Smart mobility: what is and how it survives the coronavirus challenge

Smart mobility has been a much discussed topic in recent years, as it is a typical area of convergence between new needs, new technologies, new lifestyles, strong urbanization. Today, because of the coronavirus, perhaps we have to rethink everything, radically, once again

Published on 03 Jun 2020

Donatella Cambosu


Many thoughtfulness and planning efforts have been made in recent years to find the best balance between mobility and sustainability needs. This is what we talk about when it comes to ‘smart mobility’, a term that also echoes ‘smart city’, ‘smart home’, ‘smart building’, ‘smart car’, etc.. 

Smart in all these cases stands for ‘intelligent’: the intelligence connected to innovation and brought about by the use of new technologies that can be the new product with innovative features or even the smartest management of resources through apps and platforms or the integration between these two things. 

Trends such as car or bike sharing or electric scooters; the advent of connected, electric, even driveless vehicles; the idea of ultra-fast trains like Hyperloop, are all examples giving rise to the new smart transport industry, making us imagine and experience new ways of travelling around the city, but also among cities. 


Smart mobility and coronavirus 

However, the Covid19 emergency and the resulting total lockdown suggest new insights. 

Meanwhile, lets take a look at the impact of the emergency on transport. 

According to data recently released by Moovit (the world’s leading mobility-as-a-service app, 750 million users), since January 15, travel on the transit modes tracked by the app – which include bus, train, subway, light rail, ride-hail and shared mobility options such as bicycles and scooters – has decreased by 86% in Milan and Lombardy, 84% in Madrid and 54% in the New York City metropolitan area. 

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In Italy, one of the most affected countries by the virus, public transport has decreased dramatically compared to previous months. In Lombardy there was a 47% decrease in the use of public transport, while in Parma, Piacenza and Reggio Emilia there was a 43% decrease. Throughout the country, the share of public transport use fell by 50% at the beginning of March. 

Not to mention how the coronavirus has depleted airplanes and trains… 

It’s hard to imagine the journey, the displacement, right now. Are we going to get on a train, a plane, the subway, in peace again? The lockdown has brought the transport industry down and beyond its knees: it has even challenged the very idea of unbridled mobility that has characterized the most modern society, partly as a result of globalization, has put public transport in crisis. No environmental threat has so far hampered the transport industry, which contributes significantly to air pollution. 

The coronavirus, on the other hand, could change our habits and significantly affect the evolution of mobility, at least that of people, who from now on will also consider the safety of a means of transport from a health point of view. Thus, what is going to be really smart in the coming months and years? 

On some basic assumptions we all can agree: the biggest global experiment of smart working has gone great, and there will be no turning back from it, so there will be fewer commuters on the roads; if, until today, the issue of sustainability has pushed us towards the sharing of means of transport, public or even private, i.e. more people in close contact on the same means of transport, the demand for social distancing tends to push towards a return to own or exclusive use vehicles; digital technology will be ever more leading. 

So let’s try to look at Smart Mobility in the light of new health needs. 

What Smart Mobility is 

Until a couple of months ago, smart mobility was considered the ‘new era of mobility’. 

“The world’s population will reach 10 billion people by 2050. In the face of this fast growth, mobility systems in mega-cities are overburdening, while rural areas are even more underdeveloped. How can sustainable and inclusive mobility be guaranteed?” said the WEF, which has devoted a lot of attention to this issue, fuelling debate and acceleration towards innovative solutions. 

Definition of smart mobility 

Smart mobility is a model of mobility aimed at achieving sustainable development, of cities in particular. The term encompasses a number of elements: technology, mobility infrastructure (parking, charging networks, signage, vehicles), mobility solutions (including new mobility models) and people. Smart mobility aims to offer a seamless mobility experience, from the first to the last mile, that is flexible, integrated, safe, on demand and affordable. Urban mobility can be innovated through new mobile technologies and applications integrating public transport, better infrastructure and car sharing. Smart mobility also means environment-friendly, whether it is electric cars or cycling paths. The ultimate goal of introducing smart mobility in our cities is to reduce traffic, reduce pollution, create smart and seamless flows, and strengthen economies of scale to promote affordable mobility for everyone. 

Pillars of smart mobility are efficiency, a positive environmental impact, an improvement in the quality of life of people and communities. In the post-Covid period, the pillar of smart mobility should also be health safety. 

If technologies have been a fundamental element in the development of smart mobility to date, in particular Cloud technologies, Internet of Things, Big Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence, even more so in the future, it is enough to know that even in Italy, among the solutions being examined by the government to restart transport in a safe way, systems to monitor a maximum use of 60% of the capacity of vehicles and apps to facilitate social distancing are suggested. 

Examples of smart mobility 

Smart mobility can help to effectively reduce traffic and pollution, an increasingly urgent need around the planet; yet it can also reduce traffic jams, make travel smoother and reduce the negative impact on life and health of people from hours spent in traffic. Car sharing, on-demand services, micromobility are responses from smart mobility to sustainability, environmental and personal issues. 

