Vehicle design and urban mobility

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Vehicle design and urban mobility have been on my mind a lot lately. In fact, two of the guest speakers at Brigadoon salon dinners this fall will lead discussions on the intersection of moving people with transport and moving people with design.

Growing up in Detroit I have had a long love affair with the automobile. Both of my grandfathers worked at the famous Ford River Rouge plant and my father was a senior executive at an auto components company. I grew up with the Big Three and many members of my family were employed and able to build a rich life because of the car.

I have always loved being in a car - so much so I couldn't wait to drive. I would frequently take one of my family's car on little spins around town even before the great state of Michigan officially sanctioned such behavior. Even today I find a road trip to be one of the most pleasant experiences.

But that seems to be all changing. The desire to get behind the wheel - heck even owning a car seems antiquated these days.

Young people are not getting driver’s licenses so much anymore. In fact, no one is.

According to a 2016 study by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, the percentage of people with a driver’s license decreased between 2011 and 2014, across all age groups. For people aged 16 to 44, that percentage has been decreasing steadily since 1983.

It’s especially pronounced for the teens—in 2014, just 24.5 percent of 16-year-olds had a license, a 47-percent decrease from 1983, when 46.2 percent did. And at the tail end of the teen years, 69 percent of 19-year-olds had licenses in 2014, compared to 87.3 percent in 1983, a 21-percent decrease.

Among young adults, the declines are smaller but still significant—16.4 percent fewer 20-to-24-year-olds had licenses in 2014 than in 1983, 11 percent fewer 25-to-29-year-olds, 10.3 percent fewer 30-to-34-year-olds, and 7.4 percent fewer 35-to-39-year-olds. For people between 40 and 54, the declines were small, less than 5 percent.

Kara Swisher penned her March 2019 New York Times column with the headline = Owning a car will soon be as quaint as owning a horse - The shift away from private vehicles will happen faster than we think.

In business as in politics, it is important to be mindful that demography is destiny and the trend is your friend.

So what do the trends of fewer people getting driver’s licenses and a major thought leader using the word quaint to describe car ownership mean for the future of vehicle design and urban mobility?

I have some ideas, but I am not completely sold on my viewpoints. I am fully aware I biased because I love a car and the freedom and purpose it provides. At the same time, I know living in a dense urban core is far different than living in a sprawling suburban metroplex.

Just last week I took a meeting just outside the gates of the White House and used a water taxi and a shared pedal-assist electric bike to get there.

My transport choices have come a long way from breaking the law to go on a joyride.

Even if you live in a one-vehicle household like me, it is clear at certain times we want some private mode of transportation as well as access to shared and public modes of transportation.

In the editor's letter at the start of June's Monocle magazine, Tyler Brûlé recalls his experience in Milan where one of his most interesting observations came for an industrial designer who proclaimed that mobility design isn’t going to be all liquid, streamlined shapes but that, rather, we’re heading for a very boxy future.

“As speed isn’t going to be the key aspect for future personal mobility, we don’t need to have pointy vehicles,” said the designer. “City roads will all have speed limits that will be 30km/h – max. This means we’ll be looking for space efficiency and that will mean boxy shapes allowing for more headroom, bigger doors, and more seats. For designers and auto brands this is a huge challenge as differentiation will be very difficult: a box is a box is a box.”

Brûlé suggested the designer seemed frustrated by the challenge ahead for transportation but it could be argued that the industry has already found itself in a place that’s not far from where mobile-phone design has ended up.

Just as a Huawei device looks very similar to an iPhone as well as any Samsung smartphone, the same will probably happen to automotive design: shared designs and similar shapes produced in the same factories but with different badges.

If our vehicles of the future do end up being boxier, more of the same, and less unique, Brûlé suggests it likely that much of what will make transportation experiences more premium will be what happens on the outside. That is, where our vehicles are taking us and hopefully allowing us to pursue other more productive tasks than crawling through commuter traffic.

Regardless of the shape and speed of the vehicles of the future - to make any of this successful and useful will call for proper infrastructure.

As cities figure out how to get more people off the road, they need to make public transportation and shared options feel more premium and more useful.

If you’re keen to discuss this topic and learn more on the vehicle design and urban mobility, then join me in Detroit or Los Angeles at a Brigadoon salon dinner this fall.

- Marc

Marc A. Ross is a strategist and advisor working at the intersection of globalization, disruption, and politics. Ross specializes in helping entrepreneurs and thought leaders make better connections and better communications. He is the founder of Brigadoon and Caracal Global.

Marc Ross

Based in Washington, DC, I specialize in thought leader communications and global public policy for public affairs professionals working at the intersection of globalization, disruption, and politics.

Clients hire me to ghostwrite, engage influencer networks, manage media relations, produce events, audit their communications infrastructure, consult on hiring, provide issue briefs and news generating talking points, as well as manage end to end communications projects where I assume a role of project leader and general contractor.

I work independently but provided access to a substantial global network of collaborators with expertise in websites, graphic design, audio, video, polling, data analytics, and research.

Using the latest tactics of an American political campaign with expertise shaped by being a practitioner of global business communications, I help clients tell their story and build trusted relationships with all necessary stakeholders.

Successful communications are all about STOCK = strategy, tactics, organization, consistency, and know-how.

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