– By Caroline Falls –
It was after midnight and Scott Conlon was alone in his office on the east coast of the United States. He was there to take a video call and keep his commitment as the keynote speaker for the IPWEA Fleet conference in Brisbane in mid March.
Conlon is a senior consultant with Mercury Associates, one of north America’s biggest fleet consultancies. Conlon’s pre-recorded presentation and slides were run — it was all about international trends in fleet management — moves to electrification, connectivity and data overload, the advent of autonomous vehicles, and shifts to shared mobility. All exciting stuff — or at least it was in the pre-coronavirus days.
With everyday bringing new changes to our day-to-day lives and the ways in which we work, the highlights of Conlon’s presentation came in his unprepared answers to audience questions.
“The situation here is a bit manic right now. People are emptying out grocery stores. Just this evening (it’s 12:14 a.m. right now) at about 5 p.m. our governor put out an executive order in the state of Maryland where I am that shut down all restaurants and bars in the hope to slow the transmission rate. I’m in an empty office building by myself right now.”
Conlon was setting the scene. I had asked Conlon via the face-to-face video link what were his observations on how the coronavirus event will affect the fleet and transport industry.
“I think the first and foremost question that comes to people’s minds in any car sharing situation is whether the driver of the car is sick, or whether some other passenger has been in the car immediately preceding them,” said Conlon, adding, “I think for the next three months or so, or the next six months or so, we’ll see probably a dramatic drop in the amount of people that are going be ride sharing.”
Ride sharing encompasses taxis, Uber, Lyft, Go-Get and other membership and subscription mobility services that feature bicycles and scooters. Broadly speaking it also includes public transport services — buses, and trains.
“We as fleet providers need to be conscientious about how we ensure that the vehicles are cleaned on a routine basis, how they are sanitised and made ready for the next folks that are going to be in the vehicle,” said Conlon.
Conlon, who before joining Mercury 15 years ago ran the maintenance workshop for Maryland’s Montgomery County public buses, talked about the pandemic’s impacts on public transport.
“There’ve been a lot of cuts to train and bus services. A lot of routes have been cut and inner city routes have been reduced. I think you are seeing a general anxiety within the public about sharing space with other people. One of the measures that everyone is trying to institute is what they are calling social distancing, or essentially keeping a large amount of space between persons and that’s quite hard to do when you are talking about getting into a car with someone else or riding public transport.”
Conlon’s words echoed what I’d heard in Switzerland just a week earlier, where Balz Eggenberger, founder of consultancy fleetcompetence, said the shift out of public transport and back to private vehicles was likely to be dramatic.
I also noted last week a headline from Bloomberg about a boom in inquiries for private vehicle sales in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak of the coronavirus was first reported, and which in early April started reopening its city.
— Caroline Falls is a freelance reporter, writing for Australian and international business publications