A French-made autonomous bus cruises through a university campus in Taipei. Tyrone Siu/Reuters

The authors of Faster, Smarter, Greener talk about the technologies that will revolutionize how we get around cities.

The telecommunications ecosystem has come a long way from land lines and fax machines. The field is now crowded with a schmorgasbord of options, from WhatsApp to Facetime to Skype to email. In Faster, Smarter, Greener Venkat Sumantran, Charles Fine, and David Gonsalvez envision a similar transformation of the urban mobility ecosystem in the coming years. Once limited almost exclusively to cars in most American cities, urban mobility in the future will be defined by a diverse range of modes, from bike share to autonomous transit, as well as more traditional options like rail and walking. As scholars of business who have worked with the auto industry, it is notable that these authors are making such bold claims about urban mobility. In the lightly edited interview that follows, we discuss the technologies powering this revolutionary shift, and how even the most auto-dependent cities can adapt to it.

You are the nation’s leading experts on cars some of you are part of the same research group that literally wrote the book on the automobile industry, The Machine That Changed the World. Now, a couple of decades later, Faster, Smarter, Greener details a veritable “perfect storm” of factors that is ushering in a new era of urban mobility. Indeed, you have shifted your own focus from how industries work better and become more competitive to the mobility ecosystems of cities and metropolitan areas. What are the factors contributing to this “perfect storm?”

Accelerated urbanization has concentrated economic activity in localized centers. As a result of a denser urban population, many of the world’s cities are choking on congestion and ground level pollution, driving up health costs, and grid-locking economic growth opportunities. On the global scale, carbon dioxide pollution, which automobiles contribute to significantly, is degrading the conditions of life on our planet, both for humans and the ecosystems on which we rely.

Furthermore, a population increasingly comprising digital natives and digital immigrants has altered expectations of how they want to live and move. Their world is perpetually connected and their lives are increasingly dependent on new service models across a wide swath of economic activity. The underpinnings of cars are being transformed by electrification, connectivity and “smart” technologies. As these forces converge, they will cause a disruptive transformation of urban mobility.

You write that we must look beyond cars to a broader range of options, from transit to walking and biking and more, and that our conversation about transportation must shift from cars to mobility.  I’m sure our readers would like to hear more of your thinking on that.

The idea that we need to transport a 165 lb human in a 3,300 lb car seems wasteful. We think that enabling greater heterogeneity of urban transit options is one of the keys to reducing dependence on the single person automobile.  When walking, biking, buses, railways, sharing services, and a wide range of lower-carbon vehicles such as micro- and mini-cars co-exist with cars, and are connected in an urban environment, mobility options and utility can be enhanced significantly.

One of the most interesting points you make in the book is that: “Autonomous ride-sharing cars can be to cities what elevators are to skyscrapers.” Do tell us more.

For a long time, many drivers had a virtual love affairs with their cars. Affinity to their brands, including emotional attachment for certain styling themes and product images, was encouraged by automakers through carefully crafted marketing messages. Very few people feel much emotional attachment to an elevator that takes them on a short ride from one place to another.  To the extent that autonomous taxi services begin to diminish the emotional attachment of the rider, the form of design, branding, and marketing of automobiles may change dramatically.

You say that the new world of urban mobility is moving toward what you call a “CHIP” mobility environment—meaning connected, heterogeneous, intelligent, and personalized. How can cities best ready themselves and regulate this shift?

Cities can do a great deal. They can encourage innovators and make space for a multitude of mobility solutions including pedestrians, bikes, and ride-sharing services. They need to invest in better physical and digital connectivity and develop hubs that ease the transitions across heterogeneous modes. Many cities are embarking on “smart-city” investments which can help provide system and real-time data to support smartphone apps. Cities are beginning to understand that they have many new levers with which to motivate commuters to choose more efficient solutions.

We hear a lot about electric cars, driverless cars and ride sharing. What are the key technologies powering the shift in urban mobility?

