The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in fewer people traveling.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in fewer people traveling.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Pixabay)

TRANSPORT 2021 What can we expect from mobility in 2021?

Author / Editor: Cate Lawrence / Nicole Kareta

COVID-19 caused significant disruption to the mobility sector in 2020. Many cities are still flipping between fully functional and shutdown due to the volatility of the virus. What impact will this have on transport providers, OEMs, startups, and the technologies underpinning vehicle innovation? We ask key industry analysts for their 2021 predictions.

2020 was a year that no one could have anticipated. Offices and schools closed, people stayed home, and borders shut. Most non-essential transport ground to a halt. All of this had a significant impact on the mobility industry. Public transport providers grappled with declining commuters, sanitation, and keeping employees safe. OEMs downed tools for periods or pivoted to creating hardware to assist those suffering from COVID-19. Bike ownership increased but so did single car occupancy as commuters strived to find ways of avoiding the risk of COVID-19 transmission. But it’s a new year, and while business as usual has been fundamentally changed across many verticals, it also has created opportunities for recovery and resilience. I spoke to several key industry analysts, to get their take on what we can expect for mobility in 2021. Let’s take a look:

Think Advanced Driver Assistance Systems not autonomous vehicles

Some would like to think that this year we’ll see a slew of autonomous vehicles on the road with nary a driver in sight, but nothing could be further than the truth. While AutoX and Didi’s self-driving taxis in China are progressing, and Waymo is making strides in the US, the reality in a global sense is more about incremental automation.

Kris Baxter, Corporate Vice President & General Manager of the Embedded Business Unit at Micron contends:

“We’re a long way away from having the technology to be fully autonomous. We’ve seen Tesla backing away from autonomous claims and highlighting ADAS Level 2 and Level 3. We see an increase in that space — adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping, automatic braking, driver monitoring systems. The overall market is going to be very strong in 2021, not for autonomous vehicles, but digitalization of the cabin.”

Kris asserts that autonomous vehicles are going to make it into the enterprise first: “robo-taxis, long-haul trucking applications, areas that can afford the costs associated with automation. With the explosion in automotive data, we’ll also see a shift towards centralizing vehicle computing.

Creative options for low-power, high-bandwidth memory and storage

The amount of compute performance needed for cars is reaching data center levels; in ADAS and autonomous driving, cars need hundreds of tera operations per second. Kris suggests in 2021:

“We can expect to see embedded players increasingly turning to creative options for low-power, high-bandwidth memory, and storage. For instance, standard PCB RAM and or low-power DRAM is turning into graphics memory like GDDR6, which we’ll see increasingly adopted in cars which need fast, high-performance memory. In the year ahead, to accommodate the small physical footprint of cars, we can also expect to see automotive engineers increasingly turn to multi-chip packages, which combine memory and storage into one streamlined package.”

Kris also believes that 2021 will see the beginning of an architectural transition “where we're going to go from having a fragmented architecture with individual engine control units around the car to having a single domain controller.”

Electric vehicles will increase their market share

Last year the sale of electric vehicles (EVs) in Norway overtook those powered by petrol, diesel, and hybrid engines last year, with German auto-maker Volkswagen replacing Tesla as the top battery-vehicle producer. Sean Simpson, a Venture Capitalist with WIND Ventures in San Francisco believes there are many tech opportunities to help accelerate electric vehicle adoption, such as fast charging, wireless charging and smart grid management. This is a space well served by startups. Sean suggests that 2021 will see an increase in the number of use-cases where EVs can show their worth such as commercial fleet areas. However, electric vehicles will only expand from their early adopter market if price points match other cars on the market and satisfy consumers' mileage requirements.

Micromobility will lead sector recovery

We saw micromobility providers struggle in the first half of 2020, with many closing operations temporarily in response to the pandemic as they grappled with the challenges of hygiene and reduced travelers. Sean suggests that as things (hopefully) start to open back up, ride-hail/rideshare/micromobility should pick back up at a faster rate than public transport: “Those that can afford to do so will look to minimize their exposure surface.”

Sean notes that autonomous vehicles are still years away from even being a small percentage of rideshare/ride-hail. However, the same core technologies such as LiDAR, radar, computer vision, high-power compute, AI and machine learning will find simpler/less risky use-cases, as seen through Starship Technologies self-driving robotic delivery vehicles. “This will continue to improve their performance as well as start building public trust, which will always be the elephant in the room when it comes to mass scale “robotaxi” deployments.“

Flying taxis require a combination of tradition and agility

Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VOTL) aircraft have been progressing over the last few years. Ehang announced the launch of their first unstaffed tourist flights in Zhaoqing, China, for 2021. Porsche partnered with Boeing last year to expand their capacity in urban air mobility while Volocopter received a reservation order for the purchase of their aircraft for emergency operations in Germany.

Sean believes that “the companies that combine the positives of the “old guard” with startup speed/agility will win. This is a heavily regulated space where experience/relationships with regulators will really matter and having a large established player involved will pay dividends. Pay close attention to what companies like Boeing and Airbus are doing in the space.”

Aviation uses technology for frictionless operations

Smoother passenger interactions and frictionless journeys have long been key objectives for the airport sector. Murray Rowden, Managing Director for the Americas and Global Head of Infrastructure at Turner & Townsend, notes that many of the contactless requirements for COVID-19 will assist in these endeavors:

“Best practice across international hub airports is coalescing around a series of key measures. Check-in requires self-service boarding pass collection and bag-drop, biometric checkpoints, and virtual queues. Departure areas are focusing on app-based boarding, pier-centric food and retail offerings to limit movement and the reorganization of communal lounges.”