Better models: cars

Geopolitics, Science & Technology, Sustainability, Systems thinking

There are a lot of curious inefficiencies in modern life. We end up owning an awful lot of things which we don’t use very much, but we have them because when we want when we really want them. Lawnmowers, tools for small jobs around the house, washing machines, and cars are just a few things which would suggest that we could be a little bit smarter in the way we handle things. I mean, it’s 2009, we know we have ever more people yet finite resources, and we know climate change is real, right? We really owe it to ourselves to sort out a few things and demonstrate that we’re as smart as we think we are.

So even if you can think of a better way to do things, how do you get those ideas adopted? The world is already very geared up to working in the way it does, so solutions have to address the following:

    1. contribute to the economy
    2. provide people with incomes and things to do
    3. we just like getting new things
    4. we like them to be ours
    5. we like the convenience of having things where we want them, when we want them.

      The one thing which is almost guaranteed to create change in everyone is saving money. As our own experience, Nudge, and innumerable other books tell us, we feel the pain of giving things away much more than we feel the joy of getting new things, so this is a great place to start. So what simple things can we do to create the biggest savings for people? What hits our wallets hardest? Cars.

      Car clubs

      You’ll probably already have heard of ZipCar (and many other similar companies) who supply a variety of cars at convenient locations for use whenever you want for as long as you want. They are considerably cheaper to run than having your own car, and require no maintenance. We can choose a new car every time (big one, smart one, easy to park one) so we always get the newness, and we have a sense of possession (though not complete) since we’re part of a club. And whilst there are some inconveniences such as perhaps having to walk a little further to the allocated parking spot, these are all outweighed by the convenience of not having to tax it, insure it, maintain it, or pay any upfront costs for it. From an environmental perspective it’s great since every zipcar means 15-20 fewer private vehicles on the road.

      Does it work, though? Is there adoption? Does it deliver the benefits? Is it creating the change? Yes. It took 2 years to get the first 1,000 Zipcar members. Today it takes a few days. I’d say that’s pretty successful.

      You may also like to see what the founder is working on now.

      Car sharing

      There are organisations like Car Share, FreeWheelers, GoLoco, etc which all help promote more optimal car use, but there are lots of drawbacks to this idea. It certainly has a role to play, especially in smaller communities, but does not address some of our key wants.

      Completely new vehicles

      I’m basically talking about the GM / Segaway PUMA here. This travels at a max speed of 35 mph and doesn’t have a lot of storage space but does provide shelter and convenience, and reduces urban traffic density. However a bike is also very good at this, at a fraction of the cost.

      Electric cars

      Whilst I personally prefer the idea of car clubs, it seems that these are going provide the largest part of the solution for zero-carbon personal transport, since they satisfy the things listed at the start, and are a minimal departure from the way things are at the moment.

      Electric cars have the advantage that the energy source is interchangeable. It could be nuclear, coal, solar, wind, or any one of the sources of the huge amounts of renewable energy available to us today.

      The market is innovating reasonably well. Tesla (no bailout) has developed two cars on less than $200 million — compared to the $1 billion General Motors (various bailouts and still going down) spent developing the now-deceased EV1. However there is still a long way to go with battery technology to make it really amazing….

      … or is there?

      Electric car networks

      A few months ago I was told about Better Place. Their thinking is that if you have the network to support electric cars, ie charging points where you park, and refill points along the road, then actually battery life is not such a problem. Laptop owners will be able to relate to this, I’m sure.

      If you have 20 minutes, I’d recommend this brilliant video by the founder which does a great job of showing what they’re doing, how, with who’s support, and why.

      They are getting things done incredibly quickly. They’re about 5 years ahead of where I had thought them to be. Their  fervour and success is testament to the size of their mission. They are literally trying to save the world, and the way their going they have a good shot at it.

      It is the kind of leadership, innovation, and confrontation of the facts shown by all those listed here that is going to create the world we should have.

      Where Europe can help

      I think we can all agree that the less we get involved in these companies and what they do, the better. They’re clearly innovating and creating very nicely.

      There are areas where governments and the EU can, and should, help make things easier.

      1. Compel industry standards, as they’ve done on mobile phone chargers, so that we can get on and build the networks and vehicles quickly and efficiently, and with as many low-cost and upgradable components as possible.
      2. Support investment in the infrastructure. (See this blog post for information on the sunk cost of the bailouts vs the costs of an electric car network.)
      3. Invest in research and innovation

      Ed Dowding

      Ed Dowding

      Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons


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