Review: Reinventing the Automobile

Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century
by William J. Mitchell, Christopher E. Borroni-Bird, and Lawrence D. Burns
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010, 225 pp.

The design of cars we drive today is not too different from the 19th century horse and buggy. The first “hybrid” cars were horse-drawn carriages, which were converted to mechanically powered vehicles. The horse was replaced by an engine, but the body of the vehicle has not been revised much.

Early on, these horsepower replacements were diverse and inventive, including electric and steam power vehicles. Then, the rise of the internal combustion engine shrunk the imagination of car makers, argue the authors of Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century.

The book aims to revive our imagination of what cars can be. The authors present four big ideas, a new “DNA”, which they say will converge to transform how we use cars (and how cars shape society).

  • New DNA or design  – Light, electric vehicles that are cheap, modular, and automated
  • Network mobility – Connectivity between vehicles, roads, infrastructure, and the Internet
  • Smart energy – Distributed, electronic grids that regulate the use of diverse energy sources
  • Control – Real-time management of vehicular networks, reducing the total cost and hassle of using cars

This vision is hardly quixotic. Individually, many technologies that achieve these concepts have been market-ready for more than a decade. The potential of electric power, for instance, was realized before the first Benz hit the Straße . The key point of the book is that electric power, computation, and mobile networks have reached a tipping point:

“Taken individually, each of these  four ideas offers a significant individual and societal benefits. Each can be implemented more or less separately. When pursued together, though, they will have the best impact.”

Come to think of it, these technological trends map nicely to four deficiencies of conventional, gas-powered cars:

  • Cars take up too much space; cars are too expensive
  • Cars require too much of our attention; they disconnect us
    (And any attempts to connect, e.g. texting, are rather unsafe. It’s also difficult for drivers to communication and cooperate on the road, which is a large part of why roads are so unsafe.)
  • Cars use up too much non-renewable energy
  • Cars cause too much congestion so much as to limit our mobility

While griping about the havoc cars have wrought, the authors understand how cars have positively benefited cities and countries for the past 100 years. On the whole, cars have increased people’s mobility and economic options, but the success has led to gridlock in many cities. For example, cars are designed to drive up to 100 miles per hour, but in most urban centers with populations above 60,000 people the average driving speed is less than 10 miles per hour. We must change course.

A key point of the book is that any car you will see on the street today is designed around the internal combustion engine— even if it’s an electric car. The architecture of car chassis and body has not caught up with technical possibilities. Many of the concept cars in the book look much like Smart cars we see about town. Yet—despite their appearance— current Smart cars get about 30 MPG, which is far from revolutionary. The Smart car is just one part of the new DNA, it’s an ultra small vehicle (USV). Under the hood, the new car DNA integrates the car’s power source and engine on a skateboard-shaped chassis. With no engine block to get in the way, many inventive new USV designs are possible, such as the Hiriko foldable car that will be sold in 2013. (Naturally, the folding function makes the car more compact, but it is also a safety function in accidents.)

To use the analogy of personal computers, cars are still in the 1980s. Cars have not yet taken advantage of  powerful inexpensive, hardware, nor wireless and Internet connectivity. A car is not unlike a mobile phone. The book makes this analog several times and also points out lessons from the architecture of the Internet. These insights come from William Mitchell, who often synthesized physical architecture concepts from computation and digital networks. (Mitchell passed away in 2010.)

Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications technologies will allow groups or platoons of cars to behave cooperatively, avoiding accidents and congestion. The technology here is quite feasible and  I recently wrote a technical paper around the topic, including an overview of the field of Vehicular Application and Inter-Networking Technologies.

Mitchell’s book City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn makes a direct connection between information and transportation mobility. Both transportation and communications change our expectations of space and time. Mitchel wrote about how informational networks are anti-spatial. The network is physical, but the space between any point in the world becomes insignificant. If only we could do the same for transportation. We will have to wait awhile for teleportation, but in the meantime we can improve transportation system as a mobile “Internet of things”:

“Like the Internet we know today, it will move huge amounts of data around in real time over vast areas, but it will also coordinate the movements of people, vehicles, and goods. Vehicles will become network nodes on wheels; they will acquire, process, utilize, and communicate information that supports their individual functions and those of the mobility system as a whole; and they will be routed efficiently from place to place much like packets of data in the Internet.”

Reinventing the Automobile is a well written, structured, and laid out book. It includes many helpful illustrations. Some of the visuals and information graphics are great, but others seem to muddle the subject. Much like the book’s thesis, any one concept in book is worth reading on its own, but taken together these ideas really do inspire belief that we can redesign cars to improve our cities and quality of life.

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7 thoughts on “Review: Reinventing the Automobile

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