"Mobility" has been highlighted over and over again at CES this year, a broad concept touted by many as the future of the automotive industry. What is "Mobility as a Service" and what does it mean for autonomous vehicles?

We were first exposed to the term "mobility as a service" amid the pulsating lights and blaring music at Toyota's Monday press briefing at CES. The presentation began with Mr. Toyota stating "My goal is to transition Toyota from an automotive company to a mobility company." This, it seems, is an important shift in what the current generation of Toyota leadership (the third in the Toyota dynasty) sees as the future—and therefore the legacy—of the company.


Mr. Toyota at CES 2018


All this talk of mobility might seem redundant to some. After all, aren't automobiles explicitly in the business of mobility? As far as we can tell, "mobility" in the future has two prongs: the mobility of goods and services, and the mobility of people. This distinction becomes more clear when considering Toyota's big reveal of the day—a conceptual autonomous vehicle called the e-Pallette. 


The e-Pallette


The e-Pallette is an autonomous cart- or van-like vehicle covered in display screens. It's designed to serve the two forms of "mobility as a service", the first of which is a customizable mobile store.

Imagine a tiny retail establishment, say a shoe store, that can be beckoned to a particular place. Customers can enter, try on shoes, and complete a sale (which Toyota envisions occurring wirelessly). Other uses include mobile maintenance facilities, mobile healthcare clinics, and mobile fab labs. In this way, the concept of "mobility as a service" can apply to any good or service that a consumer may wish to bring straight to their doorstep. 

But what about the other way around? Surely the future of mobility still focuses on the transport of people.

One of the most important applications of the e-Pallette is one that most people are already familiar with: ride-sharing. Toyota's planned fleet of autonomous and fully-electric vehicles is the beginning of what they call "Autono-MaaS" (MaaS being the shortened version of "Mobility as a Service"). 


Mobile Goods and Services

The portion of Mobility as a Service that brings goods to the consumer is a broad one. It can be represented as mobile stores and restaurants, as Toyota is developing, or merely as autonomous courier services. 

Continental Automotive Group, a supplier to automotive OEMs, also demonstrated responsiveness to the concept of "mobility" as the future. Continental's own CES press conference partly focused on what they've dubbed as the BEE (Balanced Economy and Ecology) Mobility Concept. 


The BEE concept vehicle


CEO Dr. Elmar Degenhart emphasized Continental's focus on making cities more efficient, safer, and more ecologically responsible. Smoother traffic, cleaner air, less competition for parking spaces, and safer transport are the keystones of their focus on the future of mobility. 

Of course, BEE also has applications that can enable the mobility of people. In a September press release on the BEE, Continental said that it intends the BEE to be "part of a swarm of autonomous electric vehicles". So far, it's described as a platform to experiment on what autonomous vehicles are capable of. As an example, the BEE could theoretically join a caravan of other BEE vehicles on a bus-like route, but allow an individual traveler to easily split off to their unique destination. 


Waymo, Uber, and the Tide of Ride Sharing

Mobility as a Service is not a new concept, depending on how you look at it. I guess you could say that the wheels are already in motion. (Sorry.) Ride-sharing, in general, has quickly become the norm in most cities, even smaller ones where there may only be a handful of drivers available. 

Uber and Lyft have taken full advantage of the "share economy" that leverages the existing vehicles of their contracted drivers. This new focus on ride-sharing for major automotive corporations is a signal that they've decided they want a piece of that pie.

Uber has famously been making strides in LiDAR research (and been entrenched in the resulting LiDAR-related lawsuits) with an eye towards autonomous vehicles, giving mainstream automotive OEMs serious incentive to invest in the technology, themselves.


Models of Uber's autonomous vehicles. Image courtesy of Uber's Advanced Technologies Group.


But here's where these automotive companies are trying to ride the wave. In theory, a fleet of e-Pallette-style vehicles would arguably be relatively easy to introduce to an urban population. Compare that to the prospect of trying to sell individual autonomous vehicles to consumers, fighting the slow turnover cycle of most cars and the still-palpable wariness surrounding autonomous vehicles in general.

Appropriating the share economy mindset is a way of clawing back some ground that automotive companies have lost over the last few years. At present, this takes the form of collaborations. Uber is partnering with Volvo, Volkswagen, and even Toyota, itself, in various capacities to release autonomous vehicle services. These partnerships are likely to continue forming and evolving over time as Uber is unlikely to get into the car-manufacturing game. Whether an automotive OEM could develop a similar platform to Uber's is less certain.


A Tangible Future for Autonomous Cars?

The mentality of "mobility as a service" presents a viable path forward for autonomous vehicles. As autonomous ride-share vehicles become accepted, it's likely to increase public confidence in the idea of driverless cars. More importantly, perhaps, is the opportunity this plan presents in terms of testing the various sensors, power systems, and infrastructure associated with successful (and safe) autonomous vehicles. 


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