Mobility is at the core of human development. It was not accidental that the establishment of the early civilizations and growth of urbanisation occurred along seacoasts and riverbanks. Along with animal power, waterways were the earliest modes of transport for travel, trade and military adventures.
Much water has flowed down the great rivers since then and human ingenuity has developed a wide range of options for facilitating movement of people, products and commodities. In the digital age that we live today, innovation in mobility has accelerated and permeates the entire value chain of transportation, attracting massive research, investment and employment. The passenger transport industry is today in the cusp of unprecedented and fast-paced changes riding on digital technologies and out-of-the-box search for mobility solutions. Established auto industry majors, universities and technology start-ups are engaged in developing solutions covering a vast range of mobility opportunities.
The story of Indian transportation infrastructure is one of missed opportunities; when the world, not just the developed countries but also many developing countries, invested heavily in upgrading their roads, railways, harbours and airports over the past five to six decades, India was enjoying a siesta, as has happened in sector after sector. Lacking a well thought out development strategy, short of enough investments, hesitant to tap the expertise and capital from the larger world and unwilling to shake off the proverbial bureaucratic inertia, passenger transportation scenario in India was stifled due to fragmented and localised approach. This has resulted in a lopsided development of the sector.
The share of public transport in India, as a percentage of total passenger trips, is a meagre 7% as against 17% in Australia and 86% in Singapore. The proportion of people using public transport is an indicator of a matured society with modern infrastructure. In the absence of reliable and efficient public transport system, people had no choice but to invest in their own private mode of mobility. The passenger car was kept as elitist and as the preserve of the well-heeled sections by artificially inflated tax levels, till by a sheer quirk of history, Maruti emerged on the scene. The history of automobile sector in post-independent India has thus come to be defined as Before Maruti and After Maruti. But the proliferation of two and three wheelers, chaotic traffic discipline and alarming rate of road accidents speak of the manmade disaster that our passenger transportation has come to be. The role played by the myopic and insensitive political leadership in creating this mess is glaring.
We need to look at three factors, namely vehicles, roads/infrastructure and governance practices to have a comprehensive understanding of the current status and likely bumps in the roadmap to an upgraded eco system for passenger mobility.
The global technological developments in passenger transport in the past few decades have been transformational. Most of the innovations have centred around three functionalities, namely connectivity, intelligence and safety/security across the transportation value chain. Economy and efficiency concerns have driven massive R&D initiatives leading to strides in electric and hybrid technologies as well as in alternate fuels. Biofuels, blended fuels, solar power, battery power, hydrogen and even nuclear power are being experimented in controlled and safe conditions.
Automobile technologies are already witnessing convergence of Engineering, Computer Science, and Communications with sensors and artificial intelligence getting integrated increasingly with the design and engineering of vehicles and infrastructure. Driverless cars or Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) are getting substantial attention and investments. The outcome of digital upgrade of automobile technologies would be smarter, greener and more efficient cities with significant improvement in productivity and cost-efficiency.
It is not that people are comfortable with autonomous (self-driving) cars. Global majors in Strategy Consulting, Deloitte has reported, based on a global survey they conducted that almost half of the potential consumers doubt the safety of such vehicles. In March 2018, an Uber self-driving car killed a 49-year-old pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, United States after failing to activate an emergency braking system and the trials were discontinued as a consequence. But the reality is that most of the road accidents result from human errors; robots with artificial intelligence and machine learning interfaces would be far safer drivers than human beings.
Robots can have 360 degrees vision and, when enabled by an IoT enabled infrastructure, the vehicles would respond seamlessly to emergencies. Devoid of fatigue, highly methodical and with response time reduced to nano-seconds, smart vehicles would cut down accidents by as much as 90%, according to experts. Smart vehicles operate with enhanced security based on vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure(V2I) communication on the back of IoT elements like sensors and with the help of real-time analytics.
Mass transportation is seeing multi-model integration and as a result the speed, efficiency and reach of transport systems are witnessing unforeseen enhancements. Maglev Trains, popularly called bullet trains are approaching the speed and comfort of passenger jets. China has announced that its 600 kmph high-speed train will commence operations in the Shanghai-Beijing sector by 2021. India is working on our first bullet train connectivity between Ahmedabad and Mumbai with Japanese technology. The train would run at a maximum speed of 350 kmph and is expected to be commissioned in 2022. The progress in the Indian project, however, is rather tardy due to land acquisition snags in a small stretch in the Maharashtra segment of the line.
