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Beyond the Auto Monoculture


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There is an increasing number of experts voicing their opinions about the future of the automotive industry. We are hearing from top automotive executives, long-established industry consultants, as well as hearing from top automotive analysts on Wall Street about what’s ahead. All of these experts know how the automobile won out over public transit early in the last century, and as a result, today there is an automotive “monoculture.” Now predictions are being made focused on what the next dominant system will be, predictions of the next surface mobility monoculture. I think it’s a mistake to think we will have a single dominant approach in the future.

Today in the U.S., just about every car, SUV and light truck require a similar amount of road space, are fuelled at one of 150,000 gas stations across the country, and the standardized parking space for a car is ubiquitous. But a mobility monoculture is not healthy. Small vehicles are avoided because they are felt to be unsafe. Trying to mix bicycles on public roadways with cars is problematic. These are just two examples of the challenges of creating a diverse mobility system.

I could be wrong, but it feels like some of the automotive experts are trying to predict the next transportation system that will have dominance over other modes. Perhaps that involves choosing battery electric vehicles as the winner while hydrogen power fails. Or choosing private or shared use of autonomous cars as the next winner. Actually, in this coming Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) future, it sure looks like the new standard will be vehicle diversity. 

Today, most of us are “locked” to our cars. Almost every day we are likely very near our car. We sleep in our homes, with our car in the garage just 50 feet away. Our car is a bit further away when at work, or shopping. In many ways, our cars are like an “appendage” to our bodies. We have lived so long with this dominant system, it’s hard for many of us to imagine a different system.

However, the MaaS future changes everything. We will no longer be locked to one transportation mode, but able to match a mobility mode to the needs for a trip. Travelers heading into a city center will likely change vehicles at the edge of the city core, into a smaller-sized transport to move quickly around the city interior. Neighborhoods will hopefully create separate corridors for light and local mobility modes, and allow citizens to circulate without having to depend on more sophisticated autonomous mobility services.

I am not sure if the automotive experts who are focused on what’s next have lived without owning a car in recent years. I wonder if they have spent any time in a city like Washington D.C., San Francisco or New York without having their own car, all cities where it is possible. The coming mobility diversity can best be understood by living in a location without one’s car. These mobility diverse large cities are only the tip of the iceberg, and it’s expected autonomous cars will enable most of America to switch to MaaS if desired.

If there is any aspect of the future that feels like a coming monoculture, it may be the future connected and autonomous cars. I certainly expect in 50 years few people will be steering their vehicles by themselves. But the autonomous car will not beat a bicycle for a short trip on a nice day. And the 52 percent of Americans lacking a sidewalk in front of their house will not be well served if autonomous cars are the only new mobility enhancements in their communities. Diversity is essential, and future diverse mobility systems are going to feel very different from what we know today.  

Dan Sturges is mobility design consultant for team red and has been supporting “transformative” transportation projects for nearly 30 years. He trained as a car designer and worked as an entrepreneur to bring to market a new intermediate vehicle category. He supports a wide range of vehicle design and mobility planning efforts for both government and corporate entities.

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