The drive to electrification will lead to at least two major benefits: reducing tail-pipe emissions and carbon dioxide emissions. Ride-sharing contributes through increasing utilization of cars and can contribute to easing congestion in cities. The average car in the U.S. sits idle for 96 percent of its life. Increasing asset use will have economic and environmental benefits. Further, as we gain experience with driver-less cars, we may anticipate a future when cars may be summoned, used and released with a few taps on a smartphone. The shift to treating mobility-as-a-service can trigger significant changes in layout of urban spaces and the economics of mobility.

A huge part of the US economy is built around the car. You note that Peter Drucker called the auto industry, the “industry of industries.”  The US also has a huge stake in the oil, petroleum and fossil fuel economy.  We have all sorts of incentives for driving cars—from lower gas prices compared to other countries to subsidies for suburban sprawl. How can our economy make the shift to other modes?

Horse breeders suffered from the proliferation of Ford Model T’s, and long-distance telephone service companies shrunk in the face of the internet. Around the world, astute automotive companies and astute city and regional planners are working to get ahead of the shift in focus from cars to connected, heterogeneous, intelligent, and personalized mobility solutions. Innovation not only brings disruption—it also brings opportunities for growth and new businesses.

Which cities and regions in the world do you see benefiting the most from the shift in urban mobility? Will existing automotive regions in the US, Europe and Asia prevail, or will we see a shift in the industry clusters of the new “mobility industry” to tech hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area?

There can be two kinds of winners in this game. There will be those cities and regions that embrace the idea of connected, heterogeneous, and intelligent mobility architectures, build coalitions of companies, citizens, and regional planners to work together, and align policies and investments accordingly. These cities will win in the sense that they provide improvement for their citizens in healthy and pleasant environments, as well as greater opportunities for economic growth. We do see that possibility in cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong, and countries such as Switzerland. In emerging economies such as China, we see aggressive experiments in a broad range of options, from bicycle sharing to high speed rail systems.

There will be other winners—ecosystems that are able to nurture technological innovation, and foster business model experimentation. They will emerge as homes for new mobility enterprises that can scale their business globally. We see this in places like the Silicon Valley, Israel, Helsinki and Bangalore, to name just a few. Although cities do compete for attention from providers of human and investment capital, improving mobility is a game where every city can “win.”

The rise of new modes of shared transportation, pooled ride sharing services like Lyft and also newer services like Chariot and Via, are increasingly blurring the traditional lines between public and private modes of transportation. What are the promises and perils of this change?

Our marketplaces are constantly innovating and interpolating with new combinations and manifestations. So the rigid divide between public and private modes will blur. Chariot, for example is an Uber-like app-hailed, dynamically-routed ride-sharing van service for 6-12 passengers and often complements public transit. A larger number of heterogeneous options, especially when well connected physically and digitally, will improve the options for mobility users and enhance overall value.

On the other hand, thoughtful regulations and policies will be required to assure relatively smooth transitions.  Some countries have actually defined mobility as a basic “right”. In the process of experimentation, societies will benefit if mobility architectures are inclusive across demographic and economic sections of the population. Nobody wins when one disaffected group flexes its muscles to shut down all transit options in favor of retaining an inefficient status quo. Far-sighted stewardship is needed to ensure that regulations provide for fair and open competition.

There are very different baseline predictions for this new era of urban mobility. Urbanists see it ushering in a new era of density, urbanity, a blurring of the lines between home and work, as well as less car use and more transit, walking and biking.  But others see a combination of driverless cars, high-speed rail and wireless connectivity enabling us to spread ourselves further and further out. So, which will it be?

As Einstein observed, “nothing changes until something moves”. Mobility is the lifeblood of human civilization and we must foster ease of mobility in our cities, whether to the next block or the neighboring suburb. Some cities will move towards greater efficiency with a sense of haste and other will straggle.  Some will be innovators and others will be followers.  Some will put a greater emphasis on individual preferences and some on the collective good. All we can hope is that the preponderance of our brethren will move in a direction towards the well-being of the many. The future of humanity depends on that.

Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated the title of the book Faster, Smarter, Greener.

This article is part of a series highlighting the themes of CityLab Paris, a convening of urban leaders.

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