Lars Thomsen

Image: Maryann Simpson

APEX Insight: What will Mobility as a Service (MaaS) mean for the airline industry? Today, MaaS may only reach as far as ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, but as technology advances, more methods of transportation may operate using a subscription-based service; like Spotify for travel. Futurist Lars Thomsen believes this could be our reality within the next two decades. 

At the ZAL TechCenter Innovation Days in Hamburg, Lars Thomsen, founder and chief futurist of Future Matters, told attendees to get ready for some popcorn – an analogy to describe the variable pace of disruptive technology.

“Most technologies over the last 200 years didn’t develop in a straight line,” Thomsen explained. “They developed very slowly, to the point where we have reached this threshold, and then they developed very fast.” While we may think we understand the impact of the technology that surrounds us, the compound effect will result in an accelerated shift to our everyday lives, just as popcorn pops faster once it has reached peak heat.

The way that most people work today has changed with the advent of robotics and AI, and it will continue to change at a more accelerated pace. “Artificial intelligence is now producing the capability to fly, or drive, or sail…autonomously over the next ten years. Artificial intelligence is a total game changer,” Thomsen said, citing a Cambridge study, which suggests that 30-50% of the work performed by people today will be replaced by artificial intelligence in the next seventeen years.

30-50% of the work performed by people today will be replaced by artificial intelligence in the next seventeen years.

So, will MaaS eventually replace today’s commercial air travel infrastructure? “It will not change from one day to another, but I think that [it will be adopted] if companies come up with products and services that really make traveling easier and offer mobility at the push of a button,” Thomsen said. “Just like [it has] with media, where we know we can get what we want in an instant, this will gradually become the norm for mobility as well.”

Thomsen believes autonomous vehicles, on the road or in the sky, will be the tipping point for the acceleration of the MaaS model. The convenience of getting to our destination on time, at a lower cost and not having to worry about parking will drive the market in the direction of subscriber MaaS services.

Autonomous planes may seem like a far-off technology, but Thomsen believes a middle stage will already have a dramatic effect on airline cost structures, which might help them adapt to a MaaS future. “We are talking today about single-pilot aircraft. You can save 50 percent of the costs by not needing the co-pilot. If the pilot is the back-up system for the autonomous flight system, then you would save quite a lot,” he said. “If you can shift from six flight attendants in the cabin to two, and still provide the same service, then eventually the low-cost carriers will go ahead with these things.”

Safety factors will play a role in how quickly new system efficiencies take off. “New technologies, like autonomous aircraft, will only be allowed if these systems are, by at least a factor of 10, more safe than if you would have humans,” Thomsen said. “But I believe that if you have automated traffic control and object avoidance and a new paradigm of how you are managing the lower air space, then I think autonomous aircraft will be even safer than driving a car or anything else.”