Future of commuting: Are we heading to a world without cars?

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Future of commuting: In 2018, I met up with some friends. We started discussing traffic, pollution, the electric car revolution, the terrible state of transport infrastructure in the city, and what the future could look like. Most felt that the only way Mumbai, and more so India, can become liveable is if the government puts controls in place to curb the population, improve the public transport system significantly, and reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

Some felt that electric cars were a great move and are here to stay. Others thought more innovatively and felt that jetpacks could be the future of commute. Of course, the European bicycle culture was also discussed. When the discussion turned to me, I said that I felt different means of transportation will no longer be needed. Cars, planes, and trains will probably become obsolete. Naturally, my friends thought that I was not in my senses and had had too much to drink.

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Virtual world of work-from-home

But not so. I believe that in the future, we will no longer need to commute as much. Most people commute most of the time for work. This will not be needed. Today, more than ever before, people work from home. Several “work-from-home” jobs exist. Even for regular jobs, employees have started working from home more and more, especially due to the pandemic. Technology has enabled this. VPNs allow employees to access company resources securely. Augmented/ Virtual conferencing allows people to conduct meetings across offices, cities, countries, and continents, without needing to be in the same room.

So, what will the future of commuting look like? In my view, we will conduct most of our day-to-day activities, including work, in a “virtual world”. With the help of Augmented Reality (AR)/ Virtual Reality (VR), one single “virtual world” will be created, much like the internet. This world will be based on the “real” world and will be a highly sophisticated version of it. Humans will “enter” this world through an advanced AR/VR interface/device.

The closest parallel I can draw to this is the AR/VR video games that are starting to make a mark. So, while a train ride from Mumbai to Delhi may take 24 hours, and a plane ride may take 2 hours, the “commute” in the virtual world will be instant. And the interaction will be as real as in-person contact.

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Future of commuting step by step

This transition to this new way of operating will take time. While a lot of things will need to fall in place to make the future of commuting evolve, I believe the transition could happen in the following 4 steps.

  1. Vehicle ownership will drastically reduce: Research has shown that if currently owned vehicles were to be fully utilized, we would need 80% lesser vehicles. Uber, Lyft, Ola, Touro are all built on the premise that most people don’t need to own cars – it is cheaper and more convenient to not own. The “uber” model will continue to spread globally and will become more and more prominent.
  2. A/V and teleconferencing will become more commonplace: While teleconferencing does happen today, it is not used as much as possible. People still need to be physically present in the office for the sake of being present i.e., the “face time in office” concept is still very prevalent. But this is evolving. From the current state where one needs to “be in office unless otherwise discussed”, the default will shift to “be in office only if needed”. The benefits of such a shift will be quite remarkable in terms of productivity, efficiency, and costs. We are already seeing this shift happen across several companies. The pandemic has proven that it is possible.
  3. AR/VR devices will become more advanced and mainstream: AR/VR devices are still very early and nascent, with limited real-world applications. This is fast changing and is becoming one of the biggest focuses of technology companies around the world. E.g., HoloLens and Oculus have started to make noteworthy progress in this area.
  4. The right “plumbing” will need to be put in place: this is the most critical element to move to the envisioned future state. Data bandwidth is critical. Right now, we are thinking about 5G and rolling that out. However, for this to work, probably some version of a 5G+++ or a “10G” may be needed. Another critical element – the definition and development of the single “virtual world”. Who will define? Who will develop? Who will maintain? How do we keep it secure? Do we need a global organization to do this? Lastly, the devices and corresponding protocols that will allow us to interact with the virtual world will need to be widely available, reasonably priced, and universally accepted.

Though the idea of all of this may sound imaginative, futuristic, or even improbable, some version of this is going to happen. Is this a 10-year thing, a 20-year thing, or a 50-year thing? I don’t know. But will it happen? For sure!

(Ram Kapadia is an entrepreneur and thought leader based in Mumbai. Views are personal.)

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Ram Kapadia is a thought leader and entrepreneur based in Mumbai.