Carpooling (or ridesharing) – Carpooling relies on a plentiful but underused resource: empty car seats. This option does not add any new vehicles to the service and this is why it helps to avoid traffic jams and pollution. Usually carpooling is based on private vehicles shared thanks to the suport of a digital platform that manages their organization, such as Blablacar or even the Italian JoJob. 

Bike sharing – The use of bike sharing has grown in recent years, especially in Europe and in lowland cities, with abundant cycle paths and other infrastructures. For those who have to travel a few kilometres, bike sharing is an excellent solution. 

Car sharing – Car sharing is also spreading around the world since technology has made it possible for companies and individuals to rent cars for hours or even minutes. In Italy the main car sharing city is Milan. 

On-demand services – Companies like Uber and Lyft, which allow to call a rental car through an application, have triggered a revolution in cities where the free movement of their vehicles is allowed. In addition to making the taxi market more competitive. 

Scooter sharing – Scooter sharing has developed a lot in the last two years in cities like Milan and Rome, because it also has unquestionable advantages over car sharing, it is more manageable and very sustainable. However, it is not a means that everyone considers. 

Micromobility – Electric scooters have been under observation in the last year, like many other means of last mile mobility, the so-called micromobility. Not only scooters, but also hoverboards, skateboards and much more, in the name of increasingly environmentally friendly, silent, agile in traffic and that conquer young people and workers. According to the forecasts of Abi Research 2020, the sector of micromobility is expected to grow, a forecast that even if made in pre-Covid times, could adapt very well to the post-Covid era. 

In fact, all these examples of smart mobility tend to stand the test of the coronavirus: according to a first research carried out in China by Ipsos Group a first effect of the pandemic was the collapse in the use of public transport in favor of private ones and this will remain as a trend also translating into a positive push to car sharing. 

Of course, vehicles such as scooters, motorcycles, bicycles, scooters have a great future; car sharing will have to adopt important health safety devices, as well as the whole taxi business; while Blablacar-style car pooling could be the sector that suffers the real setback: the fear of contagion puts a strain on the sense of trust in peers required by this type of platform. 

Electric vehicles 

The sustainability pursued by smart mobility also includes a focus on connected and less polluting vehicles such as electric vehicles. Electric mobility is expanding at a fast pace. In 2018, the world’s electric car fleet exceeded 5.1 million, an increase of 2 million over the previous year and almost doubling sales of new electric cars. The People’s Republic of China is still the world’s largest electric car market, followed by Europe and the United States. Norway is the world leader in terms of market share of electric cars. (For further info, Global EV Outlook 2019 by IEA) 

If as previously stated, a massive return to private cars could occur in the aftermath of Covid, the lifeline for environmental sustainability becomes electric vehicles. Therefore, the hope we should all have is that the automotive industry will seize the opportunity and will indulge in the offer of agile vehicles even in the city and, above all, less expensive than they have been until now, making the purchase more accessible to a wider target during an economic crisis. 

MaaS – Mobility as a Service 

Mobility as a service is offered through a web platform or app that allows the user to plan their trip on a software platform that automatically proposes and enables to book all the necessary means of transport, both public and private (train, bus, taxi, car and bike sharing) to make the journey. In addition to their destination, depending on the options proposed by the application, each person can indicate preferences on the means of transport to be used and so on; the tool will then suggest the most effective and convenient combination, integrating the different opportunities for movement that an city can offer, from the public transport system to all the various services that can be found in the city (bike sharing, car sharing, etc.). 

These platforms work with the aim of optimizing time, but also to compare costs and even take weather conditions into account. Then, once a decision has been taken on the preferred course of action, the same system can be used to book and pay for the chosen solution. 

Basically, mobility as a service is characterized by three main features: by the fact of being able to use all mobility services for consumption; because it is a service that can be used everywhere and because it makes payment simple and immediate. 

Cloud, IoT -Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning are the main technologies behind the possibility to offer a mobility as a service. 

The main worldwide startup of MaaS is the Israeli Moovit: 750 million users worldwide, 100 countries and 3100 cities covered by its service, a very popular app that allows people to move around the city in an effective and convenient way, using any means of transport. Its importance is also another: thanks to the app it accumulates up to six billion anonymous data points per day contributing to the world’s largest archive of transport and urban mobility data. Therefore, Moovit can offer Artificial Intelligence-based MaaS solutions to governments, cities, transit agencies and private companies that cover planning, operations and optimization with proven value for traffic jams reduction, user growth and increased efficiency. Large companies such as Microsoft, Uber and Cubic have partnered with Moovit to enhance their mobility offerings. 

[Moovit has been recently aquired by Intel for about $900 Million to help the chipmaker develop self-driving robotaxis.]

A service like Moovit this is crucial in smart mobility after Covid, and in fact the company is very active at the moment with several initiatives that also give it visibility: for example, the company presents as a partner of public and private transport organizations and has very quickly launched the new Emergency Mobilization On-Demand service. 

