Back in March, the Department for Transport launched its new urban mobility strategy at Plexal, which set out its vision and plan for supporting mobility innovation and covered everything from regulation to testbeds. We picked up the conversation yesterday, bringing together regulators, innovators and funders to debate what can be done to unlock and scale emerging mobility solutions. We also heard from three exciting companies that pitched their mobility solutions, with the winner getting support from ENGIE and free Plexal membership for six months…
The panel got off to a positive start: Jof Ruxton, head of infrastructure solutions at Immense (a software company enabling intelligent mobility) praised the country’s mobility ecosystem, in particular the open data ecosystem we have in London. “Without the immediate access to a lot of those data sources we wouldn’t be able to run our business,” he said.
But while innovators are benefiting from a healthy flow of data in the capital, how can emerging solutions find a market and get used by a critical mass?
For Rikesh Shah, head of commercial innovation at Transport for London (TfL), having more agile procurement processes is a large part of the answer but “bringing in innovators from outside your usual supply chain is a challenge across the corporate world”. “Sometimes the immediate response is let’s throw more resources at it internally or let’s talk to a tier one supplier,” he said. “I think for me what I’ve learned from LondonRoadLab is there are some brilliant ideas that can be developed really quickly in an agile way that can add value.”
Shah described how with LondonRoadLab (a programme Plexal’s recently delivered for TfL), the organisation was able to make it easier for innovators to get their solutions in front of decision makers. Rather than being overly prescriptive about what it wanted, TfL worked directly with cohort members to help them develop minimum viable products that addressed specific roadworks-related challenges. And, according to Ruxton, it was this direct access to TfL during the product development stage that Immense found so valuable.
Our panel were also in agreement about the importance of collaboration. Gigi Etienne, mobility partnerships manager at what3words (a geocoding system with the power to transform the way we communicate location information), says we’re moving towards a mobility landscape where sharing is more commonplace and people get around using a diverse mix of modes. For what3words to play a key role in this scenario, it needs to find the right partners and expand its user base. “This system will be incredible useful if everyone uses it,” Etienne said. However, while integrating the company’s API was relatively straightforward, what the company finds harder is getting both businesses and individuals to understand the concept and actually use it.
And of course from a city point of view, the challenge lies in encouraging healthy collaboration between emerging and established transport solutions, while protecting people’s interests and safety. “If we think about transport now, it’s changing fundamentally and that means that as a city we cannot ignore new modes of transport,” Shah said, citing the proliferation of micromobility solutions like e-scooters and dockless bikes (and their associated knock-on effects) as examples. “What we’re looking to do now is test new things but in a controlled way. You cannot just say yes to everything but on the other hand you can’t say no to everything.”
Mobility innovation pitches
To round off the event, we also heard from three exciting companies innovating in the mobility space.
Talib Qayyum, founder of Parking Eagle, referred to something a growing number of people are experiencing: fear of running out of electric vehicle charge while driving. And that fear is putting people off making the transition.
His solution is an app that enables drivers to find nearby charging points, while also highlighting nearby points of interest (like gyms or restaurants) so people can keep themselves entertained or get through their to-do list while waiting for their car to power up.
Parking Eagle is already in the App Store, but Qayyum is ready to change gears. “What we’d like to do is integrate with EV box,” he said. He’s also keen to work closely with retailers so they can reap and measure the benefits of having charging points nearby or on-site.
The judges were clearly impressed: Parking Eagle was crowned the overall winner, which means the company will get support from ENGIE and Plexal to achieve its scaling ambitions, plus free membership to Plexal for six months.
The team from Grid Smarter Cities presented Adapt: a tool aimed at making air travel easier for millions of disabled people. Through an app, people can input information on their specific travel needs at various points, chat with staff and, if need be, raise an alert.
Dom Hyams, the company’s communications director who has first-hand knowledge of travelling with a disability, said: “I can safely say that a lot of them (disabled people) travel and do go abroad but there’s a significant portion that won’t even consider travelling by air because it is so stressful. I feel that most disabled people have stories that they’re so used to recounting as a badge of honour. I was left for four hours…well I was left for five hours. And really they become part of who you are.”
The government sees electric vehicles as key to reducing carbon emissions and improving the quality of the air we breathe, but there are barriers to widespread adoption.
Dr George Prassinos, founder and CEO of OXTO Energy, explained that renewables and electric vehicles add complexity to an already complicated grid system, and that the infrastructure upgrades required for EV are currently prohibitively expensive.
But OXTO Energy has developed a clean, modular, and low-cost flywheel energy storage system to help us usher in a sustainable, low-carbon future. With a lifetime of 25-years, the tech can be applied to electric vehicle charging stations and, according to Prassinos, it’s a cleaner alternative to what’s currently on the market: They’re (chemical batteries) not environmentally friendly,” he said. “Although they claim to be, they’re not.”