Beyond Unicorns: How the Start-Up Nation could get Smart Mobility right

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Israel has become an innovation hub for smart mobility. Its unique mix of entrepreneurial spirit and software expertise, combined with global trends that crave novelty and demand green thinking, puts Israel on track to become a global and independent leader in sustainable mobility. Intel’s recent acquisition of Moovit – the second successful unicorn exit of Israel’s smart mobility start-up scene, after Mobileye – affirms this potential. However, smart mobility in itself does not necessarily mean sustainable mobility, and a billion dollar payday for a company that focuses on improving public transportation is no guarantor of benefit to the public. The missing component: stronger government leadership to steer private commercial interests.

With a growing number of smart mobility start-ups, tech evangelists often boast about the numerous gains the future of mobility holds, from decreasing carbon emissions and urban congestion to reducing the number of accidents. Moovit’s founder, for example, claims that its data will help design environmentally friendly robo-taxis and make cities more livable, but is that true? A closer look reveals some caveats, which must be addressed if Israel’s tech ecosystem wishes to evolve into something more than a delivery service for Silicon Valley.

The Promise of Smart Mobility

The advantages of Moovit, Mobileye and Co. are uncontested. Smart shared mobility services, including taxis, mopeds, bicycles and e-scooters, are now shaping the streetscape, enabling flexible use by anyone with access to a credit card and a smartphone – mostly the younger generation and tourists. These means of transport can be freely combined, and well-designed digital interfaces make it possible to easily find suitable offers in a short time. Moreover, once-routine annoyances like the daily search for a parking space and the occasional trip to the mechanic are as good as gone. But smart mobility, as it is currently envisioned, designed and deployed, both misses out on its full potential and does not pay close enough attention to the associated risks. 

Smart transportation has the potential to play a key role in the fight against climate change, starting with significantly reducing carbon emissions and all the way to facilitating smarter and greener urban planning. Model studies from Helsinki and Lisbon show that in theory, a system of intelligently controlled shared taxis could make it possible to reduce the number of cars by 96% in the long term. As a result, CO2 emissions and the number of traffic jams would be reduced by about a third – and more public parking spaces could become available. If shared mobility could substitute private car use, for instance, in the wider metropolitan area of Tel Aviv, the congestion would decrease dramatically, punctual and frictionless travel could become the norm, and the quality of life, especially for families, would be significantly improved.

Smart Mobility does not necessarily mean Sustainable Mobility

But popular smart mobility solutions, in their current design and delivery, hardly have a positive impact on mitigating climate change. As demonstrated in my research, as well as that of other researchers, shared mobility services do little to reduce the usage of private cars but rather serve as alternatives to public transport, or even generate additional demand for vehicles. If they do replace private cars, then only for a limited time period. Ridesharing providers such as UBER also increase the movement of empty vehicles to an extent that cancels out the propagated effect of reducing the number of cars on the streets and thereby, the theoretical benefits for climate protection. In addition, current models of smart mobility are only profitable if there is a sufficient density of users. This suggests that its potential is limited to the inner cities of large conurbations – which in Germany, for example, accounts for only five percent of the total population. As a result, smart mobility solutions can be deployed in limited spaces, rendering their potential effects on climate change mitigation negligible. 

In order to leverage its potential and transform it into a public good, smart mobility requires alternative economic incentives for tech-companies as well as carefully thought out and forward-looking public policy. Such public policy will need to not only look after harnessing the advantages of smart mobility, but also to safeguard the public interest from potential risks associated with the digitalization of mobility and aggregation of user-data, such as surveillance capitalism and new forms of totalitarian practices. 

With the demand for shared mobility offers on the rise, the volume of personal location data being collected and sold as a commodity to third parties is growing at an alarming rate. Aggregated mobility data allows for some useful services, such as real-time traffic-jam prediction, but at the same time, it places excessive power in the hands of private companies, especially in a market with a tendency towards monopolization. Municipalities and other public sector actors often are not even able to buy the data to better manage public transport. Instead of democratically controlled institutions, “data oligarchs” end up having sovereignty over a wide range of personal geolocation data, resulting in potential for social control and regulatory power. In China, this high-resolution data, combined with ubiquitous video surveillance systems, is already being used to monitor the population, effectively compromising civil liberty. Also in Israel, according to an official survey, most people mistrust data tracking apps and the companies behind it, and feel that their privacy isn’t sufficiently protected.

How to get Smart Mobility right

For advances in smart mobility to truly be celebrated, they must be coupled with policies that simultaneously maximize their potential while circumventing the associated risks. To do this, policy makers in Israel (and beyond) need to ensure personal data protection and harness the potential of smart mobility to green-up the transportation sector.

First, smart mobility companies  should serve citizens, not abuse them as a data resource. One model to achieve this is to organize the data platform as a cooperative where data is owned by the users. Users may agree to donate their data for the public good, such as congestion reduction schemes, but would insist on individual consent if used for commercial activities – and may even demand to be paid for the data they provide. Such software and organization models have already been established in Switzerland, for example.

Second, ensuring high data protection means, in its most basic form, preventing personal data from being passed on to data mining companies and domestic and foreign secret services. For example, Blockchain technologies can be used to enable automated ticketing without storing personal information. The app by Berlin’s public transport company is exemplary in this sense, because it does not record trip patterns. Integrated mobility platforms, such as Berlin’s Jelbi, are central to ensuring that smart mobility also serves the common good. In principle, trusted mobility platforms work like this: possible cross-sectional data is first anonymized, then synthetic data with the same statistical properties is calculated, but without reference to any individual person. This data is then used for sustainable urban or transport planning, and can be made available to private providers for a fee, thus further refining their mobility services. 

Third, smart mobility must be resolutely geared towards climate protection and a better quality of life. Tel Aviv is the 5th most congested city in the world, and time spent in traffic costs society 2% of GDP. Car traffic also leads to about 500 deaths by air pollution every year in Israel, and more than 300 fatal accidents. Smart mobility that replaces private cars can help alleviate this burden. Among other things, it reduces congestion and CO2 emissions by more than a third, enabling faster and stress free commute. A shift from private cars to smart mobility would also free parking spaces for public life. Achieving this scenario is technically straight forward, as smart mobility technologies are already up and running. But it also requires effective policies that incentivize the use of smart mobility, but also push private cars out of the city, where they are most harmful. Re-allocating public and private parking space for human activities is a key policy to achieve this goal. Public parking spaces should increasingly be reserved for users of car sharing services. Bicycle and e-scooter sharing can be made even more attractive, for example, by introducing designated separate lanes on both sides of all main roads. Other policies may incentivize the provision of car free housing, e.g. by tax rebates.   

An integrated data platform for smart mobility, following the outlined principles of trusted data governance, would benefit Israel multifold. It will enable new mobility patterns that reduce air pollution, congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, while making travel more convenient and relaxed. It would empower citizens by ensuring their control over their data. And trusted data management would also enable start-ups to interact with synthetic data, or provide novel blockchain technologies – thus starting a new business model – while avoiding the dangers of surveillance capitalism.

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