuss how to make an impact on each of the 4 types of mobility. I chose these 3 workspaces.
- Spatial mobility - which obstacles are still in the way of autonomous driving?
- Social mobility - what makes me trust my digital assistant?
- Sustainable mobility - what will future mobility ecosystems look like?
The first workspace made me realise the range of challenges in terms of autonomous cars. Legal, technical, cultural and infrastructure challenges. We had to discuss and think about topics that I rarely think about when just reading news articles on autonomous cars. The fact that attendees were from a range of backgrounds made the conversations really stimulating. None of that 'groupthink' that I encounter at so many 'innovation' events these days, which was so refreshing. BTW, Audi's new A8 is the first production vehicle with Level 3 automation, and the feature is called Traffic Jam Pilot. Subject to legal regulations, on selected roads, the driver would be able to take their hands off the wheel and do something else, like watch a video. The car would be able to drive itself. However, the driver would have to be ready to take back control of the car at any time, should conditions change. I found two very interesting real world tests of the technology here and here. Also, isn't it fascinating that a survey found only 26% of Germans would want to ride in autonomous cars. What about a self driving wheelchair in a hospital or an airport? Sounds like science fiction, but they are being tested in Singapore and Japan. Today few of us will be able to access these technologies because they are only available to those with very deep pockets. However, this will change. Just look at airbags, introduced as an option by Mercedes Benz on their flagship S-class in 1981. Now, 36 years later, even the smallest of cars often comes fitted with multiple airbags.
In the second workspace, with other attendees, I formed a team and our challenge was to discuss transparency on collection and use of personal data from a digital assistant in the car of the future? Almost like a virtual co-driver. Our team had a Google Home device to get us thinking about the personal data that Google collects and we had to pitch our ideas at the end of the workspace in terms of how we envisaged getting drivers and passengers to trust these digital assistants in the car. How could Audi make it possible for consumers to control how their personal data is used? It's encouraging to see a large corporate like Audi thinking this way. Furthermore, given that these digital assistants may one day be able to recognise our emotional state and respond accordingly, how would you feel if the assistant in your car noticed you were feeling angry, and instead of letting you start the engine, asked if you wanted to have a quick psychotherapy session with a chatbot to help you deal with the anger? Earlier this year, I tested Alexa vs Siri in my car with mixed results. You can see my 360 video below.
In the third workspace on sustainable mobility, we had to choose one of 3 cities (Beijing, Mumbai and San Francisco) and come up with new ideas to address challenges in sustainable mobility given each city's unique traits. This session was truly mind expanding, as I joked about the increasing levels of congestion in Mumbai, and how maybe they need flying cars. It turned out that one of the attendees sitting next to me was working on urban vehicles that can fly! None of discussions and pitches in the workspaces were full of easy answers, but what they did remind me was the power of bringing together people that normally don't work together to come up with fresh ideas to very complex challenges. Furthermore, these new solutions we generate can't just be for the privileged few, but we have to think global from the beginning. It's our shared responsibility to find a way of including everyone on this new journey. Maybe instead of owning, leasing or even renting a car the traditional way, we'd like to be able to rent a car by the hour using an app on our phones? In fact, Audi have trialled on demand car hire in San Francisco, just launched in China and plan to launch in other countries too, perhaps even with providing you with with a chauffeur too. Only time will tell if they succeed, as others have already tried and not been that successful.
Taking part in this summit was very useful for me, I left feeling challenged, inspired and motivated. There was an energy during the event that I rarely see in Europe, I experienced a feeling that I only tend to get when I'm out in California, where people attending events are so open to new ideas and fresh thinking that you walk away feeling that you truly can build a better tomorrow. My brain has been buzzing with new ideas since then.
For example, whether we believe that consumers will have access to autonomous in 5 years or 50 years, we can see more funds being invested in this. I was watching a documentary where Sebastian Thrun, who lost his best friend in a car accident aged 18, and helped build Google's driverless car, believes that a world with driverless vehicles will save the lives of the 1 million people who currently die on the roads every year around the globe. Think about that for a moment. If that vision is realised this century, even partially, what does that mean for those resources in healthcare that currently are spent on dealing with road traffic accidents? He has now turned his attention to flying cars.
Thinking about chronic disease for a second, you'd probably laugh at the thought of a car that could monitor your health during your commute to the office?
Audi outlined a concept called Audi Fit Driver in 2016 which "The Audi Fit Driver project focuses on the well-being and health of the driver. A wearable (fitness wristband or smartwatch) monitors important vital parameters such as heart rate and skin temperature. Vehicle sensors supplement this data with information on driving style, breathing rate and relevant environmental data such as weather or traffic conditions. The current state of the driver, such as elevated stress or fatigue, is deduced from the collected data. As a result, various vehicle systems act to relax, vitalize, or even protect the driver."