The world is moving forward in mass transport with unprecedented technological advancement. Hyperloop, the technology enabling high-speed transport capsules moving in a magnetised field inside vacuumed tubes, would facilitate travel between megapolis-hubs in a matter of minutes turning the contemporary paradigm on mobility on its head. This would result in breaking the distance barriers on a wide range of activities such as hiring, residing, healthcare and tourism. Brought into the mainstream of transportation strategy by Elon Musk, this concept which was existing in a quasi-fictional state for years has now attracted many serious investors and developers around the world. It is a sign of competitiveness across the globe that several possible routes are under consideration for launching the first few hyperloop connections- London to Edinburgh, Los Angeles to San Francisco, Dubai to Abu Dhabi and even a line from Mumbai to Pune are in the realms of possibilities.
There have been major enhancements in the integration of digital technologies in airline industry. Planes have leapt forward to advanced generations. However, there are concerns that digitalisation has been a bit too fast, in the context of crashes and near misses which are instinctively blamed by experts on the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning onboard the advanced versions of planes. Caution seems to have set in triggering comprehensive checks and review. Learning is an integral part of the evolution and integration of technologies into legacy devices and platforms.
Well, let us pause for a moment and do a reality check about where India stands today on passenger mobility lest we might be carried away by the fantasies of technological possibilities.
According to a recent report on the state of public transport in India, while China has about six buses for 1,000 people, India has only four buses per 10,000 people and about 90% Indians don't own any vehicle. Further, the total number of buses available for transporting general passengers is less than one-tenth of the requirement. The state of public road transport in India is pathetic. Out of around 19 lakh buses in the country, only 2.8 lakh are run either by state transport undertakings or under stage carriage permits. In fact, most of the State Transport Corporations (STCs) have run up huge losses; the maintenance and utilisation of public buses owned by STCs lag the industry benchmarks.
We need to extend our strategy and plans beyond STCs to take passenger transportation to the next level. One option under consideration of the Union Transport Ministry is to encourage major bus manufacturers to move up the value chain by taking up state-of-the-art fleet management services by forming joint ventures and/or through PPP model.
Indian Railways have been used by successive Governments over the years to make political statements at the expense of maintenance, growth and upgradation of infrastructure and rolling stock. The discontinuation of separate Railway Budget has been a step in the right direction. The focus has been brought back to development of the infrastructure. Safety, maintenance and passenger amenities are the priorities for railways at this stage.
In recent years, metro lines have come up in around ten of our cities in a significant boost to urban transport infrastructure. But the investment needed to compensate for years of neglect is so huge that massive capital outlay, through multilateral funding, private investment, Foreign Direct Investment and Government-to-Government programs is needed on war footing.
Meanwhile the Indian Railways have recently embarked upon a series of incremental upgrade of services. It is a matter of pride that the indigenously designed Train 18, a semi high-speed train with coaches made in Integral Coach Factory has been successfully tested; the train is expected to be deployed on the busy intercity routes between Mumbai and Pune, Nasik and Vadodara. The train is expected to cover Mumbai-Pune journey in under 2 hours as against nearly 4 hours now.
Development of inland waterways and coastal shipping as alternative passenger transport channels are being talked about as serious options in recent years. Whether in enhancing the speed and quality of road building, pushing for electric-powered alternatives like electric cars and e-autos or in strategizing waterways development programs, Nitin Gadkari, the Union Minister for Transport has undoubtedly brought the much-needed urgency, dynamism and “big picture” thinking to the vital sector of transportation.
In a sign of growing maturity of the automobile policy in India, the Union Government is understood to have firmed up a roadmap for migration to electric vehicles with a graded scale up of the share of e-vehicles in the rental pool operated in the country to 40% by 2026. Also, the manufacture of fossil-fuel powered vehicles is expected to be phased out by 2026. The challenge is to build the charging infrastructure across the country to match the ambitious plan.
Apart from vehicles and the infrastructure, strict governance and implementation of global standards in quality, safety and operating practices deserve priority. Driver training and on-road behaviour need to be focused too in order to prepare for smart mobility culture. The strategy for national migration to a world class mobility eco- system would require a combination of infrastructure upgrade, raising the governance standards and enforcement practices as well as competence building among all stakeholders including vehicle manufacturers, drivers, passengers and enforcement officials.