Fear Of The Future: The Problem With Futurology

Originally written for Professional Manager

One of the most spectacular failures in the history of futurology happened recently – and you were almost certainly a part of it in some way. No-one predicted a majority Conservative government – not even David Cameron, who confessed that he’d spent polling day writing a letter of resignation – yet that is what we got. Still no-one has really explained why the polls were so wrong – perhaps we’ll never know.

If the UK General Election proved anything it’s that we simply can’t predict the future anymore. The rate of technological change is dizzying and the resulting disruption in our behaviour – how we eat, move, vote and drive – makes predicting what is going to happen next increasingly difficult. Yet there are careers, sectors, entire industries predicated on what might happen in five or ten year’s time.

Two emails recently caught my eye. One was asking me to lock in my energy prices until 2018; the other offering me a new flat-rate two-year mortgage – we’re being offered ways to future-proof ourselves at every turn. Why? Because we don’t know what’s going to happen – and we may even fear it. There may not have been much obvious enthusiasm for another five years of David Cameron’s government, but the consensus seems to be that voters decided they preferred the devil they think they know. In the automotive industry I get the impression that, as Donald Rumsfeld memorably put it, there are known unknowns but there are also unknown unknowns – the things we don’t know that we don’t know.

I’m an early adopter – I like to try things out when they come along, partly out of curiosity and partly because it’s my job to form opinions on new technologies. One is Liftshare – a network that allows people doing similar journeys to buddy up and save petrol. Another is Rentecarlo – a network that allows me to rent out my private car for profit. I’ve received precisely zero requests on either, but I think that will change as networks become more integrated and data more easily shared. These networks are in their infancy and I expect them grow in the same way that the poster boy for this tech did.

Uber is a lift-sharing app that no-one really saw coming and is changing the face of the minicab and rental industry. It’s simple in that you bypass the private hire companies and go straight to the drivers. They may be a private hire, they may not. But your ride arrives more quickly, with less fuss and it tends to be cheaper. Private-hire companies that may have existed for decades are in danger of swept away by Uber – an app that didn’t exist five years ago – if they don’t adapt quickly.

But the company isn’t stopping there. Uber says all of its cars will be autonomous as soon as is viable. Google is working on the tech; industry rumour suggests Apple is building a car. Disruptive innovation is rarely a friend to established businesses – unless they can ride the wave of new technologies. Trying to read the runes in automotive requires a journalist to play with the new gadgetry finding its way into cars; downloading apps, pairing devices and flicking through more menus than a vegetarian in Germany.

The UK car industry’s annual jamboree at testing ground Millbrook recently allowed manufacturers to show off their best and brightest new cars to the assembled press pack. The advances in car tech visible at such events – some on prototypes and concepts but mostly on-the-road now or in the near future – never fail to astound.

It’s really not that long since you have to juggle a set of discs, to be manually loaded in a tray somewhere in the boot of your car, if you wanted satellite navigation in a different country. It’s not so long since you had a choice of FM and AM on car radios; since a third-party CD player had to be fitted at your local garage if you wanted to hear your favourite band in crystal clarity. Now you can get live or as-good-as-live updates on all traffic everywhere. Not only can your satnav relay that information, it can also understand it and change your route accordingly.

Or you can watch live television, answer emails, send tweets – all using voice control. That change happened in a little over five years; where might it take us five years hence? Self-driving cars, EVs, increasingly sophisticated interfaces, data crunching, more leisure and improved communication seem to be the consensus. If smartphones are a template for the pace of market-driven technological change – the most basic telephony handsets to wearables in barely 15 years – what might be about to happen in automotive is startling.

My sense from all the cars I’ve driven recently is that, if you want to know where car technology is going in the very near future, look to your mobile phone. Not merely in terms of the design and interface – there’s little point in duplicating all those apps, all that data and personalisation in your car when it already exists in your handset. Your smartphone will be the key to open the door literally and metaphorically, to a universe of data and tools and apps in the latter case. And your mobile contract – locked in to a service provider, feeding all your data to your apps and offering an increasingly walled-garden of software choices – is instructive in how we’re increasingly choosing to operate in these sectors.

It’s important to note that this may not all be a land of milk and honey and the ramifications may be difficult for the fleet industry to get to grips with. While new opportunities will open up, some industries may be headed for the exit ramp. Just how the road and power networks would cope with an explosion of smartcars hasn’t really been worked out – and that’s one area the private sector can’t drive without public investment.

And while 3G and 4G have revolutionised the way we access our information and entertainment, the likelihood is that 30m autonomous cars exchanging terabytes of data and streaming the latest Games Of Thrones episode are going to take quite a toll on our clogged e-networks.

There are rather more fundamental issues here too. If no-one crashes a car what does that mean for the insurance industry? What will happen to the oil industry if no-one buys petrol any more – and how will our creaking national grid cope when everyone plugs in their car at night? If no-one is injured in a car or on the roads, what about medical insurance? If no cars are damaged, what of mechanics? If getting a ride is as easy as pressing a button on your watch, what of car-rental companies? And if all cars drive themselves who trains learner drivers? Mans taxis? Drives buses? Who regulates these new markets – and can the state ever react quickly enough?

More to the point why would anyone choose to buy a lump of metal that spends most of its time sitting on their front doorstep and loses two thirds of its value within three years? Will private-car ownership make the slightest sense in years to come?

The answers to these known – and unknown – unknowns might be a few short years away, yet they are still unclear to us. That’s the problem with futurology – as Ed Miliband found out to his cost, it’s usually wrong.

