The future of transportation will disrupt existing mobility systems and businesses, says Reji Pillai, President, India Smart Grid Forum.
Technological innovations in the urban mobility sector are rapid and make recent innovations redundant in the urban transportation sphere. How do we ensure smart urban mobility in India to establish 100 Smart Cities?
The future of transportation looks very exciting with several groundbreaking technologies that are going to be commercialised on the fast track. It is going to be disruptive for existing mobility systems and businesses. First of all, the traditional automobile ownership and operation model is fast changing ù instead of owning a car as an asset, people will order it as a service. We are already witnessing it through Uber and Ola. This is going to reduce the total number of automobiles sold as utilisation factor of every vehicle in this model will be very high. Traditionally a car bought by an individual is driven less than 2 hours a day and rest of the time it is parked, sometimes for days and weeks it is parked, as the owner is out of town. In the Uber/Ola model, cars are driven round the clock. In the next phase, we will see autonomous or self-driven vehicles which will reduce road accidents and increase overall productivity as people can do their work while being driven around. All these vehicles are going to be electric very soon, making a major shift from the oil economy to electrification of transportation, which is emission-less. The impact of these shifts ù which are already taking place -are very disruptive for automobile manufacturers, oil producers and retailers and more critically, it will displace millions of drivers in developing countries like India.
In the next phase of the revolution in mobility, we will see more and more devices which will facilitate aerial transportation. Passenger Drones (example: Velocopter), Vertical Take-off Units (VTUs) or Flying Cars (example: TF-XTM), Personal Jetpacks, Autonomous Aerial Vehicles (example: Ehang 184), Hoverbikes etc. These are going to be even more disruptive, as most of us will be travelling aerially before 2030. Roads will become less congested and parking lots will be mostly unused.
In mass transportation, while we will see Hyperloop replacing bullet trains and competing with airlines, in urban mass transportation we will see Transit Elevated Buses (TEBs) replacing Metros.
Which futuristic technology needs our immediate attention and investment if redundancy has to be factored in, to usher in smart urban mobility?
All the emerging technologies that I mentioned above are disruptive, and if we continue to design our buildings, roads, parking spaces and highways, much of that investment will be redundant. Buildings and homes may not need as much parking as vehicle ownership will reduce (people will be ordering Uber/Ola), but we would need charging locations for electric cars. Instead of parking space on the ground, homes and flats would require landing pads for passenger and delivery drones ù drone pads like helipads on big towers now. Roads would require separate lanes for autonomous vehicles, and highways should be designed with separate lanes at frequent intervals for flying cars to take off and land; electric utilities need to create appropriate infrastructure for charging all these new devices - both driven on ground as well as aerial ones. All these will be a reality in less than 20 years.
In the interim stage (till such newer technological innovations become a daily staple of smart travel) which urban development model should be emphasised upon in sync with future technologies like Hyperloop, personal jet booster technology and even the mega public transport options that are quick to execute and would be able to maintain pace with subsequent techno-initiatives?
We should straight go for Hyperloop which is cheaper and faster to build than bullet trains. Even the Maglev or magnetic trains which Japan is building presently will travel at half the speed of Hyperloop. Similarly the TEB will be much faster and cheaper to build than Metros in urban areas. We should actively promote electric vehicles both for personal and public transportation that will drastically improve air quality in cities.
Is the pace of infrastructure development in India acceptable? What needs to be done to give an impetus to encourage smart urban mobility?
Infrastructure development in the country has always been poor in planning, designing, construction and maintenance. We need to involve domain experts and specialists in planning new infrastructure. While ôwalk to workö as practiced in the past is the best solution for urban mobility, we could plan new cities where a minimum number of people need to drive or use motorised transportation. Where ever feasible, we should design cities with water transportation as well.
What are the true challenges facing the creation of Smart Cities, 60 odd to begin with, in the first phase?
Building new cities and populating them takes decades and transforming existing cities to Smart Cities where basic infrastructure needs to be built is even more difficult. In the Indian context, none of these 60 cities selected under the Smart City Mission have 24x7 electricity or water supply; they donÆt have mass transportation systems, no toilets for everyone, no solid waste management systems, no city control and command centres. Creating all these will take time and huge investments. Only communication, automation and IT systems will not make a city smart. In the developed nations where most of the basic infrastructure is in place, the Smart City concept is different ù (there is) more of automation and integrated operations of different domains for optimisation of assets and services. Here it has to start with building new infrastructure. But we can leapfrog and build smart infrastructure if we plan it well.
Are smart urban development plans like 100 Smart Cities, 407 railway stations targeted for integrated development, and similar projects, realistic plans for execution?
Of course, these can be done. But as mentioned earlier, they need to be planned well by experts and built properly.
How does India Inc move into top gear in terms of execution of infrastructure projects to come on par with international standards? What is the mantra that our corporate sector has to adopt?
Though we have a few good Indian companies who can build international quality infrastructure, more often they are not selected in public procurement which happens through the lowest bidding route. I often say that unless we find a transparent procurement framework to move away from the ôL1 Bidö system, we will continue to be a developing country ù never a developed country. Every third person in the country need not become a contractor who manages to get contracts through unfair means or by quoting unworkable prices and building sub-standard infrastructure. What we need are a hundred good companies like L&T which can employ millions of trained workers and deploy state-of-the-art technology and equipment to build world-class infrastructure within the planned time and cost.
What further policy initiatives are needed for this from the government in order to enthuse investments in the infrastructure field, to make Smart Cities a reality and ensure all stakeholders are taken on board?
I already stated that in above paragraphs. First and foremost is a single owner for a Smart City who will be responsible for all the systems and services within the city. This may require constitutional changes. Second is smart planning and smart procurement.
The PPP model of development for infrastructure has run into a reluctant private sector, over concerns over return on investment, assuredness of payments, issues of arbitration and environmentalists delaying project completion. Hybrid models are thus being emphasised to make infra projects more lucrative. What is the way ahead?
We should learn to respect the sanctity of contracts. Once a contract is in place, that should be honoured, even if there is a change of government. Investors lost faith in many BOOT and BOT projects owing to several examples of cancellation of contracts.
How can Indian infrastructure achieve an equilibrium so that the mismatch between available modes of transport and growth of passenger traffic is reconciled?
In the business as usual scenario it may not happen anytime soon. But my guess is that technological breakthroughs will make the necessity for travel less and less in the coming days.
Which are the smart urban transport models you would put your money on? Please spell out the future of Indian transportation a decade from now, two decades from now and three decades from now.
For mass transport I will bet on TEBs and Hyperloop. For personal transport in the next 10 years, it will be electric vehicles; (for the) following decade it will be passenger drones. I don't want to predict what will happen in three decades, as that is too risky!
About The Author
Reji Kumar Pillai is the President of India Smart Grid Forum (www.indiasmartgrid.org) since its inception in 2011. His current areas of research include: WiFi as Last Mile Connectivity Solution for Smart Metering, Smart Grids as Anchor Infrastructure for Smart Cities, Development of Smart City Maturity Model, Grid Interactive Buildings and Campuses and Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure Standards for India.