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Solimar Research

Mobility Revolution Arriving Fast ... and Slow

Josh Stephens on
Nov 15, 2019

My favorite new vehicle displayed at this week's CoMotion conference in Los Angeles was Gita

Think of BB-8 from the new Star Wars movies dutifully trailing Poe Dameron at knee height. Then imagine him carting around sports equipment, fresh produce, or a 30-pack. Billed as a “personal cargo robot,” Gita ("the Gita"?) is basically a motorized picnic cooler that optically recognizes its owner and follows at heel. 

It’s adorable, impressive, and eminently useful — at least until someone trips on it at the farmers market and figures out whom to sue. 

What I like most about Gita (notwithstanding its $3,250 price tag) is that I actually know what it is, who it can serve, and where it can go. I cannot say the same for many of the other prototypes, new products, and app-enabled concepts that, if the companies have their way, urban planners and transportation planners will be welcoming, regulating, and, in some cases, banning in the years to come. 

A few samples: 

  • Small electric vehicles (basically golf carts).
  • An autonomous pod van.
  • Sweet-looking electric big-rigs.
  • A solid half-dozen, nearly identical electric scooter brands that clearly all came from the same factory in Guangzhou.
  • An "experience showcasing the future of urban air mobility” that I thought was going to be a flying car. (It wasn’t. It was a helicopter that you summon with an app. Basically, Uber for helicopters.)
  • An app promising a “thriving, connected ecosystem of businesses, cities and people,” whatever that means.
  • A Starbucks cold-brew tap mounted to a bicycle. (Not kidding.) 
  • An operational hyperloop. (Kidding.)

These technologies are each cool and fun in their own way. But seeing them lined up together like battlebots just makes me feel anxious. I think the company reps (not to mention their investors) are probably anxious too. While the conference was full of techno-optimism, the overwhelming message I took away is that no one has the slightest idea which of these technologies will prevail — if any. 

I get that we all hate the car, but there’s something to be said for simpler times. Sure, there were many experimental technologies even 100 years ago. But I have to imagine that the car prevailed in part because it represented linear, analog progress: faster than a horse, bigger than a bicycle, freer than a streetcar. Uber and Lyft have refined the use of the car but they aren’t new mobility technologies. They just married old engineering and existing infrastructure with mobile technology (and creative HR practices).

Now that those services have reached peak usefulness, everything from here onward is uncharted territory. 

Essentially, we’re now regressing — sort of. “Newer” no longer means bigger and faster. In many cases, it means smaller and slower. It means collective convenience rather than individual freedom. It means short distances and compact areas. That’s good thing for cities and good for sustainability. Cities have gotten about as big, fast, and wasteful as they should get.

But, as we return to human scales and human speeds, between the rolling ice coolers and tall skinny scooters and squat fat-tired bikes and the flying machines, I’m not sure who I envy less: the governments who have to regulate this stuff, the companies that have to convince the planners that their favored mode should prevail, or the investors who are trying to pick winners and losers.

All of these advances can be useful. But many of them depend on, and will create, circumstances and decisions that no one can foresee. At CoMotion, all of the classic tradeoffs were on full display. Helicopters for the rich or subways for the poor? Personal e-bikes for the last mile or ride-hailing carpools for all the miles? Droids to make your walk easier or AV’s so you never have to lift a finger or a toe? Replace car lanes with bike/scooter lanes? Replace parking lots with holding pens for TNC’s and delivery vehicles? Replace the 405 with a 10-lane field of daisies? Repair the damn sidewalks?

No matter how hard the planners, inventors, and engineers are thinking about this, I don’t think they know how this is going to play out. This is one case in which thinking does not necessarily yield answers. Now more so than ever before, planners cannot foretell the future. I’m pretty sure they’re not going to be sold on idealistic slogans and trade show displays. The problem is, many of these rapidly emerging technologies will be relegated to curiosities without changes in deeply entrenched infrastructure. 

Don’t get me wrong: I know these advances can, and eventually will, be good for cities. They’ll facilitate density, cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, give architects more freedom, and open up public spaces. I just don’t think they’re going to be as good as the boosters think they’re going to be. And even if everyone starts scooting or e-cycling or sprinting across town in mechanical exoskeletons, it’s still going to take decades more for cities to figure out how built environments should adapt and then how to redevelop them accordingly. 

That’s what Vishaan Chakrabarti, incoming dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, was getting at, I think, when he told me, “It's going to be a really interesting challenge to reconcile this heated impatience that young people feel to change the world – which I think is fantastic – with the demands of practice, which is often a long, hard slog." 

In the meantime, I’m going to need a drink. Gita, bring me a beer.