Why flexible decision-making is so important for the future of transport

Rich Mitchell Rich Mitchell
Lead Engineer, Integrated Transport & Mobility, QLD – Australia
17 August 2021
6 min read

When I first arrived in Australia from England, I met with a group of Irish backpackers on the adventure of a lifetime – they were circumnavigating the continent in a Volkswagen Kombi van, as many young travellers dream of doing.

A few weeks into their journey, the beat-up Kombi lost its reverse gear. But, being keen adventurers, the travellers decided to push on with the strategy of only ever parking in spots where they could drive off forward.

By the time I joined the party in Perth, the strategy had been so effective that the Kombi's shortcomings had been forgotten. I offered to drive – a welcome gesture. Unfortunately, I made my way into a multistorey carpark and, unable to reverse out, we caused a queue of disgruntled traffic as we tried to free our wayward van.

While the Kombi days are now long gone, the experience taught me something that stuck: not having a reverse gear can make life extremely difficult. So, why is the flexibility of decision making so important as we navigate our transport future?

The transportation challenge

There is a great deal of pressure now to work towards a more efficient transportation system, quite rightly: the environmental crisis, as well as rapidly increasing populations, are necessitating a shift away from fossil fuels towards cleaner, more accessible transport options.

In its Transport Outlook 2021 report, the International Transport Forum noted that global transport emissions are expected to rise 16 per cent by 2050, as demand for transport activity doubles.

Thus, countries, cities and companies around the world are now in pursuit of net-zero emissions and mitigating pollution produced from haulage, while service provision and how we move people is a key element of achieving carbon neutrality. More than 400 companies, from the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitting industries, have joined the Mission Possible Partnership to help accelerate the decarbonisation of heavy industry and transport.

While this challenge is urgent, the opportunities are also exciting. What will the future of transportation look like? There is an array of spectacular choices – from flying cars, autonomous vehicles and electric ferries, to trackless trams and hoverboards.

The reality is that these technologies are all being trialled right now, in various places, at various capacities: the future is upon us. And the possibilities are endless, which is half the problem.

How do we know which technologies to employ, where to invest and how to incorporate them into our businesses, communities and society as a whole? While the route is not yet clear, we have one innovation strategy in our arsenal: reversible decision making.

When faced with unknown or difficult obstacles, and a range of potential avenues, being able to reverse a decision is an effective tool and one that will bolster the successful evolution of transportation moving forward.

Test-driving innovation

Would you buy a car without test driving it first, without checking if it's right for you? Will it fit in the garage, will the kids (or dogs, or Irish backpackers) fit in it, does it suit your needs? Most people won't invest in a new vehicle without conducting some form of initial research.

The same goes, albeit on a larger scale, when it comes to transitioning to new and innovative transportation options for industries and society. It's important to test drive first in order to gain insight into whether or not the option is suitable.

Let's take company fleets, as an example: one way of reducing carbon emissions could be to replace all operational vehicles with Teslas, or any other battery-powered model, in one fell swoop.

If the company requires utilities with 4WD capacity, their current option is to patiently wait for Tesla's cybertrucks, which are highly expensive, or other options that have yet to launch and be tested and proven – but that could be for an unknown length of time.

There is an Australian startup called ACE-EV making electric vans and utes (or pickup trucks) available through a lease system; you can test a vehicle for a certain amount of time without committing a huge amount of cash.

Test driving is about more than trialling, it's also about getting clear on what our objectives are. We might think buying a bunch of Teslas will solve all of our problems, however, when we test drive and discover this is not the case, we become more acutely aware of our specific requirements.

Where to from here? (Informed decision making)

When it comes to employing new transportation technology, or things that are yet to be proven, building reversibility into the process allows us to think first and commit later.

Besides, there are other ways to lead – information gathering can be a very effective and helpful form of leadership. Often, the company or country that leads on uptake is not the most successful in the effective use of new technology. It's the entities that follow them that end up hitting gold.

There's no point investing huge amounts of money in a system that doesn't ultimately meet our needs. It might be new technology, it might be fancy and interesting, but if it doesn't meet objectives, then it's likely to become a setback.

Committing to a lower investment in new transportation technology with the aim of producing insight is valuable; it can save other countries and companies a lot of time and money, and help everyone reach collective goals sooner.

It's important to remember that the array of new transportation technology will have different applications for different situations. By taking stock of how new innovations have performed in certain contexts, companies are more equipped to make the right choice in terms of effective utilisation.

One in, all in: when and how to jump in

While collecting evidence and learning from others helps to mitigate risk, action is still important. The world is changing, fast. And the development of new transportation technologies is no exception.

Adopting a staged approach to technology test-drives and uptake is critical to effectively traversing this changing landscape. The right decision for a company in 2021 might not be the right decision in 2025, or 2030 and beyond.

Backing out of a decision is sometimes viewed as a breakdown, but reversibility is far from failure. It actually allows us to try more things, generate more evidence and make more robust and incremental decisions. Reversibility is all about being flexible.

The world is in the midst of a pandemic, which has fundamentally changed the way we live, work and travel. Some of these changes may be with us for quite some time, or they may evolve further. How do we work out the best way forward?

While the best path to travel is still unclear, we don't yet need to decide or commit: we can take small, evidence-based steps that are easy to retrace. Keeping our reverse gear well-oiled ensures a flexible range of movement so that, when the time does come, we can move forward without hesitation.

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Rich Mitchell
Written by
Rich Mitchell

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