Recently I received a McKinsey and Company newsletter which had the provocative title, “An integrated perspective on the future of mobility”. Upon reading it I began to ponder the future of what we at Small Vehicle Resource call small, task-oriented vehicles (STOVs).  Some of the relevant aspects of the McKinsey piece are reviewed here, but what gets your attention right away in the article are the factors, according to McKinsey, which will shape the future transportation network on a global basis:

  • Growing urbanization;
  • Increasing road traffic and the need to control congestion;
  • Key goals of technology; namely, energy efficiency, green energy, and on-demand transportation service

The combination of these factors could lead, the report states, to peak demand for oil and gas, rather than peak supply. Not all aspects of the report are that good, and the deficiencies, in my view, are in breach, rather than the observance, that is to say–some aspects of urban transformation are not mentioned. These turn out to be important for STOVs, and I’ll get to specifics later.

Key Mobility Trends

Three key mobility trends are cited in the report: electrification, shared mobility, and autonomy (driverless vehicles). These trends are juxtaposed to three types of urban environments:

  • Densely-populated, relatively wealthy cities, such as Singapore, Chicago, London, and Hong Kong;
  • Densely-populated, relatively low income cities, such as Delhi, Mexico City, and Mumbai;
  • Urban-suburban sprawl cities, such as Los Angeles, Houston, and Dallas. (I added the latter two cities, based on personal experience; Atlanta could be added, as well).

The analysis sees the key mobility trends as evolving differently in these three different urban settings.

A Role for Small, Task-Oriented Vehicles?

With all this as brief background, where would small, task-oriented vehicles play a role, if any. And, by the way, wouldn’t it be great if such a role were in the offing, thus putting, let us say, an evolved golf car in to a mainstream, mass market?

Among the key mobility traits cited above, an evolved golf car is already, or easily could be envisioned as, electrified, autonomous, and shared. Let’s set aside for the moment urban complexities and take a look at the suitability of a population of autonomous, golf car-type vehicles, comprised of a fleet for on-demand ride-sharing and individually-owned units. Place them in a gated community. The only upgrade to what currently provides mobility services is the aspect of autonomy and a portion of said vehicles being assigned to on-call, or on-demand ride-sharing. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to conclude that such a system, in this context, would work well.

Now add the high intensity of environment of a city and focus on high-rise apartment dwellers. What changes? Actually, insofar as the vehicle itself is concerned, very little. In fact, in terms of getting from point A to point B in the crowded canyons of urbanity, autonomous driving and on-call ride sharing would be a blessing for many. For example, you are on the upper eastside of New York City. You want to attend a concert at Carnegie Hall, which is a good number of blocks south and west on 57th Street. You access the appropriate cell phone app and call for your personal or on-demand fleet vehicle to pick you up in front of your apartment building at 6:00 PM.

Upon entering the vehicle you inform said vehicle of your intended destination (by voice or keypad), and off you go. As you wend your way to the concert, you order an after-concert light dinner at the neighboring Russian Tearoom, also via a conveniently available app. At this point you settle back, pick up your favorite novel and read until arriving at Carnegie Hall. You alight with no worries about parking or getting a ride home. You inform Wendell, your autonomous vehicle “chauffeur” that he is to be back to pick you up after the concert at 10:45.

OK, very nice. What about speed and safety? Speed in many urban environments would not be an issue. In congested streets low average speed is the aggravating norm anyway.  Safety? The autonomous driving system is safer than your own skills.

What are the key takeaways?

So what are the key takeaways for the purpose of mainstreaming the golf car-type vehicle? (Again, I have to apologize–so expansive a concept, so little space to develop it!) There are three basic points that emerge:

  • There will be a series of breakthrough vehicular technologies that all major automotive companies are working on, and which are adaptable to the small, task-oriented vehicle;
  • These technologies are sensory systems in conjunction with artificial intelligence software, paired with low-cost lithium battery technology, that will assure autonomous, electric-powered vehicles in the relatively near future;
  • The golf car-type vehicle can be fitted out with these technologies, find a ready-made home in gated and master planned communities, and with all the potential of becoming the ultimate city (self) driving machine.