Automobility Defined

“The key question is: Do you sell cars or do you sell mobility?” said Tim Ryan, New York-based vice chairman of markets and strategy for consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. “If you ignore these megatrends, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant.” 

Automobility is the luxury of being able to envision a destination, click ‘go,' and arrive with a minimum of effort or conscious coordination.

It could mean:

  • Saying, “Yes, I can get there from here!” with some degree of autonomy about nearly any destination
  • Showing up at at the house of a friend in need of support, without having to think about how you’ll get there
  • Getting from one side of town to the other without memorizing train schedules or the locations of parking structures or taxi stands

Automobility may seem like a simple concept. We should be able to easily get from point A to point B, and we would like to imagine such a journey could happen at the scale of the modern world. Why can't we drive wherever we want, as quickly we want, or be efficiently transported from one place to another? For ages, the handoffs between various transit systems and the complications of having to reconcile the tensions of systems in the commons has been problematic. But with recent innovations in business models, technology, and the way transportation is perceived, the possibility of true automobility is clearer than ever before.

In this article, we’ll take a brief look at the history of mindsets towards automobility, and get a clearer view of the assumptions which shape the current state of the automotive and transit industries.  As we shift our focus to the present, we’ll examine how the Information Age’s rising tide of data and rapidly-decreasing ecological resources have triggered deeper awareness of the close relationship between us, our modes of transportation, the devices and networks we use, and the planet that we rely on for survival. We'll also look into the future possibilities of automobility, where new technologies like 3D printing, artificial intelligence, the maker movement, sensor networks, and many others will unfold in ways which cannot yet be fully imagined.

Mindsets about mobility need to change before the promises of technology can be realized.

Henry Ford once famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Steve Jobs, perhaps the most visible leader of the smartphone era’s everything-everywhere connectivity, echoed a similar sentiment: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” What is it about these hubristic innovators that helped them succeed? Perhaps the vision for their industries included bigger futures beyond what everyday people had the resources, privilege, or ingenuity to design.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, goes a step further in proposing that in the near future "people may outlaw driving cars because it's too dangerous… You can't have a person driving a two-ton death machine.” Yet, at the same time, Musk is one of many vocal opponents of certain kinds of artificial intelligence. Like many of us, he sees a tension between the benefit of delegated decision-making in the driving experience and the need for caution.

We will confront many of these “What if?” scenarios that automated and connected cars invite us to explore.