The Fence

Colin Lew on COVID-19 and transport

Colin Lew

Colin Lew is the Head of Technology at Intelematics. In his role, Colin oversees the design, execution and governance of the company’s technology strategy.

Prior to his current role, Colin held senior technology and digital transformation roles at Transurban, Toll Group and Coles.

Here are Colin’s thoughts on how COVID-19 has affected transport, and how he thinks we can expect it to be impacted in a post-pandemic world.

What are the main effects/changes you’re seeing right now?

Where to begin? The impact of COVID-19 is being felt through every pillar of society – we’re feeling its effects economically, socially and on our public health systems. This inevitably has had an effect on our transport systems and networks.

From an economic perspective, we’re facing a 5% downturn in global GDP. That’s unheard of! While we’re hoping to bounce back in 2021, it is unknown how long this downturn will last. Whether this economic recovery takes the shape of a U, R or L curve is dependent on when we can get a successful vaccine for COVID-19.

The car industry has been significantly impacted by this economic downturn, which, of course, impacts our transport network. Overseas factories have been closing because they’ve been finding it difficult to operate safely and adhere to social distancing requirements. There’s also been significant disruption to global supply chains, and it’s been incredibly difficult to ship to Australia – so supply is low.

Besides, people aren’t feeling as comfortable going into dealerships due to the perceived health risks of bricks and mortar stores at the moment. We’ve seen more people turning to online shopping than ever. Recent data has shown a 76% spike in online traffic for Dan Murphy’s and a 61% spike in online traffic for Spotlight. However, online shopping doesn’t translate so well when looking to buy a car. People want to be able to touch, smell, feel the car and take it for that all-important test drive.

Finally, market confidence is at an all-time low. Job security is a very legitimate concern, and a recent survey indicated that 48% of Australians expect the next few years will be financially challenging. This all means that people are far less likely to make long-term financial commitments, and a new car falls into that category.

The longer COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions drag on, the more we feel the impact socially. Those of us in Victoria can’t visit friends and family, and all team and social sporting activities have been put on hold. That means many of us are turning to solo forms of exercise.

The bicycle industry has been one of the big winners out of COVID-19 as more people look to take up cycling. The increased uptake of bike riding combined with fewer people driving is fantastic for our carbon footprint.

However, the bike industry is now facing challenges meeting the increased demand. I went into a bike store just the other week, and they’d been cleared out. The owner explained to me that all of their bikes were imported, and distributors were struggling to get bikes into Australia right now.

Of course, one of the big social trends we’ve seen is the rise of the telecommute. I saw a recent survey that said in May almost half of employed Australians were working from home. Then on top of that, we’re seeing an emerging trend where over 90% of surveyed Australians are saying they would keep working from home in some capacity if they could. On a positive note, our current crisis has proven to us that we can work flexible hours and don’t necessarily have to be in the office to be productive.

Finally, one of the biggest trends from a health perspective that we’re seeing is people avoiding public transport, taxis and rideshare services. I think we’ve lost our confidence in these means of transportation because we know there’s no guarantee that they are safe, clean and hygienic means of getting from point A to B in the current climate. If you brave a trip through ride-hailing right now, how can you guarantee that the vehicles previous passengers were healthy and well? You just can’t.

In May, just 200,000 trips were taken on Victorian buses, trains and trams compared to 2 million pre-pandemic. I think we will see this trend continue until transport operators can give commuters confidence that they can maintain safe and healthy environments.

What changes would you like to see in transport when the world rights post-pandemic?

Before we dive into what I’d like to see in transport ‘when the world rights’, I’d like to explore some of the changes – or behaviours – I’d like to see starting right now.

Now is the time for businesses to invest in the technology and infrastructure that will allow them to start and stop, and roll with the COVID-19 punches. At Intelematics, we recently transitioned our business to cloud computing through Amazon Web Services. Most of our team is based in Melbourne and having that infrastructure in place has made all the difference in allowing us to be flexible and adapt to working remotely. I’d go so far to say that our overall productivity has increased while working remotely.

I think any business would be wise right now to invest in technology that aids remote ways of working and facilitates remote collaboration. Now is the time to think about how you can prepare and put new systems in place for a future of remote working. It could be time to fast-track a transition to the cloud, as an example.

I genuinely believe that more flexible and remote working is the way of the future because of the benefits it brings. I think it assists with diversity imperatives especially primary care givers, that we head in this direction. I wholeheartedly believe that the world will be better off if we can increase workforce inclusion by creating more flexible working arrangements.

For the transport and mobility space more specifically, now is the time to invest in new technology that will set us up for a more efficient and sustainable future.

For example, businesses who rely on transport logistics to operate effectively would be wise to use this lull in activity to look at adopting road traffic data insights to optimise route efficiency. Also, mobility companies who deal in electric vehicles should continue to use this time to invest in research and development to continue to improve the technology for an eco-friendly future.

