That is a simple concept on an individual basis, but imagine 2 million, or even 10 million people, all trying to get from point A to B simultaneously. Imagine all of the infrastructure and logistics that are required to accommodate all those people. Imagine all of the trains and buses, roads and bridges… and all of the cars on the roads.

Now, imagine a world where cars form part of a larger network offering an intelligent transportation system, where the latest technology is applied to optimizing efficiency and safety.

Welcome to the new age of mobility!

A little over a century ago, the invention of the automobile revolutionized the way people live. It allowed us to move around like never before, and that invention now influences so many aspects of our lives that it is hard to imagine a world without vehicles.

Nevertheless, when the automobile first took to the roads, many people were not necessarily enthusiastic about the newfangled machine. Many feared the invention and didn’t understand what automobiles could offer that horses could not. Over the years, the new industry worked very hard to change people’s perceptions in order to make the automobile synonymous with mobility and, ultimately, freedom.

Governments around the globe had to adapt to the increasing presence of automobiles by investing in new roads and bridges that allowed for greater mobility. Gradually, transportation infrastructure became the backbone of modern society.

The impact of automobiles on the ‘built environment’ has varied across the world and has been influenced by culture, geography, and existing infrastructure. The big picture, however, looks the same everywhere: too many vehicles on the roads leads to unforeseen problems. As more and more people purchase automobiles and move to the suburbs, the advent of the daily commute introduces traffic nightmares, high transportation costs, and pollution that causes health problems

A Need for Change

The current status quo is simply no longer sustainable. In 1990, 39.2 million new cars were purchased globally, a figure that will nearly double to 74.4 million vehicles by the end of 2016. By 2020, global annual vehicle sales are expected to exceed 100 million units.

Despite car sales heading for record levels, the winds are shifting. We are witnessing a period of disruption brought about by innovative technologies, the new generation of consumers and entrepreneurs, and transformative ideas that address the problems in our transportation network.

We have come full circle, and once again the automobile is front and centre as one of the most important changes in this new age of mobility. Today’s cars are smart and already include some level of automation, like automatic parking and lane change assistance.

They interact with roadside devices in unprecedented ways, with connected vehicles sending and receiving signals with other vehicles, street lights, road sensors, and other devices that help make your driving experience safer and better. Today, self-driving cars are bringing us one step closer to what was once seen as pure science fiction. “In my opinion, not considering the impact of C/AV at this point is simply malpractice,” says Scott Shogan, Connected/Automated Vehicle Market Leader for WSP in the US.

Global Race

While you are reading this, people are driving autonomous vehicles. Tesla, Google, Volvo, and several other innovative companies have already built functioning autonomous vehicles. In order to foster a better understanding of emerging technologies, our transport authorities, transit system operators, and city officials need to work closely with these companies to prepare for the introduction of autonomous cars on our roads.

In the United States, the State of Michigan has already been working with connected and automated vehicles for quite some time and has developed an interesting project called Mcity, which simulates conditions that these vehicles will encounter on real-world roadways. Mcity includes a network of roadways with intersections, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, simulated buildings, streetlights, and obstacles like construction barriers.

In Sweden, Volvo is preparing to test 100 self-driving cars in the streets of Gothenburg, the country’s second largest city.

“We have the opportunity to design and deploy some very advanced technology systems,” says Jan Hellåker, Program Director for Drive Sweden, the organization in charge of promoting the project’s driverless initiatives. “But we need all stakeholders to become involved in order to establish an open dialogue that ensures that we do things right.”

China has not shied away from autonomous vehicles either, with the charge being led by technology giants who have partnered with car manufacturers. Chinese companies like Changan, Baidu, and Geely have all been building and testing their own self-driving vehicles.

Beyond Driverless

Today’s cars are safer and cause less pollution than ever before, and driverless technologies continue to improve the situation. Self-driving vehicles have to be powered electrically, or by other sustainable solutions, and we must work to have fewer vehicles on our roads. A massive congestion of fuel-powered driverless cars is no better than the present situation.

“We need to change our relationship with our cars if we want there to be societal benefits from autonomous vehicles,” says Dirk van Amelsfort. “We need to rethink our conception of mobility.”

To align with that thinking we need to focus on the main concept of ‘mobility’ because there are many different ways to get from point A to B. That is exactly the proposition that Uber and other ride-sharing services are offering at a time when the number of cars shared in North America alone is set to explode, from 72,000 today to more than 620,000 by 2020. Vehicle connectivity is radically changing the rules of the game in mobility, and companies like Uber, ZipCar, among others, are shifting their mindset in their approach to driverless cars.

In a world with self-driving cars, there will also be better public transit, car sharing, taxis, and so forth. What we are seeking are more flexible mobility solutions.

Our decisions today will have a profound impact on the design of the roads and cities of tomorrow.