We’re in the midst of a significant transformation in how we get around.
For over a century in America, mobility has meant buying a car.
Over the course of the next century, it might mean something else: buying a car, sharing a car, summoning a self-driving car with a smartphone.
We’re not sure yet, but everyone in the auto industry is trying to figure it.
However, the scale of what’s to come won’t even come close to what happened with the automobile first arrived in the scene in the early 20th century.
Ford CEO Mark Fields is working to redefine the automaker as both a car company and a mobility provider. He spoke at length with Business Insider CEO and Editor-in-Chief Henry Blodget about the plan, and he’s also captured the attention of the commentariat. Here’s syndicated columnist George Will:
In the lobby of the headquarters of Fields’ “automotive and mobility” company sits one of Henry Ford’s Model T’s, arguably history’s most transformative machine. Manufactured from 1908 to 1927, during which span its inflation-adjusted price fell about 80 per cent, it launched the automobile age.
Hitherto, people had moved only as far and fast as hooves, sails and then rails could move them. In a historical blink, the automobile emancipated humanity from what has been called “the tyranny of distance.” And from the loneliness of rural life, and the health hazards posed by the mountains of manure and rivers of urine from urban horses. American households with automobiles went from essentially zero in 1900 to 93 per cent in 1929.
Air travel would add yet another layer to this — in a short span of time, people were baptized in speed, and the world was forever changed.
It was a spectacular achievement, and it had the added effect of enlarging the American middle class: Detroit offered good jobs, good pay, and a retirement plan. There were obviously some problems, chief among them pollution from all those new cars. But the dramatic effect that the shift to a “faster horse” delivered would mean that there was no looking back.
What we’re talking about now isn’t really a wholesale transformation of mobility; it’s really more of an evolution. Over 100 years ago, we used living creatures to haul ourselves around. Today, we’re main dealing with the challenges of making the automobile smarter.
There is one similarity, of course. People, too, are living creatures. And the ultimate goal for many of the most futuristic thinkers in the advanced mobility realm is to get human hands off the wheel. Over the coming decades, that will probably happen. But it won’t be quite the same game changer as the arrival of the automobile was, back when slower horses ruled the roads.