About Drive, Transition and Responsibility

Matthias Rüther, Director of DIGITAL, in an interview about the digital mobility transition and the influence of the human factor on developments in the field of mobility.

Matthias Rüther leitet seit Anfang 2022 das Institut DIGITAL.
Matthias Rüther leitet seit Anfang 2022 das Institut DIGITAL. Foto: JOANNEUM RESEARCH/Bergmann


Digital mobility transition: What trends do you see?

Rüther: The biggest trend lies in the term itself. Digitalisation is a crucial driver for the creation of a sustainable mobility trend. Digitalisation enables us to increasingly understand mobility as a service that brings us from A to B. It also opens up the possibility for new mobility providers to integrate themselves and occupy a niche. An illustrative example in recent years is the e-scooter.

Is society already where it could be in terms of technology?

Rüther: Technology can offer possibilities, but they need to address the concerns and needs of our society. It is currently becoming apparent that sustainable mobility concepts can be realised more easily in the form of centralised systems. This creates tensions between the need for individuality and the sustainability of mass transport systems. A country with Austria’s geography in particular will need both at the end of the day, hopefully in seamless cooperation.

Where are the stumbling blocks that are preventing progress?

Rüther: Today, mobility is equivalent to multi-modal transportation. This is the combination of means of transport in such a way that our mobility needs are best served for certain routes. The trick lies in the collaboration of a range of different mobility providers without having to relinquish the principle of free competition. The challenges start with apparently simple topics such as the mutual exchange of information and reach up to the mutual invoicing of a transportation service. Work is ongoing at high speed on these and other organisational topics, which is also underlined by the “Action Plan for Digital Transformation in Mobility” from the Federal Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology.

What role does autonomous driving play in the mobility transition?

Rüther: Public transport will have even more problems in the future to offer transport connections with good quality of connectivity due to the increasing lack of personnel. Autonomous shuttles could act as a useful extension for certain routes. Environmentally friendly and autonomous vehicles could also mitigate the parking problem in metropolitan areas if they are located far from their target location. This could create space for alternative means of transport.

Driverless vehicles are still seldomly seen. Why is that?

Rüther: Technically and legally validated functions are already widely available: Assistants for lane-keeping, distance-keeping, and emergency braking have already permeated the mass market. Parking and lane-changing assistants are on the rise. At the moment, digital assistants still dominate as in this case the final responsibility remains with the driver. The great hurdle is still the transfer of this responsibility to the supplier and in a suitable certification procedure that is internationally valid.

What is your forecast – when will we in Austria hand over control and sit in front of the steering wheel reading a book?

Rüther: Under certain circumstances, this is already possible in some vehicles. However, we will see this development arrive in commercial vehicles first. Even if reading in front of the steering wheel is comfortable, the huge benefit lies elsewhere. A fully autonomous vehicle can be more easily shared with others and can take on transportation tasks. Combined with environmentally friendly powertrain technology, we will begin to see them more often on our roads in 10 years.

Which innovative and environmentally friendly transportation technologies would you bet on and for which services would you see the greatest opportunities on the mobility market?

Rüther: Personally, I would see the greatest opportunity in integrated mobility solutions that build upon existing infrastructure. Our transportation networks have developed over many decades in accordance with our mobility needs. At the moment, there is clearly a lot of effort going into increasing environmental compatibility: This is true for the rail, road, maritime and aerospace sectors. Digitalisation can build a bridge between the systems and raise mobility to a new level where the “container” used for the transport plays a subordinate role.

What are the research topics that play a major role in the digital mobility transition and where is DIGITAL in all of this?

Rüther: The overall vision is that of a completely integrated digital twin of all transportation systems, coupled with the complete representation of the infrastructures and real-time information about all means of transportation and their utilisation rates. This would provide the basis for a wide spectrum of digital services, as well as being able to simulate traffic scenarios and optimize systems. There is a long way to go until then, but Austria is on the right path, for example with “Traffic Info Austria”. This is where researchers are developing innovative solutions for the efficient acquisition of data. They are also driving forwards the use of this data in simulation and forecasting. The more complex the overall system, the more one will have to rely on automated analysis – for example via AI - , without compromising on safety. This will be extremely challenging.

What goals do you and your team at DIGITAL have to make tomorrow’s mobility smarter and greener?

Rüther: Our focus is on the intelligent, localised data acquisition and the provision of data as digital twins. Transportation networks can contain thousands of kilometres and despite digitalisation, there is sometimes little information available regarding what is really happening on the route. In many areas, we can close this gap by measuring the status of the road to protect the road surface or acquire and distribute real-time information about endangered traffic participants. We build warning systems for safe mobility and support traffic control measures for the smart cities of the future, for example by acquiring noise emissions with pinpoint accuracy and evaluating them objectively.

And finally: What would you relinquish to promote greener mobility? From your point of view, is there anything we need to give up or rethink?

Rüther: A sustainable lifestyle is important to me personally, which is why I use my e-bike the whole year round in the city. Apart from the environmental aspect, I actually even save a lot of time and am not limited by range, at least not in the city. My summary would be that it is always worth considering alternatives and to look for advantages instead of concentrating on limitations.


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