Where does Europe fit in the new mobility landscape?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

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An electric vehicle from a car-sharing fleet in Paris. [Dutourdumonde Photography/Shutterstock]

Europe has the scale, the cities, the institutional capacity and the financial muscle to lead the world in new mobility, says Ross Douglas.

Ross Douglas is Founder & CEO of Autonomythe international annual event on the future of urban mobility, which takes place this year in Paris.

I recently visited Venice as a guest of Homo Faber, ‘the first major cultural exhibition dedicated to European craftsmanship.’ The event, the brainchild of South African luxury-goods billionaire Johann Rupert, was themed, ‘crafting a more human future’ and celebrated the Renaissance ideal of man as maker. Rupert is chairman of Richemont, which owns brands like Cartier, Dunhill and Panerai.

It was a joy to see some of Europe’s finest craft: a beautifully restored racing yacht, two Ferraris restored by Carlo Bonini, and a ‘Best of Europe’ space that displayed 300 craft objects that can easily pass for great art.

Rupert’s intention was to show “What human beings can do better than machines” and to “remind the public of the value of the human hand.” Richemont is built on the premium that the wealthy pay for luxury European goods made by master craftsmen.

On the same day of our private viewing at Homo Faber, Apple’s Tim Cook launched the  iWatch 4. How different a concept this is to beautifully crafted Swiss watches, which generate $20 billion annually. Will the new iWatch eat into those profits?

The US led tech industry seems to be unstoppable. Facebook and Google have gobbled up the ad revenue that kept newspapers alive, and Amazon has made life near impossible for independent bookstores.

I’ve spent the past four years in the transport and mobility industry creating an event called Autonomy Paris and the Urban Mobility Summit. I find the changes fascinating and exciting, but also potentially disturbing as a European taxpayer. When technology disrupts, it creates winners and losers.

How can Europe ensure that it is on the winning side of the mobility disruption?

Technology not only disrupts good services, it also disrupts the way we do business. America and China are awash with tech money from the successful listings of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple (collectively GAFA), Baidu and Tencent. Big investors are now looking to mobility, as startups have little chance of breaking into online retail, social networks, internet search or hardware, which are dominated by GAFA or the Chinese equivalents.

Transport operators ordinarily tender for exclusive contracts lasting between 10 and 15 years. If successful, they finance the fleet, make a small operating margin and look for new tenders in other cities. Contrast this approach with mobility startups, who raise venture capital and scale rapidly; sometimes rolling out in a new city every week and often without permission as legislation has yet to be formulated. Bird, for instance, has achieved 10 million electric scooter rides since it started, only a year back!

It’s no longer about the vehicle, it’s now about the platform. In the past vehicles had to be safe, reliable and durable. Now that we are switching to Mobility as a Service (MaaS), they need to be cheap and available, which suits low-cost manufacturing countries like China.

Before AI and Machine Learning, manufacturers with the best engineers and artisans had the competitive advantage. Now the race is on to get a vehicle out quickly that has multiple sensors sending data for AI to crunch and improve. Vespa, the world’s most famous scooter brand, has yet to launch a connected electric scooter. In just four years Chinese startup Niu Scooters raised money, built a factory, and sold over 250 000 scooters with more than a dozen sensors in each. Will Vespa ever catch them?

European cities are a priority for US and Chinese mobility operators. They’re attracted by the fact that our cities have relatively low car ownership, thanks to the excellent public transport infrastructure. Parisians, for example, can choose from eight companies offering free-floating bike, scooter and stand-up scooter services, of which only one is French.

Europeans are world leaders in packaging and exporting the ‘European Lifestyle,’ think gastronomy and fashion, but have been slow to move on mobility. There’s an opportunity for a European city to brand itself as a ‘World Mobility Capital,’ or come up with clever terminology that would be picked up by other cities. The EU has invested heavily in the GDPR to protect their citizens from US Big Tech, but has done little to generate opportunities for new mobility companies in Europe.

Europe has the opportunity to lead in urban mobility as it does in food and fashion. Good mobility solutions can add to the joys of street life – something the Europeans do better than anyone else. To take advantage of this reality, Europeans need to create a bold new urban mobility strategy that covers the five key verticals captured in the acronym ADESA: Active Mobility, Data, Electric, Shared and Autonomous Vehicles.

Europe has the scale, the cities, the institutional capacity and the financial muscle to lead the world in new mobility. Should it grab the opportunity, then an exciting future awaits. And if not – nostalgia for past glory is no consolation given the stakes.

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