For governments and infrastructure planners, it’s about taking advantage of the decline in activity in our cities to prepare for a post-pandemic world. We should be taking this time to pilot smart city initiatives. For example, now would be the perfect time to trial green lightwave technology, which uses data and sensors to allow traffic lights to respond to live conditions rather than a set to a timer.

If we could use COVID-19 to implement lightwave technology, it would save people time in their day, increase the efficiency of the road network and go a long way toward easing congestion. This also serves to reduce harmful carbon emissions by reducing vehicle time on the road. These types of pilot technologies are much easier to trial when there are less vehicles and pressure on the road network.

There’s also a big challenge to overcome with public transport right now. We have to regain confidence among transport users that buses, trains and trams can operate safely through COVID-19. We need to think of ways to overcome this. For example, maybe we invest in innovative UV technology in public transport, that highlights germs to give commuters confidence that they’re ok to travel. I think it’s crucial that we help people travel safely on public transport – car ownership is expensive. I’d hate to see a society where people are worse off simply because they can’t afford a certain type of mobility.

The key to our success both immediately, and as we look to a post-pandemic future, will be embracing a winning mindset. Whether it’s individuals, businesses, governments or industries – we all have our part to play in remaining positive. While the circumstances are beyond our control, the way we respond to our current predicament is very much, within our control. If we have a winning mindset, we will get through this – we become stronger through learning.

And what changes do you think will happen in transport post-pandemic?

I foresee a few major transport trends that will emerge following COVID-19. The first trend I’m anticipating is the consolidation of mobility companies.

Like all industries, transport and mobility have been hard hit by the pandemic and many businesses will be threatened. For example, a company that specialises in technology to help drivers to find car parks wouldn’t be of much use right now, because there’s an oversupply of car parks.

Rather than folding, smaller mobility businesses may be snapped up by some of the bigger players who are ready to take over. For example, the same company that specialises in technology to help drivers find car parks may get acquired by a big parking real-estate company like Wilson. We might start seeing a trend where some of the bigger players begin to embrace new technologies, become more innovative and diversify their offerings.

In general, I believe we’ll start to see the world making better use of the data and new technologies that are available to us. The faster we adopt new technologies, the quicker we’ll realise the benefits. These benefits include improvements to efficiency, safety, the environment and cost-cutting.

One of the best examples I can draw on from personal experience is the use of Intelematics’ road traffic data to better plan infrastructure projects. Whenever the construction of major infrastructure is proposed, there’s a significant amount of modelling to be done to determine whether the project is viable. One of the critical components of said modelling is assessing the impact the construction will have on road traffic flow.

Traditionally, the way that this has been done is by teams of people standing out at an intersection corner and manually counting how many cars go by. There are many reasons why this isn’t the best way of doing things – it isn’t cost-effective as you have to pay wages to a team of people to count cars for hours and days on end. It’s also not efficient – it’s time-consuming and leaves room for human error. Also, traffic counts are subject to the conditions of the period when you choose to undertake them. For example, it would be impossible to conduct accurate traffic modelling using this method right now because the results would be completely skewed by the impact of COVID-19 on road traffic.

In addition, while we’re looking to a post-pandemic world, it would be unrealistic to expect that its impact won’t be felt for years to come. Unfortunately, I understand, going forward, we will see a world where we’re continually looking for new ways to minimise unnecessary contact between people.

Therefore, if a company or local council were to invest in using Intelematics’ road traffic data insights to conduct its traffic modelling for a large-scale infrastructure project rather than traditional methods, it would see the benefits immediately. These benefits include saving on wages, getting the most accurate result based on reliable data and allowing analysis to be conducted from home to minimise person to person contact. It opens a world of new possibilities.

Finally, I expect we’ll see the car subscription space continue to evolve to meet growing consumer demand. We already know that public transport use is down, but this is offset further by a trend of low market confidence. People want the assurance of private transport but aren’t willing to fork out for a car. That leaves the door wide open for car subscription providers to fill the gap.

Companies that invest in this model and make use of data to understand unique driver behaviour will be best placed for success. Future success is contingent on being able to offer an accurate user-pay model. For example, someone who drives three times a week and less than 20km each trip shouldn’t pay the same as someone who drives more than 80 km every day. The challenge is to work out how to create a fair and sustainable business model for all stakeholders. I believe that companies that can embrace the latest connected vehicle and fleet management technologies will unlock the answer.

There’s no question that COVID-19 has shaken up the way we do things and there’s no returning to a pre-pandemic normal. Perhaps it’s set us on the right path more quickly than we would’ve thought?

Like this interview? Click here to see the rest of our interviews about the effects of COVID-19 on the transport sector.

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