A first for me. I’d never been to Detroit, and now I have. Last week, I participated in a roundtable on autonomous cars, and transformation in the automotive industry. Yes, autonomous cars will certainly have an impact on the industry – in fact, on many industries – and they are a hot topic of conversation today. However, the discussion misses the point in many ways. Maybe my views have been shaped by my 8 years living in Europe,  or in traveling to parts of the world where a car is either of no interest or not an option.

That the industry is being disrupted is not in question. Most car manufacturers are now investing in electric and autonomous cars, and even new business models like ride sharing and hailing, and even car sharing. Zipcar, DriveNow and Car2go offer a simple pay-by-the-hour alternative to owning or renting a car in crowded urban area.  But these alternatives assume people want to drive at all.  The popularity of ride hailing services like Uber, Lyft and Hailo demonstrate that many don’t want to bother with a car. I recently was told that the only way to get from Hartford to the Forrester office near Alewife in Cambridge, Massachusetts was to rent a car. When I looked into it, with drop off fees and gas, the rental would have cost me $100. My Uber ride was $117, and jet-lagged after a full-day of work I certainly appreciated not being behind the wheel.

Young adults – of which I am not one – are even more likely to look for alternatives. They buy fewer cars than previous generations and wait longer (if ever) to get a driver’s license.  According to data from the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey, the share of high school seniors across the US who have a driver’s license dropped from 85.3 percent in 1996 to a record low 71.5 percent in 2015. Some say it’s because of graduated licensing programs, or the economy (fewer jobs, less money for gas and cars), but older studies identify the start of the decline as 1983.

More recently some researchers assert that the digital economy has permanently altered the transportation industry – and the automotive industry even more so. Comparing 2004 to 2014, people spent less time traveling to places to eat and drink, to buy goods and services, to work, school, and to leisure activities. The ease of Amazon, the rise of teleworking, and the endless entertainment provided by the Internet may be leading people to stay home more. Whatever the reason, driving has declined from its highest in 2004 – measured in total distance driven per person in the US.

ZERO crashes, ZERO emissions and ZERO congestion means ZERO cars

To return to the Detroit roundtable which was to address the best way to reach “ZERO crashes, ZERO emissions and ZERO congestion,” the answer is not autonomous cars. The answer is no cars.  The discussion of how innovation will disrupt the automotive industry must extend to alternative means of transportation. I’m particularly interested in:

  • Urban cable within cities. Integrated urban transport systems have long included dedicated lanes for mass transit like in Curitiba, Brazil. But there is only so much surface space available. As cities grow up, vertical space above roads seems anomalously empty. Innovative cities, particularly in Latin America, are filling that space with urban cable systems.
  • Hyperloop between cities. Testing of hyperloop technologies has been accelerating over the past year, with a handful of companies taking up the call. The technology was conceived by Elon Musk, and open-sourced to encourage development in 2013. While still in a testing phase, several cities have expressed interest in hyperloop connections. The most recent announcement was the first interstate link between Cleveland and Chicago.

Alternative transportation is not new to Detroit. My final stop before heading to the airport in Detroit was the Detroit Institute for the Arts to see Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals. Not only are they an incredible depiction of the auto industry but also of investments in science and other technologies including aviation. Even in the early days Ford was investing in alternatives to cars.

What about hyperloop, urban cable or other means of mobility?  These are the modes of transportation I’d put my money on for the next wave a mobility.