[Translate to English:] Autos kommunizieren miteinander via Funk und Internet.

“Cars have to become more social”

Autonomous cars, assistance systems, data overload: transportation is becoming more and more digital – and at an increasingly fast rate, too. We talked to transport expert Martin Schonger about where we stand now and where things are heading.


  • Future

Martin Schonger, nowadays we’re hearing more and more about “digitalised mobility”. In a nutshell, can you tell us what that actually means?

It refers to the use of communication and information technologies in mobility – whether scooter apps, lane departure warning systems in cars or digital railway signal boxes.

How do we benefit from intelligent, digital mobility?

In all kinds of ways. Firstly, it gives us greater efficiency and less pollution – for example as a result of more effective capacity and fleet management for trains and planes. Secondly, there are fewer delays thanks to predictive maintenance. Computers can anticipate the need to repair the door of a train before it actually breaks. Travel is also safer thanks to the many assistance systems in use.

For the “traffic turnaround” to work, cars have to be able to communicate with each other and with their surroundings. What form will this take in concrete terms?

Humans are not made for driving. From the point of view of evolution, we are made to walk and run. That’s why fatal collisions are virtually unheard of when we move around using these natural forms of propulsion – if you exclude crowd stampedes: we can communicate intuitively and often unconsciously with other pedestrians, i.e. we can convey to them where we’re going and how we can avoid bumping into one other. That’s not possible when you’re driving a car, because you’re moving too fast and there’s too little eye contact. These are precisely the capabilities that cars of the future need to have. We already have emergency brake assistants. But it would be even better if the car ahead of us could constantly communicate when it was braking, changing lanes or had just detected black ice. Cars have to take an example from human beings become more social.

« Humans are the role model for the cars of the future. »

Cars now have more and more assistance systems. Which already exist, which are we yet to see?

Of course there are the familiar systems such as parking assistants, adaptive cruise control, emergency braking systems, eCall and so on. With the help of 5G, we will hopefully see the advent of communicative social assistants. In other words: your car will permanently transmit information to all other vehicles and, by the same token, receive it from other cars nearby. Imagine this scenario in the year 2025: one kilometre ahead of you, some conventional cars get caught up in a rear-end collision. A modern, networked car drives by. It sends a live video to the rescue control centre and informs all other cars nearby. Your car automatically switches on its hazard warning lights, slows down and controls its own speed. Now you’re stuck in a traffic jam while an ambulance goes on the motorway two kilometres behind you; your car is instantly informed and reminds you to form an emergency lane.

Car manufacturers are connecting more and more car components to the internet, such as shock absorbers. What’s the point of that?

This generates data that can be used in all kinds of ways. One application is predictive maintenance, as I mentioned before. Your smartphone tells you that your shock absorber has to be replaced – before it wears out completely. Road traffic authorities might also be able to find out precisely where road defects have to be remedied based on reports from numerous road users.

There are critical voices that warn against total surveillance. Is this fear justified?

That’s a problem doesn’t just apply to transportation. People already have their smartphone on them permanently, so their movements can be tracked precisely at any time. Or just think of all the unencrypted e-mails. Or the fact that people drive around with a number plate. The digitalisation of mobility hardly changes these problems.

What other risks does the digitalisation of mobility entail?

There seems to be a belief in the Western world that any useful technology has to involve a major risk. A sober look back at the past shows that for any virtually any technology you can think of, the benefits far outweigh the cost. This isn’t surprising: after all, technologies are developed with the aim of helping people. Digitalisation does entail risks too, of course. One of these is addiction-like dependence on smartphones and social isolation. Or vulnerability to hackers. The latter applies to anything where security is an issue – from healthcare right through to energy supply and mobility.

« Does every useful technology have to involve a major risk? No. But people do seem to believe this in the Western world. »

Driving without having to do anything: self-driving cars are likely to be the culmination of the digital revolution. What do you think about it?

More than 1.3 million people die in road accidents worldwide every year. Traffic accidents are the number one cause of death among young people. Autonomous vehicles could save almost all of these lives. It’s something that’s beyond our imagination. Autonomous cars would increase our quality of life, too: everyone could afford a “chauffeur”. People who are currently excluded from motorised private transport – the handicapped, young people and a lot of elderly people, for instance – could benefit from more equal participation in society. There would be autonomous taxis at a fraction of today's prices: this would democratise the automobile even more than the Mobility Cooperative already manages to do today, for example.

« Autonomous cars are capable of saving a lot of lives. »

When will we see the first autonomous vehicles on Swiss roads?

It’s hard to say when cars without steering wheels will arrive. The problem is the last mile. We’re already very close to achieving autonomous driving on motorways. In 2030, you’ll drive onto the motorway in Rotkreuz and the steering wheel will disappear into the dashboard; you’ll then watch a film projected onto the windscreen, and less than eight hours later you’ll wake up in Hamburg feeling relaxed. Finally, you’ll take the wheel yourself to drive the last few miles to wherever you’re going.

Not only is technology itself changing, so are people’s behaviour and attitudes in relation to mobility. What developments do you see here?

You have to look at how people and technology relate to each other. Humans create technology, then technology changes human behaviour. Hardly anyone was asking for a smartphone 20 years ago: today it’s the number one commodity. I can’t see into the future, but there are two trends we can observe: firstly, there’s a growing social awareness of how important exercise is to our health. Lots of people now walk more, even for distances of several kilometres. The second trend is towards a new golden age of the automobile. At the moment, cars are frowned upon. They’re considered to be a climate pollutant, a noise generator, a source of traffic congestion and accidents – and they’re not seen as being very democratic, either. With fully autonomous electric cars that are also available as inexpensive taxis, this will change – and so will people’s attitudes towards cars in general.

« A new golden age of the automobile is imminent. »

Martin Schonger is an economist and has previously taught at the ETH, Lancaster University in England and Princeton University in the USA, where he also obtained his doctorate. He acts as an advisor to technology and mobility companies, in particular on the economic consequences of fully automated cars.

New degree course:

Since September 2020, 30 students have been following the new Mobility, Data Science and Economics degree programme at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. This interdisciplinary course of study is offered jointly by the Departments of Engineering & Architecture, Economics and Computer Science in Rotkreuz ZG. The deadline for applications to start the course in September is 30 April 2021. www.hslu.ch/mobility

Dr. Martin Schonger, Course Director, Bachelor of Mobility, Data Science and Economics, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts

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