2012-01-03

A Glimpse Into The Future Of Mobility From Stanford's Car Gurus

The folks at the Center for Automotive Research are working on all sorts of things--from flying cars to wireless charging. But what trends do they see affecting how we get places in the more immediate future?

The Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS) is re-imagining the future of the automobile. These are not the flying cars of science fiction. These are nuts and bolts (or at least bits and bytes) innovations that can happen in the next few years, with some clever engineering and imaginative applications. What if mobility meant we never drove ourselves, or even owned a vehicle? What if our cars’ power sources were not batteries, or gasoline, but metal coils embedded under the roadway? These are all concepts being explored at CARS’ workshops and offices in Palo Alto, California.

CARS mission is "to discover, build, and deploy the critical ideas and innovations for the next generation of cars and drivers." Co.Exist spoke with Sven Beiker, the executive director of CARS, to find out more about what CARS is doing, and what trends they see the automobile taking in the near future.

Demotorization, or "kuruma banare"

There is a social shift away from owning cars to a model that’s much more about considering mobility to be a service, rather than owning an steel and rubber machine in your garage. This is set to redefine how we think about transport in the same way that cloud computing is transforming how we think about software and desktop computing. While we’re still years away from seeing large percentages of the population abandon car ownership, the trends are already there.

"People are stepping away from owning a car to a certain extent, but not to accessing a car," says Beiker. "Younger drivers don’t want ownership hassle. … It’s not such a huge trend that everyone is going there. But it is a trend."

Beiker points to the Japanese phenomenon of kuruma banare ("demotorization") that has seen the status and appeal of car ownership decline among younger generations.

"What I find very important in the mobile society [is] how do we consume mobility?" he says. "And this brings in the whole thing about car sharing. … There is a changing identification with the automobile, the younger generation basically says the status symbol is my smartphone or my iPad--or, when I can actually afford it, a nice condo. Those are much more important than a car used to be."

Buying a car is an emotional decision

We think that we buy cars because we have certain practical needs and a budget. Our reasons are different. "Today, the decision when buying a car is more than 50% emotional, it might be 80%," says Beiker. "You look at cars, and you think, How much do I really need to get from one place to another? … It’s not a whole lot."

For most people, a car will sit unused more than 90% of the time. When they are used, the average distance traveled is less than 50 miles. While it seems logical that we would spend money on a car for how we use it most, "this is not how people choose their cars," says Beiker. "No one chooses their car for the average-use case." Instead we buy for the extreme cases: the occasional family trip, the vacation in Tahoe, or the long-haul out of state. That’s starting to change a bit, as more choices arrive to rent or borrow the vehicle we need, when we need it. Still, automakers can take heart: transport is not on its way to becoming a commodity.

"I do not think the emotional component of the car will go away anytime soon," says Beiker. "But it is definitely changing."

Why electric cars will succeed (if they do): Performance

If you want to get most people to drive electric vehicles, make them cheap, fast and sexy. Fortunately for electrics, they are a lot of fun to drive, even more than those powered by internal combustion engines for many (even if they are not yet cheap).

"More and more of traditional car engineers do get excited about electric vehicles specifically because of the performance," says Beiker. "And the Tesla is one of the best examples. It’s fantastic. You can have some fun with this car. We actually have one professor on campus that drives a Tesla and he really sees himself as an evangelist. … People who get in this car and come back, they are totally smiling and just excited about what this car can do."

(Re)inventing the car from zero

Designing a car meant for 2012 is not about waiting for the right technology. It’s all about infrastructure. We have the technology today to make automated personal vehicles that whisk us from door to door while hardly touching the steering wheel. What we don’t have is the smart infrastructure.

"If we were to switch today to this scenario, we would basically delete everything that happened over the last 125 years," says Beiker. "If we just put up a nice infrastructure--a magnetic strip in roadway, do nice urban planning, and nice integration with urban transport--maybe we don’t need [cars] for everyone." Realistically, Beiker figures autonomous vehicles are probably more than 20 years out, and much more if we’re talking about completely autonomous vehicles. "But we do have the technology to do this with 100% of vehicles on the road."

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