What has been implemented by Moovit is also in the direction indicated by the WEF, whose experts have recently indicated the key role of the public-private partnership and the importance of MaaS platforms for the future of mobility. 

“While we have seen an increase in mobility as a service (MaaS) proposals in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic has been an opportunity for the MaaS ecosystem to solidify and demonstrate its value,” said the WEF. 

In essence, according to the WEF, MaaS platforms are the backbone of a kind of transition from smart mobility to agile mobility, resilient and quick to respond and adapt to change, while ensuring public safety and the seamless movement of people and goods. 

Driverless car 

The development of self-driving cars is one of the greatest promises of Smart Mobility. The technology is really very complex, especially in terms of software: the Artificial Intelligence needed for autonomous driving needs to be trained, it needs a lot of data, sophisticated algorithms, case studies, it needs to develop behavior models in such a quantity of unforeseen and unpredictable situations, that after the enthusiasm of the past years a deadlock has been reached. “It’s 2020. Where are our self-driving cars?” titled VOX, referring to the announcements of the recent past where General Motors, Google’s Waymo, Toyota, Honda, Tesla announced to be ready with the self-driving car in 2020, investments have not been lacking, but actually nothing can still be glimpsed. The article considers with great skepticism the ability to arrive in a short time to an artificial intelligence really able to safely drive in a city. 

However, there is an element, the coronavirus, which could introduce a new boost to the development of this technology. As EconomyUp reports, a case study has already emerged: Neolix, a Chinese manufacturer of fully robotic urban delivery trucks, has seen its orders increase considerably in recent times. Why? The pandemic mitigation measures have temporarily cleared the roads of other vehicles and, at the same time, led consumers to consider whether to have goods delivered by robotic systems which, of course, cannot infect or remain infected. According to the Beijing-based company, even when the pandemic will be over, the new habits may persist. In the meantime, it is the “gaze” on self-driving that is now changing. 

The new smart mobility according to the WEF 

The new watchword in mobility is ‘resilience’, according to the WEF. No wonder we will have to start again to make people and goods travel, transport and movement have not only always characterized the history of mankind and contributed to its evolution, but also are an asset we cannot give up. We absolutely must rethink transport and mobility in the light of two new elements, health and emergency. 

WEF urges a new public-private partnership in favour of smart mobility. 

“In response to COVID-19 we have seen people using their cars to serve the community, buses delivering equipment to hospital staff and micromobility used by first responders on duty. When our population is in crisis, we become much more ingenious about how to get people and things where they need to go. The crisis helps to streamline our approaches and we no longer think about whether a car is “mine”, but rather how such a car can help the community. 

Not only during pandemics can we think creatively about using all cars or buses parked on empty fixed routes, we can do it all the time. We can’t let such knowledge to be wasted, we are all connected, we are all trying to make this world a little better so that we can all have a peaceful, seamless life. A public-private partnership for mobility seems to be the right way forward”. 

The future of UBER, the unicorn of smart mobility 

Uber has been probably one of the most disruptive companies in the transport sector in recent years, has led taxi drivers to strike, to endless legal battles, has taken investments for millions of dollars and has always stood out for the speed and aggressiveness in the market, which is not that of taxi drivers, but rather that of logistics. Its founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick said “if we can get a person to where they want in 5 minutes, we can also get anything to any person in 5 minutes”. In ten years Uber has developed from an innovative taxi service summarized in “Touch a button, get a ride” into something much wider: ridesharing and car pooling, meal delivery and freight, electric bikes and scooters, electric cars and urban aviation. 

This multi-dimensionality is what is saving it right now, because obviously in Covid emergency the use of the stylish NCC partners of the company for passenger transport has plummeted worldwide. 

However, this does not worry the current CEO Dara Khosrowshahi who in a recent letter to reassure the investors said that the company is well equipped to overcome the current problems, even in the worst case of an 80% drop in passenger transport for the year, since the company is already using its network for the delivery of other things, and plans to expand to sectors such as medicines or essential supplies. “We already have contacts in the health sector, we have all the processes we need,” he said, referring to Uber Health. 

What does UBER prove so far? How the smart mobility of the post-Covid period also passes through the evolution of services and shifts its focus towards the circulation of goods rather than people, another proof comes from the booming delivery services all over the world even in small centers, delivery sometimes organized in a ‘homemade’ way via Whatsapp by the small activities that have found in this method a form of lockdown survival. 

Finally, as for many other aspects of our lifestyle, smart mobility is in a transitional phase, which involves and is conditioned by the collective debate that will be given by our society (made of people, companies, institutions) to a new list of priorities. Technologies will be fundamental, but only a consequence. 


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Donatella Cambosu

Scrive di tecnologie, startup e innovazione da oltre 15 anni. Dal 2015 collabora con il Gruppo Digital360, in particolare con le testate Startupbusiness, University2Business, EconomyUp. Collabora con InsuranceUp sin dal lancio del portale avvenuto nel 2015 e ha maturato un'ampia esperienza in ambito insurtech.

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