What Does 'Mobility' Even Mean, And How Will It Affect Tomorrow's Cars?

February 16, 2016

Everywhere you turn, people in the automotive industry are talking about "mobility" -- or more often, "the future of mobility". 

That sounds awfully fancy and sophisticated, but what the heck does it mean? 

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When you and I talk about being "mobile", we're usually talking about one of two things:

  • Traveling for a longish stretch of time, but still being accessible by phone, text, and/or email (e.g. "I'm on site visits this afternoon, so I'll be mobile");
  • A friend or family member whose infirmities have left him/her bedridden (e.g. "Since the accident, Uncle Denny just hasn't been all that mobile")

But when automakers talk about mobility, they're referring to the way that you and I get around, our means of conveyance. More specifically, they're often talking about the way that we get around familiar environments: our neighborhoods, our cities, our commutes.

In that sense, "mobility" encompasses a range of transportation options, including cars, motorcycles, bicycles, trains, buses, the Hyperloop, and even "personal mobility" prototypes like the PUMA shown above. Ten, twenty, or fifty years from now, which of those options will remain, and which will have faded like, say, Amtrak?

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That's what automakers are working hard to figure out. Surely they hope that individual car ownership remains popular, but they're also investing in other options, just to cover their bases. None know the course that the future will take, and neither do we, but we do know a bit about trends and about human nature than might offer some hints.

1. The world's population is becoming concentrated urban centers. Today, roughly 54 percent of Planet Earth's human beings live in cities. (In the U.S., the figure is far higher: 81 percent.) The World Bank notes that the rate of urbanization in growing in nearly every country. As cities become more densely populated, transportation options change. Oftentimes, taking public transportation become easier and cheaper than owning a car, which involves not only purchasing a ride, but also parking it, insuring it, and maintaining it. On those occasions where we actually need a vehicle, ride-sharing and car-sharing services like Uber and Zipcar make for attractive alternatives to ownership.  

2. Income inequality is a problem in the U.S. (but not everywhere). We've all heard the statistics: the top 20 percent of the U.S. population owns roughly 84 percent of the nation's wealth. That can have a chilling effect on consumer spending, especially among younger people who are at the beginning of their careers. However, there's at least some data to suggest that the situation in other countries is different. In China, for example, the income gap may be shrinking. How such trends evolve over time will depend on tax laws and other policies, and they could have a significant impact on whether car ownership remains an option for many consumers. 

3. Younger consumers are less interested in vehicle ownership. We've talked about this a lot and probably don't need to rehash the facts. Bottom line: folks under 40 aren't nearly as excited to own a car as their parents once were.

4. Telecommuting and product delivery could change our travel needs. Many of us already have the option to work from home -- some of us do it all the time, some of us do it on special occasions. If that trend continues, it could diminish our need for work rides. And when Amazon and Google start delivering products by drone, we'll have even less of a need to spend our lunch breaks running to drug stores, pet stores, and co-ops.

5. Climate change will affect transportation options. Global warming is a real thing. Certain portions of the business community may rail against that fact for a while longer, but eventually, even folks like Senator Inhofe will come around to the idea. (Or they'll die off.) A number of laws and regulations have already been passed to address climate change, and others have targeted pollution in general. In the coming decades, we'd expect many more such laws to appear on the books, and each will have an effect on how we get around, possibly pushing us toward electric vehicles and/or mass transit.

6. Humankind prefers to get around on its own schedule. We are an impatient species -- or at least, we've become that way in the age of instant gratification. We don't want to wait on a train or a bus, we want to walk out of the house and travel right to where we're going. That's why, in cities like Houston, Atlanta, and Chicago that are less constrained by natural boundaries (think San Francisco and New York), cars remain popular, despite reasonably good mass transit systems. As long as it remains moderately convenient to own a vehicle in cities like those, people will purchase them. 

What are your thoughts? How do you think you'll get from Point A to Point B in 20, 30, or 40 years? For some additional insight, check out what Ford's doing in this interesting article from the New York Times.

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