A few weeks back, my friend and colleague Peter Hinssen addressed the Belgian Parliament. He called on MPs to swap mindsets. Instead of thinking that technology is a threat to society, to envisage Belgium as a ‘pilot project’ country in several fields, including mobility.

In Leuven we have a gem of a company that we can be very proud of: Imec. Last week, Imec was world news with its spectacular breakthrough in battery science.

I was overjoyed by this. For a few years now, I’ve been telling people that the car, as we know it, is a threatened species. That the future is electrical and driverless. That car ownership is being replaced by MaaS (Mobility-As-A-Service). Time and again, I notice how much resistance that arouses and how many reasons people advance for that not happening any time soon.

Imec’s CEO, Luc Van den Hove, said it clearly and emphatically: ‘I think that, within 5 years from now, half of the cars will be electric.’ The next generations will wonder how we could have been so stupid to pollute our environment with internal combustion engines. Just like I, personally, can’t understand that my father every day, after breakfast, used to cheerfully smoke a cigarette at the kitchen table. And, looking back, he doesn’t understand his habit back then either.

Wat Imec is doing, is precisely that which our companies and, most certainly, our government do far too little of: brainstorm the possibilities and not the constraints. The digital tsunami is unstoppable, so let’s surf it!

Deckchairs

Imagine that you’ve been renting out deckchairs, for the past 25 years, in Blankenberge. There’s not much scope for corporate change. Every day you do pretty much the same thing and you try to optimize your business. Smaller chairs? Place them closer together? Or the opposite perhaps, bigger chairs and more luxurious? Roomier chairs?

Picture this: the radio says that there’s a tsunami on its way. The beach is suddenly twice as big because the sea is receding, fast. Your entrepreneurial brain jumps into gear: ‘What a business opportunity! Quick, put out more deckchairs!’ Similarly, never so many cars have been sold than at the last motor show, And hardly any of those were electric. Threatened species? Pull the other one…

You do glimpse the approaching giant wave on the horizon but you have 101 good reasons for minimizing its importance and for convincing yourself that you still have bags of time. And then, suddenly, it’s too late. Smart guys had already grabbed their surfboard and have ridden the wave. And when that tsunami washes over the beach, they are the true winners. Similarly, the startups belonging to the Imec Group have just raised $100 million. Yes, there are accomplished surfers here in Flanders.

The most commonly heard reason for why the average Belgian doesn’t yet have an e-car, is the famous ‘range anxiety’ excuse. On average we drive about 60 kilometers a day but, ideally, we would like a car that can travel to the south of France in one go. But an e-car can’t do that and so we don’t want one, is the reasoning.

Battery technology

Imec came at it from the other side. If batteries could do that, then the e-car would be an overnight success. So let’s focus our efforts on battery technology instead.

I urge our policymakers and companies to take up surfing. In other words, to plan ahead. The future of mobility is not the car that we individually own, with a human behind the wheel. No, the future is truly ‘Mobility As A Service’.

Think of ‘Change’ as a mathematical formula: ‘Urgent Reason’ times ‘Vision’ times ‘First Tentative Steps’ must be greater than ‘Resistance To Change’.

Urgent reasons galore. We shout hooray because we, in Belgium, now only have 230 roads deaths per half year. We cram our cars full with airbags and seat belts in order to protect us, to some degree, from ourselves. Our highway code is a whopper, requiring months of study. We use those expensive four-wheeled machines for barely 10 per cent of the time, and that’s to go and stand in traffic jams. The car is no longer synonymous with mobility.

Solutions? Are we taking the first steps to address this? I do see good things happening, here and there. For example, the national airport and De Lijn (the public passenger transport operator in Flanders) are developing a joint project with self-driving buses. De Lijn is transitioning, with difficulty, from a bus- and tram operator to a mobility company.

Bye-bye revenue models?

But is our transport policy developing a future vision on mobility? Have we factored in that Mobility-As-A-Service will change society as a whole? That revenue models will be dispensed with? VAT on cars. Excise duty on fuel. That we will need to reassess public transport? Infrastructure. Town planning. The highway code. Is someone working on that? Are the pieces of the jigsaw coming together?

Tsunamis of change are bearing down on us… Hundreds of new business models. Batteries. Electric motors. Sensors. Robots to clean driverless vehicles. Mobile hotel rooms. Retail on wheels. Smart algorithms.

Companies, listen up! Grab that surfboard and find that tallest wave. The government should be encouraging this (with grants, tax incentives, …), so that the ‘companies of the future’ can grow and prosper here… and not in China or Silicon Valley.

Let’s leave the misery of yesterday behind us. Debates about public transport, low emission areas, roofed-over (or not) ring roads, traffic circulation plans, the 30kph speed limits in built-up areas and the harder-to-pass driving license are all problems that will be totally irrelevant in the ‘Day after Tomorrow’. We need a few people who can delineate the boundaries for ‘Mobile Belgium – 2030’, so that the policymakers will know what to aim for. Who’s willing to join us?

This article was first published in the Belgian newspaper De Tijd. Read it here in Dutch.

Rik Vera Please keep your mobile device
in a upright position (portrait mode).