* Henry Ford - upon the introduction of the Model T
Dan Sturges is a transport visionary. For twenty years he’s foreseen and been tackling some of the transport-related problems the rest of the world is only just starting to grapple with. Sturges isn’t anti-car. He is simply pro shaking up mobility full stop, and believes that far from just moving people in to electric cars, we need to introduce people to a variety of vehicles - ones that are the right size for each journey they make.
A couple of months back, I chatted to him over skype about his current thoughts on his company Intrago, the future of mobility, and what the auto industry is up to. You can see an edited highlight of that video below, and then after the jump I’ve pulled out and discussed what I think are the key points he made.
At the core of Intrago’s thinking is the belief private transport and public transit need marrying into one system. Sturges say that currently around 80% of the US public can’t access or easily get to public transit systems. While there’s clear need to change this, physically building the infrastructure will take time. So the key priority of Sturges today is helping people move into vehicles that are the right size for each journey – that’s because the future isn’t just about energy efficiency – it’s about land-use and space efficiency. Sturges’ message to those who suggest people must ditch their cars for bicycles: we’ll never move forward if we don’t appeal to car drivers, and it’s clear he thinks most personal vehicles of the future will need to be ‘powered’, not just pedaled.
Digital will be the crucial component of future mobility. The iPhone (and other phone platforms) apps stores and GPS capability now give us the opportunity to not only find where vehicles are, but be guided to them, authenticate ourselves and rent/use them. The way the mobile digital world makes it easy to seamlessly jump from one form of transport to another is clearly one way in which “less ownership and more on demand vehicles” will happen. But for all that the digital world is changing things, Sturges still sees infrastructure as the critical barrier: “The automobile is a monoculture. Roads are sized to it, houses are sized to it”. While not something we consciously think about as an issue every day, that our environments are indeed sized around the car creates barriers to people using (and even developing in the first place) new types of vehicles that aren’t car sized. The Segway being banned from both road and pavement use in the UK would be a prime example of this issue at play.
The car industry
Sturges is clearly pleased with some of the progress he sees the car industry making – and when I ask him what he’s been most interested in recently, he talked about Daimler’s Car2Go system and Paris’s Autolib. Yet ultimately, Sturges thinks auto makers really need to get on and do, rather than just talk. He believes that the most progressive ones will turn themselves from simple ‘car makers’ to real ‘mobility providers’ – and believes their future business success will depend on them being able to achieve this. Having watched our following of Ford’s sustainability and design work over the last year, Dan wants to know if they’re really thinking about new forms of vehicles to put in to future city-wide sharing systems. It’s clear he thinks simply dropping existing Fiestas and Smart cars into new on-demand vehicle networks won’t work.
From a design-perspective, there are a huge number of questions that remain unanswered about what a city-specific vehicle should do and look like, or even if it could ever be economically made. Sturges believes it could – and indeed, with the GEM NEV, he showed how something like this might make economic sense. After I conducted this interview, Renault launched the Twizy at the Frankfurt auto show – and it’s clearly a car which steps in the direction Sturges is talking about. The question is, does Renault simply want to sell it to individuals, or has it bigger plans?
A mobility vision for the future
Underlining his point that the challenge is not a technological, but an integration and legislative one, Sturges finishes by imagining a city of the future with small autonomous vehicles. These devices could re-distribute themselves based on demand, or even perform tasks – such as deliveries – as a secondary function. For some, this vision will be too Orwellian, an un-appetising vision where the machines taking over. But as I wrote in my Wired article (which Sturges infromed and also gets a major mention in) I don’t think we’ve much to lose. We can either begin to try this stuff, or end up in twenty years time sat in traffic jams in our electrically-powered, air-conditioned glass and steel boxes. We need to create a smart system of intelligent transport, which is flexible, reconfigurable and littered with various vehicles. My key quiestion is this: Is it possible for people like Sturges to turn vision into reality through their own independent companies, or do they need to be working in the heart of London’s GLA, or Ford Motor Company? I'd argue those organsiations could use more people like him at their core.
Think the idea of Segways moving slowly and autonomously through the city, moving people, pizzas and post is mad? With a recession that shows no sign of ending, fuel prices only going one way, and a seemingly unending Royal Mail strike here in the UK, I can see there being plenty of people who wouldn’t see it as a mad idea at all. They just need to see, and embrace, the vision that people like Sturges can paint.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 3rd November 2009.
Dan Sturges is president of Intrago Mobility LLC. He is speaking at the UM-Smart conference at the University of Michigan on 9-11th November.
Related reading: Reinventing Mobility - It's Not Just the Cars, Stupid. (Joel Makower, April 2009)