We Can’t Reinvent the Automobile

Question: What is the major problem right now in transportation?

Michael Schrage: The major problem with transportation technology and transportation policy is that you have a battle between utopians who believe that they can get whatever they want, faster, better, cheaper, and the pragmatist, the hard ball economic types who say, "No, no, no, let's ban the car from the city, let's create calming zones, zero-emission vehicles," etc., etc.  You have a real dialectic, a real tension, and my view is, when you have that kind of schizophrenia, when you have that kind of chasm, not just of technologies and expectations, but of values, I think you get into a lot of gridlock--pun intended.

Question: Are there any promising advancements that will take us into that next era of transportation?

Michael Schrage:  Oh, my gosh!  There's so many things going on that are so exciting that it's not clear to me what's the best bet.  We have smart vehicles, smart devices, smarter people, better sensors, more information, the ability to have the technology act in a more nimble way.  We have the ability to play with tax policy and congestion charges.  So to me, the question is going to be, there's a tension between disruptive innovation and rapid iderative incremental innovation.  But if you have enough incremental innovation in a short period of time, you got a revolution.  You know, the simple model for that is like a Mapquest, or putting an accelerometer in an iPhone.  The fact of the matter is, between mobile phones, between iPhones, between Rim's, between GPS, every car in the world, every bicycle in the world, can be made smarter.  Heck, we can make every street corner, every streetlamp smarter, more nimble, more agile.  The issue is, what's the organizing principal underlying that?  Haven't a clue. 

Question: Do you think we need to build on what we have, or revolutionize mobility?

Michael Schrage:  Being an MIT person, I'm very, very sympathetic to that view of, gee, let's just start from scratch, let's reinvent everything.  But basically, I think it's a bunch of crap.  You know, that's basically like saying, gee, we've sequenced the human genome, let's reengineer human beings so they'll make less, they'll take up less space, they'll do less waste, they'll be more energy efficient.  As I said earlier, there's always going to be a tension between the incremental and the revolutionary.  Folks at MIT tend to self-select towards the revolutionary side, but ordinary human beings, typical human beings, human beings who have, shall we say, real lives, not MIT lives, are more prepared to have a mix of the disruptive innovation and the incremental innovation.  And that's how I think that's going to play out, particularly in transportation policy.  I don't believe people are going to give up on the wheels of a car for the foreseeable future.

Question: Is there something we’ll have to give up in order to get there?

Michael Schrage:  Well, you know, frankly I don't care if there's an internal combustion engine in a car, a fuel cell in a car, a battery in a car—I don't care.  My friends who are incredibly green care a lot.  Now, do I think they've actually done the math and calculated the carbon footprint of fuel cells versus batteries versus internal combustion engines throughout the entire supply and value chain?  Heck, no.  And I think that's where we're going to see a lot of the policy battles because there are all manner of ways of allocating costs and responsibilities for the carbon footprint of an automobile, for the carbon footprint of a person.  Or should we say the carbon tire track?

Question: Will we ever not have a congestion problem?

Michael Schrage:  We will always have congestion problems.  The issue is what's tolerable.  If you had told me that I would be on a 40-minute commute, I would say you're crazy, but I've gotten adjusted to it.

By the way, let's deal with that as an example. 25 years ago, being stuck in traffic was a horrible, horrible waste of time.  If you got a mobile phone, if your kids are watching TV in the back seat, it's not so bad!  It's not so bad.  Now, what transportation planner anticipated the impact of mobile phones in the car and TV screens, LCD's in the back seat?  None of them!  None of them!  And heck, I've read a lot of science fiction; I didn't see those scenarios being played out by Isaac Asimov or Harlan Ellison either.

Recorded on January 22, 2010

"I don't believe people are going to give up on the wheels of a car for the foreseeable future," says the transportation researcher.

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