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MIT’s Charles Fine envisions the future of urban mobility

Faster Smarter Greener by MIT's Charles Fine

We’ve had a century-long love affair with the car and, for the most part, it’s been a great ride. But our relationship with automobiles is changing.

In the U.S., recent studies suggest that Americans are buying fewer cars, driving less, and getting fewer licenses with each passing year. People are more attached to their smartphones than their cars; millennials in particular value cars and car ownership much less than they value technology. Combine this disenchantment with the fact that, in many cities around the world, cars are not always the quickest mode of travel. And, of course, emissions from the rapidly growing number of cars threaten the planet. It makes one wonder: is our global love affair with vehicles cooling?

We recently spoke with MIT Professor Charles Fine about his new book, slated to hit the stands in September: Faster, Smarter, Greener: The Future of the Car and Urban Mobility. Fine teaches operations strategy and supply chain management in MIT's Communications Futures Program, and he is Faculty Director of the MIT Sloan Executive Education program, Driving Strategic Innovation: Achieving High Performance Throughout the Value Chain. His research focuses on supply chain strategy and value chain roadmapping, with an emphasis on fast clockspeed manufacturing industries. Fine's work has supported the design and improvement of supply chain relationships for companies in electronics, automotive, aerospace, communications, and consumer products.

Faster, Smarter, Greener brings Fine’s research into the future, envisioning a new world of urban mobility that is connected, heterogeneous, intelligent, and personalized—what Fine and his coauthors Venkat Sumantran and David Gonsalvez refer to as the CHIP architecture. This architecture embodies an integrated, multimode mobility system that builds on ubiquitous connectivity, electrified and autonomous vehicles, and an open, entrepreneurial marketplace.

We recently spoke with Fine to learn more about this new manual for urban mobility.

“The book brings together three strands: trends towards urbanization, technology trends such as autonomous vehicles, and business model changes—the Ubers, Zip Cars, and how they are used,” says Fine. “It’s about tracing the history of the auto industry and how we got to where we are today—congestion, frustration, saturation. And then, what we’re going to do about it.”

Fine looks at a wide range of approaches and strategies for solving the congestion and pollution that cars have wrought on modern societies around the world. The book points to the many technological changes that might improve the number of cars on the road, while also taking a deep dive into innovative urban planning solutions that encourage alternate modes of transportation.

“We make some specific suggestions about how urban planners and regional governments can help foster better transportation systems, as well as how automotive companies can make changes and respond to this environment,” says Fine. “The main thrust here is that innovation, technology, and planning all need to come together so that we can have a highly connected system in physical space that makes it possible to go from one mode of transportation to another with ease.”

Fine and his coauthors offer great insight into the changes that are coming. City administrators are shifting from designing cities for cars to designing cities for people. Nations and cities will increasingly employ targeted user fees and offer subsidies to nudge consumers toward more sustainable modes. The sharing economy is coaxing consumers to shift from owners to users of services. The auto industry is responding with smaller footprint cars, electric cars, connected cars that double as virtual travel assistants, and by introducing autonomous driving.

“[The CHIP architecture] encourages a marketplace open to innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Fine. He advocates that this level of digital connectivity should be personalized and in support of a mix of transportations modes “… apps and solutions that suit individual needs—the scenic route, the fastest route, whatever you want.”

“Whether you are a regional planner, a car company, or a technology company, we recommend investing in the direction of CHIP, and if the world works the way we hope it works, that will be the new landscape of urban mobility. But this requires a bunch of players making choices and investments. It’s impossible for a central planner to dictate such changes in this domain.”

So …will all this actually happen? “That will vary city by city,” answers Fine. “Today, there is a dramatic difference in heterogeneity across cities, the density of automobiles, wealth of those cities … so each place is starting out from a different position. Regardless, CHIP is the right direction for a system that works better for the number the people who need to move around.”

The author cites cities like London, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo that have made very good investments in transportation. “Los Angeles … not so much. Cities like Delhi, Beijing, and Rio de janiero have very heavy traffic and pollution and are having a difficult time. Mexico City, on the other hand, has made a lot of progress by changing incentives.”

Want more details on what’s working, what isn’t, and what to expect? Get the book—currently available for preorder.

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