More mobility, reduced car ownership.

Prof. Daniel Sperling is a renowned expert on sustainable mobility. In an exchange with BMW Group experts he discussed, amongst other plans, the reduction of car ownership. He explained in an interview how this could be realized.

Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, visited the BMW Group Headquarters in Munich for an exchange on the future of sustainable and integrated urban mobility. The international expert on transportation technology with a focus on energy and environment has been awarded with the Blue Planet Prize in 2013. This prize has also been described as the Nobel Prize for the environmental sciences and recognizes Sperling for his unique ability to bring together the top thinkers and strategists in academia, government and industry to develop new vehicle- and fuels-policy approaches that are models for the world.    

What do you think are the main challenges at the moment in urban mobility?

From my perspective the topics of congestion and parking space are obviously very critical problems in cities almost everywhere around the world. But the key challenge from my point of view is the question of equity of access. Especially when it comes to electric vehicles, the issue of equity of access arises for a multitude of people who potentially could own or drive an electric vehicle. We need to ensure that we increase access to and use of electric vehicles among low- and moderate-income individuals. This is why that topic is at the moment right at the top of the political discussion, for example here in California.

What do you think are solutions to questions of equity of access? Which actions and activities need to be tackled, particularly with view to urban environments?

In my opinion, when we think about the question of who is having access to electric vehicles, the first step to address equity is to create more choice. In the U.S. we have become so car dependent that any other alternative to the car is facing a steep uphill battle. This is why it is so difficult to replace the car. However, it is key that we create a set of choices so that people have the possibility to move beyond car ownership. With regards to that, having a suite of mobility services is highly essential. 

You are talking about creating a set of choices and a suite of mobility services – which concrete ideas do you have in mind in order to realize that?

Firstly, I would like to see change in the integration or linkage of transit with private mobility services. This does not necessarily has to be an institutional collaboration, but could in my opinion be a more practical and customer-oriented solution. For instance, I am thinking of debit cards for customers with low income who then get a dollar off for using Uber or shared Lyft rides. Models like this would encourage pooling of micro transit and would create a larger presence of shared modes of travel.

However, this example also shows the problems we are currently facing due to highly siloed finance. Here we are in need of a whole new approach which must be based on user-subsidy. We have to realize how much we pay for transit at the moment and how little benefit we get from it. Recognizing the opportunities arising from new modes of travel will allow us to provide much better services to more people at lower costs.

Secondly, I have the vision that mass transit, meaning fixed scheduled services, focuses only on the dense corridors in which it really does a good job. On the other hand, mass transit has to pull back from areas of lower density as it is highly expensive and hugely subsidized in these areas. Instead of mass transit services we need to provide last and first mile services in less dense areas. In my vision, people living those areas can take ride hailing services as for example Uber or Lyft, or even an electric scooter or a dockless bike for shorter distances, to reach an express bus or a rail line. People with less income would of course be subsidized in order to make these services affordable for them. This is exactly what I mean with the idea of creating choice. As a consequence, cities could provide better services to much more people at a lower cost.

Which role do autonomous vehicles play in your vision of future mobility?

To realize this vision of future mobility with autonomous vehicles would be a major improvement, mainly because ride hailing is a key part of it and these services are still expensive at the moment. With regards to that, it is the task of policy to incentivize the pooling of ride hailing services. Travel costs could then be dramatically dropped by accomplishing the automation of these services. This is not only an opportunity to realize social equity, but also to create true sustainable transportation. The mechanism behind achieving sustainable transportation is that pooling makes short car trips needless and instead creates room for more micromobility.

How would you summarize your concept in a nutshell?

To put it in a simplistic way, what we want is: more mobility, more passenger miles travelled, less vehicle use, more pooling, better conventional transit and more micromobility. To put it in a radical way: The goal is to reduce car ownership. This is the only way to create a more sustainable transportation system.

This sounds like a very fundamental change. How do you get the consumers on board?

Indeed it is key that consumers support the described scenario and are willing to adapt their modes of transport accordingly. At UC Davis we conduct research to understand people’s choice to organize their transport by using electric vehicles, whether these are pooled or not. This decision-making is shaped by different factors. Financially, the usage of mobility services scores highly as it is much cheaper than owning a car. However, when we look at the hedonic costs – being time, convenience and sense of privacy – the use of electric vehicles is less attractive. This is especially true when it comes to pooled electric vehicles. 

What is needed here is a strong policy intervention. I suggest using a market-based approach and reward pooling. To put it in simple terms: Most cities impose a fee on pooled service providers like Uber, but what they really should do is to impose a fee on single-passenger services or to lower the fees for vehicles eligible to use car pool lanes. Such a pricing strategy would set disincentives to the use of single occupancy vehicles.

For the auto industry, this represents of course a challenge. Cars would become a commodity and customers would be less interested in luxury, styling and driving experience. Automakers like BMW that produce premium automobiles have to adapt to these changes to a certain extend.  

You gave us very interesting insights into how single customers and commuters can contribute to a sustainable transportation system. But how can electric vehicles become also attractive for larger operators like universities, police and government fleets? Which kind of research needs to be done in this direction? 

Using electric vehicles in larger fleets has at first glance the benefits of reducing energy and maintenance costs and increasing reliability and vehicle life. On top of that, electric vehicles can also support the grid and the grid operator. The vehicles cannot only be passively charged, but can also actively feed the electrons back into the grid. This concept, called “Vehicle to grid” (V2G), is highly valuable: Especially in places like California, where the price of electricity is sometimes below zero, the concept can be a good business case. We have already conducted research on how electric school busses can be utilized in order to make money on the basis of the V2G technology. Much more research needs to be done in this direction to make operators of large fleets aware of such creative ways to employ their electric vehicles. In consequence, research and developments like the one under way with BMW of NA this will lead to a paradigm shift in the energy and mobility sector.

We thank Professor Dan Sperling for this interesting interview. Further reading: Professor Sperling’s recently published book “Three Revolutions” shares research–based insights on potential public benefits and impacts of automated, shared and electric mobility.