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Death to personal cars? Paving the way for sustainable mobility

From rides on demand to myriad new models for connected cars, bikes and public transit, mobility is a fast-moving world these days.

To help make sense of where we've come from (a transportation landscape dominated by fossil fuels) and why we might be heading toward a very different future, GreenBiz connected with mobility designer Dan Sturges.

Sturges — who has written extensively about the transition from an auto industry defined by hulking consumer products to a much more nuanced, service-based sector — shared his thoughts in a two-part Q&A, edited for length and clarity. Check back next Friday for part two.

GreenBiz: Where are we now in this new auto tech wave?

Dan Sturges: Sometimes I imagine Henry Ford was born 100 years later. He would be 52 years old today, and he would be absolutely blown away how advanced the modern automobile has become.

The Information Communication Technology (ICT) revolution, which is now being led in large part by auto R&D labs in Silicon Valley, is poised to introduce yet another new mobility paradigm. It could completely transform the built world again, as the automobile did last century.

GB: What are the potential implications for ownership of personal cars?

Sturges: To go back to the Ford model, he was all about efficiency. He would want to offer the consumer-citizen the best mobility solutions possible for their dollar.

Our cars have become expensive and most of them travel about our cities 75 percent empty. The key is offering great mobility that uses the fewest vehicles — the least amount of energy and land required — for the lowest price.

GB: How does the connectivity we're increasingly seeing in cars come into play?

Sturges: ICT provides consumers connectivity, which is another form of access like transportation. There's a huge opportunity with the American home suffering from access technology redundancies — paying for new broadband, wireless and e-delivery costs on top of the roughly $50 a day it costs to own and operate two cars.

Add to that worsening traffic congestion in world cities, consumers getting less physical exercise and the highly critical environmental and climate situation facing society.

There are already a range of options: Audi’s R8 spaceship, the cool BMW i3, a VW LX1 or a Range Rover for the trip to the boonies. In terms of mobility services, you've got Lyft and Uber rides and this new world of autonomous and automated mobility.

GB: What's the upshot for emissions?

Sturges: Elon Musk and Tesla are awesome. The world needs Tesla. But in terms of carbon reduction, it is not the comprehensive answer possible in our new ICT age. It does nothing to reduce urban traffic congestion, doesn’t enable us to physically exercise more, nor does Tesla offer substantial cost savings.

Logan Green and Travis Kalanick, the CEOs of Lyft and Uber, are amazing entrepreneurs. If the coming $2.25 trillion disruption in the personal transportation market was a theatrical play, this would have been act one. With nearly $6 billion in funding raised, they're now talking about expanding beyond the taxi (and solo-ride) market to disrupt car ownership.

GB: So the real sustainability opening comes with converting from car ownership to cars as a service?

Sturges: Obviously these ridesharing companies want the consumer to sell their car. They will need more rides, and people will have lots more money to spend on them.

It’s great to hear Logan say he’d like to see 50 percent of our cars eliminated. I too see massive disruption potential for act two in all of this, but it’s going to require a broader approach than only these new i-ride businesses currently offer.

GB: So what would it take to realize fewer personal cars at real scale?

Sturges: Enabling city center residents to sell a car is not too difficult. The heavy lifting is getting the suburban family to sell one.

In the burbs, it’s a chicken-egg-problem; consumers will only sell when there is a great mobility service network to switch to, but there will only be a great network once a lot of cars have been sold off. It’s a wicked problem.

GB: And there are also cultural and economic forces in play.

Sturges: Yes. There is the cultural inertia of automobile ownership to address. We have seen millions of car TV advertisements that are lodged deep in our brains. We get inside our car, and it becomes our avatar — it’s what we look like to others when driving. For many of us our cars serve as a symbol of our status.

Then the elephant in the room is the global middle class, which is approximately 2 billion people and will double is a very short amount of time — like 20 years. Many of these people live in China or India, and they may have been dreaming of owning a car for years. This dynamic may explain why eco-minded Bill Ford’s company is planning to grow their yearly production to 9 million cars and trucks by 2020, which would be a 50 percent increase from today.

Stay tuned for part two of the Q&A next week, when Sturges will elaborate on where mobility will go from here.

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