Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

'Technology will play a growing role in making transport safe': Ather Energy exec

Internet of Things based devices by virtue of being 'aware, autonomous and actionable' can bring real-time data analytics down to the level of the individual, says Ravneet S. Phokela, enabling smarter transport decisions on the go

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Jun 22, 2020 04:53:25 PM IST
Updated: Jun 22, 2020 06:00:51 PM IST

'Technology will play a growing role in making transport safe': Ather Energy execRavneet S. Phokela
This is the final piece in a six-part series on the future of mobility in a post-Covid-19 India. Read the previous instalment here

In a world of connected vehicles, a host of information can be made available, such as trip histories and sanitisation status, making commuting safer for users who opt for shared mobility or other forms of public transportation, Phokela, chief business officer of electric vehicle company Ather Energy, tells Forbes India in an interview. Edited excerpts:

Q. What will transportation look like in the post-Covid-19 world in India, in the medium and long term?
The medium-term impact has been well documented and is self-evident. People will minimise use of public transport and shared mobility. They will look for personal mobility solutions and given that there is uncertainty about the future, they would be open to new ownership models such as long term rentals, lease plans etc, so that they don’t have to make an outright commitment to purchase whatever their preferred mode of personal transport is. However, I don’t believe Covid-19 will make as big a change in the long term, as it might seem today.

Today, mobility behaviour is driven by the nervousness around contracting the infection and the consequences of that happening—whether it’s health-related concerns or the lack of medical facilities. I would like to believe that over the next 12-15 months, we are likely to see a vaccine that reduces the severity and mortality risk of the infection. Once that happens, then the fear that is driving today’s mobility behaviour wouldn’t have the impact that it has today.

However, there would be some residual impact of the short-to-medium term behaviour. Of the people who experiment with newer ownership models such as long-term rentals, mileage-based rentals etc, a proportion would find value in them. This is likely to have a structural impact on ownership behaviour, which, today, for the most part is an outright purchase model either through full price or EMIs.

Q. What kind of commute options will people prefer? Why?
For now, people will choose a mode of transport that reduces risk and provides some degree of safety. The mode of transport per se might not change, but the mobility service providers will need to look at new standard operating procedures and safety protocols that provide people a sense of comfort that they are not taking undue risks. These could manifest in a variety of ways such as ensuring empty seats between passengers, providing sanitisers, making masks and gloves mandatory, ensuring a self-serve touch-free operation in terms of buying tickets etc.

We already are seeing signs of that in the way airlines are operating—from ground operations to in-flight protocols. Eventually, all public transport will need to address this in some form or another. We will also see a short-term migration from shared to personal mobility.

Q. Within cities and towns, will new models of ride-hailing emerge that can be part of the solution?
Any event as significant will always lead to disruption, and emergence of new models. We already are seeing ride-share players focusing on long term rentals, peer-to-peer rentals as opposed to their traditional sharing models. In Kerala airport taxis put a glass partition between the driver and the passenger seat. While this wasn’t a new business model, it was an example of a ‘product modification’ to address the new reality. Who knows, we might see a glass partition in the passenger area that divides the seat in two halves, so that two people can commute together safely. We should expect to see a lot of experimentation and change in this sector.

Q. What can be done to ensure that, for example, when an infected person uses a scooter, the same scooter isn’t shared with other users?
The issue isn’t sharing per-se but ensuring that the vehicle is clean and hygienic for the next person who uses it. For this, the only way to minimise risk is to assume that every person who uses the vehicle is infected. Once you have that mindset, then the health and safety protocols become very stringent.

Just the way helmets are provided with the scooters, we have to ensure that sanitisers and gloves are also provided. Of course, shared helmets should be banned during this period. Every evening when the vehicles are collected for refuelling and maintenance, they need to be sanitised. Depending on the usage, this sanitisation could be done more than once a day. Yes, this will come at a financial and operational cost, but if these actions are able to drive consumer confidence, then it will get the industry back on track faster than it would otherwise.

Q. What will be the role of the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) in all of this?
Technology will play a big role in both building awareness and actively help in making better decisions. On a broader scale, we have already seen a proliferation of data and analyses related to Covid-19, which has helped the government, local bodies and individuals to make data-backed decisions. Internet of Things-based devices by virtue of being ‘aware, autonomous and actionable’ bring the above process down to an individual level in real time. The devices with both edge (end-user level) and cloud-based ML/AI algorithms, can provide powerful insights for effective decision making.

In a world where all vehicles have some connected IoT device, alerts based on other vehicles’ trip history can be made available. In the case of shared mobility, information related to sanitisation history etc can be stored and transmitted to the end users using the smart systems on the connected vehicles. Connected devices allow you to detect and count people and vehicles on facilities and streets.

Monitoring commercial transportation activity can help inform government response to border control, and supply and demand. It can also help owner-operators employ efficient fleet management solutions; how many trucks, drivers and storage units are needed on a week-to-week basis.

There is huge utility in parking space management. Research indicates about 30 percent of city traffic at city business districts is due to people figuring out parking availability, resulting in congestion on the streets.

Updatable navigation systems could show hotspots in the city or the road that you will be taking, so one can avoid those routes. Also, if you are too close to another vehicle and not maintaining social distancing, the rider can be intimated. There are many things that IoT can do, we just need to make the right use of it.

In all of these, it is extremely important to adhere to the proper data storage and usage standards to prevent any misuse of personal data.

Q. What new infrastructure will cities have to deploy to make transportation safe in a world with Covid-19?
There are three areas that we will need to focus on. Minimising the need to touch alien surfaces or to interact with support staff, ensuring social distancing and ensuring that all surfaces are sanitised regularly. This would mean creating new infrastructure and standard operating procedures. For example, you will see a lot more focus on self-service—printing your own tickets, minimal interaction with transport support staff. This would require a lot more automation than we have today.

It would also mean that the transport sector will explore contactless payment and identity validation options such as facial recognition. To support social distancing there will be explorations that ensure that the requisite distance is maintained—ensuring a one-body distance between travellers in public transport.

Shared mobility will see a change in their mode of operation with a lot more focus on sanitisation and standard operating procedures around hygiene. Then there is the human infrastructure side such as staff at public locations like malls, petrol bunks, restaurants etc., to constantly keep sanitising surfaces. Since perceived safety is a huge requirement for the transport sector, we will see a huge focus on the part of transport providers as well as those responsible for infrastructure.