Mobility Prospects for a Post-COVID World

From car ownership to telecommuting, transportation experts discuss emerging mobility trends. 

June 15, 2020

By Chris Blasinsky

LONDON—While there’s no doubt the coronavirus pandemic will have lasting impacts on global transportation and mobility trends, the team at Global Convenience Store Focus hosted a Shop Talk Live webinar on June 12 to hear from industry experts just how much has changed, and how much these trends will be delayed.

A significant challenge for the transportation industry is the unprecedented drop in vehicle sales, commented Eric Hannon, partner at McKinsey & Company, with countries like China showing signs of what a recovery could look like for the rest of the world as demand rises and more people divert from public and shared transportation to private vehicle ownership—which is largely driven by health concerns.

John Eichberger, executive director of the Fuels Institute, said the shine has faded from shared mobility since the pandemic hit, with data from an April 2020 Deloitte global survey suggesting that most consumers say they will limit public or shared transportation. Ryan Robinson, automotive research leader at Deloitte, shared these insights at the Fuels Institute’s FUELS2020 Virtual Experience, which found that during the pandemic, most U.S. consumers (79%) agreed their vehicle represents a key social distancing tool. Consumers are also concerned about public transit, with 60% of U.S. consumers surveyed planning to limit use in the next three months, which will impact mass transit. Ride-hailing serves are also a concern, with 58% of U.S. consumers planning to limit use in the next three months.

As the trend toward greater vehicle ownership gains traction, the key to keeping these newer users behind the wheel could be for OEMs to build stickiness with them, said Arun Prasad P, head of passenger vehicles product marketing at Nissan Motors (GB). After the pandemic, will these consumers keep their cars or revert to shared and public mobility options? These are the types of questions the OEMs should be considering, he suggested.

On the flip side of potentially seeing more passenger vehicles on the road, telecommuting could have significant environmental impacts. Eichberger noted that an ongoing project by the Fuels Institute indicates that 37% of the U.S. workforce could feasibly work from home, per a University of Chicago study, and doing so one day a week would yield reductions in tailpipe emissions by 5% each for CO2, NOX and PM2.5.

While all vehicle sales are being impacted by the pandemic, electric vehicles (EV) may be showing signs that they’re a bit more resilient than traditional vehicle sales in terms of share, suggested Hannon. A recent McKinsey article notes that post-crisis, EV sales will rebound strongly in China and keep the projected increase in EV market share on track. The firm also says that EV investments will remain on the same trajectory in Europe, while EV demand might stagnate in the United States, “especially if federal regulations about emissions loosen and oil prices remain low.”

Even if the pandemic were to disappear tomorrow, the barriers for greater EV adoption would remain. In the U.S. for example, Eichberger pointed to a newly released Fuels Institute report, “Electric Vehicle Adoption: Focus on Charging,” that suggests in addition to purchase price and insufficient consumer awareness around EVs, the lack of adequate charging infrastructure continues to slow the transition to mass EV adoption. Where people live, work and how they travel will ultimately influence the pace of EV adoption and the necessary charging infrastructure.

Autonomous vehicle technology, meanwhile, could become more focused on the last-mile delivery in the short and near term, with more focus on autonomous devices like drones and delivery robots gaining traction in more urban environments. Hannon noted that this is one of the bright spots for autonomous during the pandemic, which has the potential to be more efficient and brings more options for contactless delivery solutions.

Meanwhile, many companies are reevaluating their sustainability strategies to emerge from the pandemic more resilient and more environmentally conscious, noted Hannon, with more companies taking a deep dive into their core purpose, which is often defined around sustainability and ESG policies (Environment Social Governance). He noted that companies with strong ESG policies seem to have been more resilient during the shutdown and delivered better performance. (Read more on creating strategic sustainability goals in the online NACS resource, “Making Sustainability Convenient.”)

Eichberger agreed that more attention will be devoted to corporate social responsibility strategies. “I think we’ll see a higher level of CSR, ESG and attention to detail,” he said, adding that the pandemic shutdown may be a temporary blip, but it’s resetting mindsets. As a result, “we’ll likely see a movement toward more sustainable business models.”

Chris Blasinsky, who has been working from home since March 13 and driven her car roughly 30 miles since, is the NACS content communications strategist. She can be reached at cblasinsky@convenience.org, and on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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