Reinventing Mobility: It's Not Just the Cars, Stupid

For all the aiding and abetting taking place on behalf of the automobile industry -- the transfusions, the transformations, and the TLC -- one thing remains constant: It's all about the cars. The quest, as just about everyone sees it, is to figure out how Detroit automakers and their global competitors can build smart, compelling, and reliable vehicles that appeal both to our pragmatism and passions — and do so profitably and more ecologically. That's the basic drill, right?

Well, maybe not. The near-obsessive focus on building greener vehicles -- just about every global auto maker is now in a drag race to create an electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid -- obscures the bigger challenge, and the bigger opportunity: to reinvent our personal transportation systems in ways that are better in every way -- economically, socially, and environmentally.

Consider: It's become dogma in the United States and other developed and developing countries that "Cars give us freedom." Entire generations of Americans have been reared on that assumption. Detroit was built on it.

But cars are a burden: You have to purchase them, maintain them, fuel them, park them, and insure them. If you live in a city and lack a garage, the challenges and costs multiply. They're expensive and a hassle, and they sit idle 95 percent of the time. When you actually use them, there's the challenge of getting around on ever-congested streets and highways. Not exactly "freedom."

What gives us freedom isn't cars, but mobility, the ability to go where and when you want in the way that's most appropriate and affordable for your needs and style. That's true at every point on the economic spectrum. Indeed, in emerging economies, mobility is a prerequisite to sustainability. When people can move freely from hither to yon, they're better able to have a job, trade goods, seek an education, obtain health care, perhaps even explore other places to broaden their horizons.

So, why, in the digital age, when just about every product and service is undergoing fundamental change, if not outright reinvention, is our transportation future still rooted in the mode of manufacturing and selling cars, electric or otherwise? Why aren't the titans of industry reimagining the larger system in which these vehicles operate? As we try to reinvent the auto industry, shouldn't that be part of the equation?

Dan Sturges thinks it should be. "There's a role for auto companies if they stop focusing on making cars and start thinking about enabling people to move."

Sturges has taught me a great deal about mobility, a subject about which he's both extremely knowledgeable and passionate. A former car designer for General Motors, Sturges now focuses on developing community-improving transportation systems -- how to marry an array of personal vehicles with public transit while leveraging the latest in digital telecommunications to create integrated and efficient mobility systems. As an entrepreneur, Dan led the effort to invent the first mass-produced neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV), the GEM car, now owned by Chrysler. These days, Sturges is the visionary behind Colorado-based Intrago, a company that makes "size-appropriate transportation options for people to move about local environments." (Full disclosure: I'm on Intrago's advisory board.)

In Sturges' world, all the talk about alt-fueled vehicles -- whether from the major automakers or any of the dozens of start-ups, from Apterra to Zenn -- is necessary, but hardly sufficient, especially if cities are too congested for these vehicles to get around. That inefficiency is already apparent, he says. "Here in Denver, we have an average 1.1 people occupancy per vehicle. That's a 20 percent load factor. An airline cannot stay in business a week at a 20 percent load factor." And yet, says Sturges, our national conversation on environmentally responsible transportation has us simply transfering all of that inefficiency over to electric vehicles instead of gas-powered ones. The result is a lot of energy wasted to move all those empty seats. Moreover, he says, studies have shown that in some cities as many as 40 percent of the vehicles on the streets are driving around looking for parking. Simply switching to electricity, even from renewable sources, to power all those underutilized vehicles trolling for a place to park won't get us very far, in terms of our energy and climate goals.

So, we'll need not just new types of vehicles, but new types of vehicle systems.

We're seeing some of this already. There's Zipcar, City Car Share, I-Go, and other forms of car sharing and mircorental services, which provide alternatives to car ownership. In Paris, there's Véllib, the system of 20,000 rental bikes and 1,500 automated stations -- roughly one every 300 meters throughout the city center -- which affords members with low-cost bike rentals (the first half-hour is free) that can be returned to any station. In Ulm, Germany, Daimler has launched Car2Go, a similar system using small NEVs. As the company describes:

"The principle is simple yet brilliant: Whenever you need a car, you can book (spontaneously or in advance) one of 200 car2go that are in Ulm. With a minimum amount of effort, an almost free choice of return location, and without fixed costs. That represents modern mobility for us, which improves the quality of life, and sets Ulm in motion."

Vélib, Car2Go, and the car-sharing services represent parts of the larger system Sturges envisions. "Once you start to see the congestion issue, then you can have a discussion of how can we reinvent or rethink the way that we move. And at that point it gets really interesting. This digital revolution — the thing that's enabling the car sharing and enabling our iPhones to become hitchhiking tools — is a really exciting new world, where this three-dimensional web is unfolding around us."

In that three-dimensional web, you might not own a vehicle, but have access on demand to whatever style and size you need — a small NEV for a quick jaunt to the market, a minivan for a family vacation, a slick sedan for a client meeting, a convertible for a nice day, a sturdy pick-up for a trip to Home Depot. The cars might be delivered to you or be available within reasonable proximity of where you need it. The rental rate might adjust based on time and convenience: If you need a vehicle delivered to your door within 30 minutes you'll pay a higher rate than if you're more flexible about where and when you get it. Of course, all of this is as simple as tapping an icon on your smart phone, texting a request, making a call, or showing up at a kiosk.

And it's not just cars. In the "smart multimodal transportation future," as Sturges calls it, there's a world with a diverse array of transportation choices, from shared electric bikes and scooters to private vehicles of all kinds. (Intrago, Sturges' company, offers technology to create such personal vehicle networks.) "You jump from one mode to the next mode," he says. "The future urban traveler we see is more like Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine." You already do that when you take an airplane trip: You drive or take public transit to the airport, fly to another airport, then "swing" to whatever mode of transport is appropriate and affordable to take you wherever you're going. In Sturges "Tarzan" world, we'd do that locally, too. The result: We'd get there with less wear and tear on ourselves and the planet, and maybe faster, too.

The thing is, it makes economic sense. According to AAA (Download - PDF), the typical midsized car costs about $23 a day — every day, 365 days a year — when you factor in a gas, maintenance, tires, insurance, license, registration, depreciation, taxes, and finance charges (assuming driving 15,000 a year). At that rate, your basic two-car garage runs a cool $16,500 a year. Cutting that in half to own just one vehicle can still leave more than enough to afford all the vehicle sharing and mobility services — even taxi rides — that you need.

Of course, there's a cultural mind shift needed for all this to happen. What will it take for consumers to give up one of their family cars? Could owning fewer cars become a status symbol? Could we reach a point where not owning any car is the ultimate in luxury? That cultural challenge seems nearly as big as the technological ones.

And can the big guys — the General Motors and Chryslers — play in this new world of transportation services, or will their laser-like focus on selling cars lead them to become dinosaurs, even if they survive their current travails? I asked Sturges if the Big Three would be really able to turn the ship toward this new direction. "There is so much talent in Detroit," he replied. "I don't think you need a new ship. You've got all kinds of engineering resources and really bright people. But they'll need less of a focus on selling cars, and more of a focus of enabling people to move. They need to move off the idea that people need one car that can go everywhere and do everything. But I don't think you have to throw the whole thing out. I think you just have to be imaginative."