Another car manufacturer, Toyota, has filed a patent suggesting a future where the car would know your health and fitness goals and the car would offer suggestions to help you meet those goals, such as parking further away from your planned destination so you can get some more steps in towards your daily goal. My friend, Bart Collet, has penned his thoughts about "healthcartech", which makes for a useful read. One year ago, I also made a 360 video with Dr Keith Grimes discussing if cars in the future will track our health.
Consider how employers may be interested in tracking the health of employees who drive as part of their job. However, it's not plain sailing. A European Union advisory panel recently said that "Employers should be banned from issuing workers with wearable fitness monitors, such as Fitbit, or other health tracking devices, even with the employees’ permission." So at least in Europe, who knows if we'll ever be allowed to have cars that can monitor our health? On top of that, in this bold new era, in order for these new connected services to really provide value, all these different organisations collecting data will have to find a way to share data. Does blockchain technology have a role to play in mobility? I recently came across Dovu which talks about the world's first mobility cryptocurrency, "Imagine seamless payment across mobility services: one secure global token for riding a bus or train, renting a bike or car or even enabling you to share your own vehicle or vehicle data." Sounds like an interesting idea.
Thinking about some of the driver assist technologies available today, what do they mean for mobility? Could they help older people remain at the helm of a car even if their reflexes have slowed down? In Japan, the National Police Agency "calls on the government to create a new driver’s license that limits seniors to vehicles with advanced safety systems that can automatically brake or mitigate unintended accelerations." Apparently, one of the most common accidents in Japan is when drivers mistake the accelerator for the gas pedal. Today some new cars come with Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) where the car's sensors will detect if you are about to hit another vehicle or a pedestrian and perform an emergency stop if the car detects that the driver is not braking quickly enough. So by relinquishing more control to the car, we can have safer roads. My own car has AEB and on one occasion when I faced multiple hazards on the road ahead, it actually took over the braking, as the sensors thought I wasn't going to stop in time. It was a very strange feeling. Many seem to be reacting with extreme fear when hearing about these new driver assist technologies, yet if you currently drive a car with an automatic transmission or airbags, you are perfectly happy to let the car decide when to change gears or when to inflate the airbag. So on the spectrum of control, we already let our cars make decisions for us. As they get smarter, they will be making more and more decisions for us. If someone over 65 doesn't feel like driving even if the car can step in, then maybe autonomous shuttles like the ones being tested in rural areas in Japan are one solution to increasing mobility of an ageing community.
When we pause to think of how big a problem isolation and loneliness are in our communities, could these new products and services go beyond being simply a mobility solution and actually reduce loneliness? That could have far reaching implications for our health. What if new technology could help those with limited mobility cross the road safely at traffic lights? It's fascinating to read the latest guidance consultation from the UK's National Institute for Health and Care Excellence on the topic of Physical Activity and the Environment. Amongst many items, it suggests mentions modifying traffic lights so those with limited mobility can cross the road safely. Now just extending the time by default so that traffic lights are red by a few extra seconds so that this is possible might end up just causing more traffic jams. So in a more connected future, imagine traffic lights with AI that can detect who is waiting to cross the road, and whether they will need an extended crossing time, and adjust the duration of the red light for vehicles accordingly. This was one of the ideas I brought up at the conference during the autonomous vehicle workspace.
If more people in cities use ride hailing services like Uber and fewer people own a car, does this mean our streets will have fewer parked cars, allowing residents to reclaim the streets for themselves? If this shift continues, in the long term, it might lead to city dwellers of all ages becoming more physically active. This could be good news in improving our health and reducing demand on healthcare systems. One thing is clear to me, these new mobility solutions will require many different groups across society to collaborate. It can't just be a few car manufacturers who roll out technology without involving other stakeholders so that these solutions are available to all, and work in an integrated manner. The consumer will be king though, according to views aired at New Mobility World in Germany this week, "With his smartphone, he can pick the optimal way to get from A to B,” said Randolph Wörl from moovel. “Does optimal mean the shortest way, the cheapest way or the most comfortable way? It’s the user’s choice.” It's early days but we already have a part of the NHS in the UK looking to use Uber to transfer patients to/from hospital.
Urban mobility isn't just about cars, it's also about bicycles. I use the Santander bike sharing scheme in London on a daily basis, which I find to be an extremely valuable service. I don't want to own a bicycle since in my small home, I don't really have room to store it. Additionally, I don't want the hassle of maintaining a bike. Using this bike sharing scheme has helped me to lose 15kg this summer, which I feel has improved my own health and wellbeing. If we really want to think about health, rather than just about healthcare, it's critical we think beyond those traditional institutions that we associate with health, and include others. Incidentally, Chinese bike sharing firms are now entering the London market.
