Auto Firms Get Serious about Urban Mobility Tech

While auto companies are still enjoying strong sales activity today, this may not be the case a decade from now.  As more Millennials and Boomers choose to live in cities, the space and need for personal automobiles declines. In densely populated neighborhoods, developers are encouraged to build garages with fewer parking spots than there are apartments to keep car traffic growth in check. For example, a proposed development in downtown Boston, One Bromfield, would include one parking spot for 70% of apartments. Urban population growth is not the only reason why personal vehicle ownership seems likely to decline. Others reasons include:

  • The advent of car sharing and ride sharing companies (e.g. Uber, Lyft, Enterprise car share, Zip Car etc.) that makes owning a car less necessary
  • The evidence that Millennials are driving less compared to older generations at the same age due to lifestyle and attitudinal differences (see this research from transport scholar Noreen McDonald of UNC)

In preparation for a world that relies less on personal automobile ownership, automobile manufacturers are investing in alternative urban transport services and technology. This is happening globally, not just in the U.S. Here are some examples:

  • In May, Toyota and Volkswagen announced that they were “investing in technology start-ups that are working to change the way people travel by car” (see NYT’s article from May). These two aren’t yet going off the car chassis, but investing in ride sharing services. Toyota invested in Uber and Volkswagen investing $300 million in Gett, an app that is popular in Europe. Also notable is GM’s $500 million investment in Lyft announced in January of this year.
  • BMW has partnered with HAX, a hardware venture accelerator to launch Urban-X, a new accelerator focused on urban hyper-growth and smart cities. The urban transport-related firms selected for their current program include:
    • Brooklyness, creators of an intelligent, high-tech bike helmet (note: I just backed them on Kickstarter)
    • Samocat, creators of kick scooter sharing systems for cities

  • In early 2016, Ford sponsored a contest for students at the Parsons School of Design to come up with new ideas for urban travel. You can see the ideas they come up with here.
  • French auto manufacturer, Peugeot, partnered with Micro scooters to build and distribute a new light electric scooter. The scooter is being sold with Peugeot’s new electric car to power last-mile commutes.
  • The LA Auto Show in November is introducing a new area on their floor, called GO, for a range of personal urban transportation companies to showcase their latest technology. Juicer Bikes will be there with their electric motorbikes, as will Micro Kickboard showcasing the eMicro, and Inboard-Electric Skateboards

Growing interest from auto makers in developing alternative transportation services and technology is a good sign for the future of cities and their inhabitants. Population growth could occur without an increase in car traffic and transportation-related pollution. In addition, their investments will further propel the growth of the mobility tech industry, an exciting to development to watch.

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