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The Future of Urban Transportation Isn't Autonomous Cars - It's Bicycles

When it comes to the future of transportation, the word of the day is autonomous cars.

The booming market is estimated to grow to $126 billion by 2027, with a preposterous 25% CAGR (compound annual growth rate). It’s easy to see the reason why almost all the big auto players are (at least to an extent) pivoting to self-driving, hoping for the piece of the forthcoming pie.

But the excitement about AV’s (autonomous vehicles) reaches far beyond the traditional car industry. Many tech-first companies are jumping on the bandwagon too, including Google, Apple, Tesla, Uber and Lyft, with plenty others joining the fray. Everyone has their own reasons and their unique concerns about competing in the autonomous market.

Personally, I too am excited about the prospect of unmanned vehicles. I can't wait to see how it helps us solve a mounting array of transportation problems we’re currently facing, from congestion to road safety.

I have no doubt that AV’s will have an important role to play in the future of transportation. At the same time however, I remain VERY skeptical about the impact it will have on the future of urban transportation in particular. And for a couple of reasons:

1. The evolution of AV tech

Autonomous cars are ‘driven’ by artificial intelligence, meaning that, just like its human counterpart, the A.I. needs to be capable of dealing with - and overcoming - all sorts of different traffic hazards. Those perils are, at least comparatively, pretty rare on the motorway.

When it comes to driving in a city, on the other hand, the complexity multiplies.

What most urban AV enthusiasts seem to neglect is that the technology is still very much in a nascent stage. We’ll definitely see autonomous trucks cruising on the motorways before we see AV’s being able to handle all the small intricacies of urban traffic.

But exactly how long will that take? And how safe will the end result actually be?

Nobody can say for sure at this point, which is why I remain reasonably pessimistic. If you’re interested in learning more about the issue, be sure to check out the SAE's (Society of Automobile Engineers) analysis of autonomous driving levels, to get a sense of how our top engineers foresee the evolution of autonomous car tech.

2. Cities are getting denser (and going carless)

Urbanisation has been a global trend for decades now. Today, over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, with analysts expecting that number to rise to 66% by 2050.

As the cities enlarge, the traffic becomes denser - and exponentially more unbearable - creating fresh new obstacles for AVs.

I’m sure that, in time, autonomous cars will evolve to become more ergonomic than their ‘analog’ counterparts, and save us some much-needed space on the roads. At the moment though, they’re still far too big and clunky to be considered the panacea for urban transport. As it stands, they can’t help us solve many of our current traffic issues, let alone future ones.

Another worrying trend for the AV ambassadors is that more and more cities are deciding to go carless, which doesn’t bode well for the auto industry in general.

Oslo is planning to permanently ban all cars from its city centers by 2019. Madrid is currently in the process of redesigning 24 of the city's busiest streets for walking instead of driving. And similar to Paris, London has pledged to ban all diesel cars from the city by 2020, and has already implemented a ‘congestion charge’ to discourage diesel cars from entering some city areas.

With cities becoming bigger and the ensuing overcrowding woes, cars - autonomous or not - will simply be taking too much space to pose an effective solution. That is why I - along with many others - believe that bicycles, not motorized vehicles, will have a crucial role to play in reimagining the urban areas of the future.

Pedaling Forward

Many VCs and angel investors seem to share my enthusiasm for bikes when envisioning the future of transportation. After all, how else would you explain the billion-dollar valuations of bike sharing companies like Ofo and Mobike, that didn’t even exist a few years back?

Personally, I think dockless bike sharing is solving an important problem and encourages more people to take on cycling, which is especially important for countries like the UK, where 69% of the population never gets on a bike (although there’s a clear upward trend).

At the same time, I think cycling space needs A LOT more innovation in order to live up to its mounting expectations. Be it a novel bike sharing model or new ways to promote cycling, the industry craves fresh ideas.

To that point, I really like Buzzbike’s new bike subscription model, which includes regular maintenance, servicing and even theft insurance, for a comprehensive and worry-free cycling experience. (disclaimer: Buzzbikes and ofo are among our clients. We work with them because we love what they do, though.)

On the other hand, no amount of innovation will be enough without a proactive, cycle-friendly regulatory framework mandated by the world governments. To that end, the UK is still lagging behind many of its European peers, as we’ve mentioned several times before, especially when discussing the issue of presumed liability.

To sum-up, I do believe bicycles are destined to play a much more important role than cars - autonomous or otherwise - in the future of urban transportation. As it stands, though, the cycling industry remains a long ways away from claiming that role, and running away with it. At Honor Cycles, we’re doing our part every day to see that happen.

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