How the last mile was won

What happens when Total Recall meets Back to the Future on your way to the bus? Soon your dreaded morning commute may take less time and be more interesting, thanks to quadricycles, self-driving fleets, unicycles or even hovering disks

Home road How the last mile was won
How the last mile was won

As urban centers become more populated and people are forced to move further away from their work, commutes are becoming longer and traffic more congested. That’s why a growing number of companies, as well as urban planners, are racing to find “last-mile” solutions.

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The “last-mile challenge” refers to the difficulty in getting people to or from a transit hub, such as a rail, bus or underground station. This is particularly tricky in the US where public transportation may be patchy and many people live in low-density areas. Between 1980 and 2009, commuting times increased by 12 per cent, according to the US Census . These days, if someone wants to travel from Palo Alto in Silicon Valley to San Francisco, for example, they should allow up to two hours each way on public transport and over an hour by car. 

As a result, carmakers, ride-sharing companies and engineers are all rolling out ways to reduce commute times, stress levels and carbon footprints. Some of these last-mile solutions are already changing the way we travel to work. 

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Shared electric cars and scooters
Car sharing is gaining ground in North America and Europe. However, it is doing so one-way that is truly changing the commuting game. Unlike conventional round-trip sharing, you don’t have to return your vehicle to the place where you picked it up; instead it can be left anywhere within the “operating zone”. With more than two million customers in 30 cities, car2go – a wholly owned subsidiary of Daimler AG – is the world’s largest such company. Other organisations, such as Zipcar, are also expanding into the one-way car-share field. 

In a couple of cities – united by high population density and few parking spaces – there’s now a two-wheeled solution. Both eCooltra out of Barcelona and Scoot Networks in San Francisco have fleets of fully electric scooters that offer one-way shares. 

Micro vehicles
For those who seek something in between, there is the Renault Twizy – essentially a micro-car classified as a “heavy quadricycle” in Europe and a “neighborhood electric vehicle” in the US. The Twizy is easier to park than regular-sized cars at only 4ft wide and 7.5ft long. Meanwhile Nissan’s equally compact New Mobility Concept is being piloted through one-way shares with Scoot Networks. “People still have a desire to drive and be in control,” said Josh Westerhold, senior manager of the Nissan Future Lab. “As more people are moving into cities, we wanted a fun way to navigate the city and handle traffic and hills for cheaper than Uber or UberPool.”

nother company, Innova, is targeting the US university market with its pilot fleet of all-electric Dash cars. The firm is promoting its vehicles as a last-mile solution that improves a university’s sustainability score and makes the institution more attractive to prospective students. 

Self-driving cars
Autonomous cars have been making the news recently, and while Uber and Google’s efforts have accounted for the bulk of the coverage, Uber-rival Lyft and car giants Ford and Audi are also working on self-driving vehicles specifically for ride-hailing services. 

Lyft is partnering with General Motors to roll out thousands of self-driving electric cars for the ride-hailing service in 2018, according to a recent Reuters report. That is a full two years before any major automaker had been expected to test fully autonomous vehicles in larger volumes. As part of a ride-hailing pilot with Audi, Delphi Automotive announced it will introduce six self-driving vehicles in Singapore this year to test the technology on the city-state’s bustling streets. 

Last August, Ford announced its plans to deliver a fully-autonomous vehicle ready for commercial ride sharing and ride hailing by 2021; in December, Volkswagen launched a spinoff company, Moia, focused on “new mobility solutions” – including on-demand autonomous vehicles and ride hailing. The company hopes that by 2025 “a significant share” of its sales revenue will come from these efforts. 

Other last-mile solutions
Alternative – and intriguing – last-mile solutions include car-pooling apps such as Waze Rider and BlaBlaCar, or the fleet of “flexible vehicles” from Bridj that partners with local bus operators and uses data to create a more tailored service that eliminates transfers and reduces stops.

There is also the self-balancing electric unicycle from Solowheel, the self-balancing electric Stator Scooter and folding electric bicycles like the URB-E. Other solutions in development include a self-propelled unicycle from Ford – to be used in combination with a vehicle – or the firm’s Carr-E, which is a hoverboard-like device to carry you or your luggage.

“At the end of the day, we are going to see a variety of solutions,” says Hilary Nixon, director of research and technology transfer at the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, California. “There isn't likely to be a single magic bullet that solves this challenge for every community or for every individual.” 

Whichever you choose, you will soon be able to buckle-up or hop on and enjoy a kinder, shorter commute, and perhaps be the envy of Marty McFly in your very own version of Back to the Future.

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