Leaps Of Faith: Mobility Is The Next Big Paradigm Shift

Originally written for Professional Manager

Are you agnostic? I ask because most experts believe that in the future we will all be agnostic – we won’t invest our undivided loyalty or faith in one single place. We will choose whatever service suits us best at the time and, needless to say, I’m not talking about a Sunday service.

I am increasingly software and hardware agnostic – I will use whatever I think works best at a particular time, whether that’s a video editor, page layout programme or platform for sharing information. I’m also mobility agnostic. I own a vehicle but I also test drive cars. Occasionally I rent, sometimes I use public transport and I’ve even used car-sharing apps. Purely out of curiosity my Honda Accord is listed on a website that allows complete strangers to hire it for the day. I use taxi app Uber occasionally, I have two or three private hires in my phone and I hail black cabs.

Simply put, I will use whatever combination of services that best fit my disparate needs. We don’t spend tens of thousands of pounds upfront on a physical product that gives us access to the internet, or water or energy – and it’s only through habit that we’ve come to see cars as an asset rather than mobility as a service.

To extend the metaphor we’d think it crazy if a new business installed a bunch of generators on their premises and eschewed the national grid and resultant monthly bill. Think of all the capital outlay, the dedicated team required to look after them, the space they would take up, the need to insure against damage or injury – we would view this as absurd, yet that’s what we do when buying fleets of cars.

Why sink hundreds of thousands into costly, bulky cars when you can use a free app on your phone to look after your company’s mobility requirements and settle the balance at the end of the month? No insurance, no maintenance, no fuel cards or fleet renewal – and no squabbling over parking spaces. This is not about the end of the company car, but an integrated solution of which the motor is only a part. Even the US Government is alert to the fluid transport scenario – and its potential, asking its agencies to car-share in order to cut its estimated 630,000 fleet by a tenth.

The current jargon is ‘asset light, technology heavy’: you may be a fleet manager now – in the future you’re likely to be described as a mobility manager, responsible for some of the duties that may now belong to purchasing, finance and HR. Or if you’re a user-chooser you may be given a mobility allowance to use on whatever transport best suits you, rather than a company car.

The amounts of data we can store, access and transmit is the key to future mobility – and part of the reasons such solutions have never really caught on in the past. Where Uber offers private cars and MPVs via the flick of a thumb its Chinese rival Didi Kuaidi has recently added the ability to book a bus using its app, to add to its one-stop taxi-hailing, online car-booking, chauffeur and ride-sharing service. How long before trains, trams and even flights are added to such mobility offerings – all routed through your smartphone?

Car-sharing is one area where the shift to mobility is already happening, due to upwards pressure from tech-savvy millennials keen to save money and comfortable with using smartphone apps to access services. With the annual cost of car ownership in the UK estimated at anywhere between £3,500 – £7,000 it’s no surprise that membership of leading carpooling company BlaBlaCar doubled during 2014. These platforms may not be quite mature, but the potential is a significant cost saving and a much easier life in relation to transport. And while this is a rare case of private owners driving the business sector, these are solutions that large companies are offering to their employees right now.

Who would ever have thought, ten years ago, that we’d buy a watch from Apple? A Tesco tablet. Our television from BT? We do it all the time. We have become device agnostic and service agnostic – it’s time we became mobility agnostic. Autonomous cars, electric cars and even flying cars are on our current horizons. But mobility is the next big paradigm in how we view transport – whether you believe in it or not.

Mobility now

Services we use every day that will drive mobility

You may not realise it but the chances are you’re already using services that are the building blocks to an integrated, mobility-agnostic transport service. Not only that, there’s a good chance you have them in your pocket right now.

Let me start with a question – when is the last time you paid for a tube ticket with cash? Chances are the day you swiped your Oyster Card, you never looked back. And why would you? It’s easier, it’s faster, it’s much cheaper. And when consumers find something that saves the money, time and faff, whatever it replaced is driven quickly into obsolescence.

Of course, Transport For London also offer the so-called Boris Bikes – cycles available for short-term rental from hundreds of points around the capital. Widely adopted by all major cities, these bike services are best accessed through an app, which delivers live updates on availability and allows you to plan journeys and see charges. Whether you pay-as-you-pedal or opt for an annual charge, it’s a quick and easy way to access transport, use it and leave it.

Among carpooling services that allow people to grab a seat on a car journey – or offer a lift – BlaBlaCar is one of one of Europe’s quickest-growing. Using the app users can scan a number of journeys being offered by members – and make journeys of around 50 miles for less than a fiver. Alternatively users can offer a lift and split the cost of petrol – conceivably they can journey for free with a full car. From an environmental perspective it’s win-win, but there are also considerations over costs, efficiency and convenience.

For those requiring a car for a short-term rental there’s ZipCar – with the app it’s easy to find its fleet on the streets of UK cities and with a code access is straightforward. Short of the paperwork, frequently remote premises and inevitable delays of visiting a rental depot, it has considerable benefits. You can use the app to book and locate cars – and even to unlock them, while payment is taken care off online. For a one-off journey within the city, Uber and Lyft offer similar functionality.

What mobility is currently lacking is a one-stop application that knits all these modes of transport together. That would allow users and managers to simply request a journey and know that a combination of the cheapest and quickest service will be despatched, completed and billed automatically.

Again the building blocks are in place. Telematics apps such as TeleMatics and Spedion can locate a driver and relay information on where they are, how fast they’re travelling and even crunch the data to judge how well they’re driving. Marry up the various datasets provided by these apps and services – as someone surely will very soon – and you have a platform that can deliver an integrated mobility app.