In the UK, some have called for cycling to be 'prescribed' to the population, helping people to stay healthier and again to reduce demand on the healthcare system. Which is why I find the news that Ford of Germany is getting involved with a new bike sharing scheme. Through the app, people will be able to use Ford's car sharing and bike sharing scheme. An example of Mobility as a Service and of another car manufacturer seeking a path to staying relevant during this century. Nissan of Japan are excitedly talking about Intelligent Mobility for their new Nissan Leaf, talking about Intelligent Driving where "Soon, you can have a car that takes the stress out of driving and leaves only the joy. It can pick you up, navigate heavy traffic, and find parking all on its own." A Chinese electric car startup, Future Mobility Cop who have launched their Byton brand have said their "models are a combination of three things: a smart internet communicator, a spacious luxury living room and a fully electric car." Interestingly, they also want to "turn driving into living." I wonder if in 10-15 years time, we'll spend more time in cars because the experience will be a more connected one? Where will meetings take place in future? Ever used Skype for Business from work or home to join an online meeting? BMW & Microsoft are working to bring that capability to some of BMW's vehicles. Samsung have announced they are setting up a £300m investment fund focusing on connected technologies for cars. It appears that considerable sums of money are being invested in this new arena of connected cars that fit into our digital lifestyles. Are the right people spending the right money on the right things?
I feel that those developing products which involve AI are often so wrapped up in their vision that it comes across as if they don't care what the social impact of their ideas will be. In an article about Vivek Wadhwa's book, The Driver in the Driverless Car, the journalist points out that the book talks about the possibility of up to 5m American jobs in trucking, delivery driving, taxis and related activities being lost, but there are no suggestions mentioned for handling the the social implications of this shift. Toby Walsh, a Professor of AI believes that Elon Musk, founder of Tesla cars is scaremongering when tweeting about AI starting World War 3. He says, "So, Elon, stop worrying about World War III and start worrying about what Tesla’s autonomous cars will do to the livelihood of taxi drivers." Personally, we need some more balance and perspective in this conversation. The last thing we need is a widening of social inequalities. How fascinating to read that India is considering banning self driving cars in order to protect jobs.
This summit has really made me think hard about mobility and health. Perhaps car manufacturers will end up being part of solutions that bring significant improvements in our health in years to come? We have to keep an open mind about what might be possible. Maybe it's because I'm fit and reasonably healthy, live in a well connected city like London and can afford a car of my own, that I never really thought about the impact of impaired mobility on our health? In the Transport Research Laboratory's latest Quarterly Research Review, I noticed a focus on mental health and ageing drivers, and it's clear they want transport planners to put health and wellbeing as a higher priority with a statement of, "With transport evolving, it’s vital that we don’t lose sight of the implications it can have on the health of the population, and strive to create a network that encourages healthy mobility.” At minimum, mobility might just mean being able to walk somewhere in your locality, but what if you don't feel safe walking in your neighbourhood due to high rates of crime? Or what if you can't walk because there it literally nowhere to walk? I remember visiting Atlanta in the USA several years ago, and I took a walk from a friend's house in the suburbs. A few minutes into my walk, the sidewalk just finished, just like that with no warning. The only way I could walk further would be to walk inside a car dealership. Ironic. The push towards electrification of vehicles is interesting to witness, with Scotland wanting to phase out sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2032. India is even more ambitious, hoping to move towards electric vehicles by 2030. The pollution in London is so high that I avoid walking down certain roads because I don't want to breathe in those fumes. So a future with zero emission electric cars gives me hope.
It's obvious that we can't just think about health as building bigger hospitals and hiring more doctors. If we really want societies where we can prevent more people from living with chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes, we have to design with health in mind from the beginning. There is an experiment in the UK looking to build 10 Healthy New Towns. Something to keep an eye on.
The technology that will underpin this new era of connectivity seems to be the easy part. The hard part is getting people, policy and process to connect and move at the same pace as the technology, or at least not lag too far behind. During one of my recent sunrise bike rides in London, I came across a phone box. I remember using them as a teenager, before the introduction of mobile phones. At the time, I never imagined a future where we didn't have to locate a box on the street, walk inside, insert coins and press buttons in order to make a call whilst 'mobile' and in such a short space of time, everything has changed, in terms of how we communicate and connect. These phone boxes scattered around London remind me that change is constant, and that even though many of us struggle to imagine a future that's radically different from today, there is every chance that the healthy mobility in 20 years time will look very different from today.
Who should be driving our quest for healthy mobility? Do we rest our hopes on car manufacturers collaborating with technology companies? As cities grow, how do we want our cities to be shaped?
What's your definition of The Mobility Quotient?