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It was heartening to come across the excellent research done by three brilliant scholars with their profound insights into the exciting fields of cars and urban mobility. The three have life-long involvement with these subjects: Dr Venkat Sumantran, Chairman of Celeris Technologies, has over three decades of experience heading  auto companies in the United States, Europe, and Asia,  Dr Charles Fine, Chrysler LGO Professor at MIT Sloan and the Founding President of the Asia School of Business, Kuala Lumpur and Dr David Gonsalvez, CEO and Rector at MIT’s Malaysia Institute for Supply Chain Innovation. 

Sumantran headed R&D organisations for GM in USA and Europe, before returning to serve as Executive Director at Tata Motors, reporting to Ratan Tata. He led the development of the Tata Nano and the Tata Ace. Subsequently, as Vice Chairman of Ashok Leyland he developed another successful LCV – the Dost. 

Fired by his interest in the future of car and mobility, Dr. Sumantran joined hands with the two MIT professors to do this extensive research spread over three years. The result is the monumental work Faster, Smarter, Greener- the Future of the Car and Urban Mobility , published by the MIT Press, that traces the evolution of the car through the 20th century, describes the dramatic changes taking place in urbanisation and its impact on the automobile: “city administrators are shifting from designing cities for cars to designing cities for people,” say the authors. 

Average use of an owned car is 4 per cent!

The average use of a vehicle is just 4 per cent and for the balance 96 per cent it is parked.  The authors point to the sharing economy motivating consumers to shift from being owners of assets to be users of services. They propose a CHIP architecture - Connected, Heterogeneous, Intelligent and Personalised -  to tackle the future of mobility. 

Highlights of the research study were presented through lectures in cities spread across the globe including New York and London. The 18th such was presented by Sumantran at the Chennai 

International Centre through a discussion with Dr. Nagendra Palle, CEO, Mahindra First Choice Wheels. The presentation provided the salient features of the exciting evolution of transportation. Extensive case studies of the several innovations that were aided by information technology and the smartphone were presented in lucid terms. With the world rapidly moving towards urbanisation, with myriad problems of commuting by personalised transport and with the perhaps irreversible damage caused to the environment through toxic emissions, major shifts are taking place in tackling the future of the automobile, say the authors. 

A son of this soil, Sumantran related these tectonic shifts to the ground situation in  Chennai. We are only too familiar with the vast disconnect among different modes of transport:  three different train services – the old suburban system, the elevated mass rapid transit system and the new Chennai metro rail-augmented by the metro bus transport system and a variety of taxis - the share taxi, Uber and Ola, the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws... All these compete fiercely. The much needed coordination among urban transport authorities is yet to be in position and with the city relentlessly walking farther from the coast in different directions, the metro also lacks adequate last mile connectivity.

We present excerpts from Sumatran’s evocative address. There are precious lessons for the rapidly urbanising Indian cities and automobile manufacturers to learn  from this masterpiece and nudge policymakers to move towards sustainable and affordable commuting. 

THIS book was developed over three years of extensive research. It has been written for global relevance with many learnings and interviews from USA, Europe and Asia. It also targets a wide spectrum of readers with interests in the auto industry, urban planning and digital technologies. There is a lot of Chennai in this book, and that makes me proud.  

Transforming mobility architecture

Today there is a lot of discussion on the world of mobility. Sometimes it’s about cities, regions or countries that are looking at transforming their mobility architecture. We notice automakers talking of transforming product offering with electric vehicles. There is a lot of news on new mobility solution providers like Uber and Ola going through their own set of issues. Focus on urban mobility is reaching a crescendo. We are at the cusp of rather pivotal changes. Akio Toyoda avers that for automakers, this is not an issue of being a winner or loser; this is an issue of actually surviving or not surviving.  This is an era in which correct answers are unknown. This book will hopefully shed some light and suggest some possible courses. 


The very urban century 

What is causing this massive change?  To start with, we have to acknowledge that we are living in an increasingly urban world. At the start of the 20th century  1 out of 

every 6 inhabitants was urban; by the end of that century 3 out of 6 were urban; by 2050 4 out of 6 will be urban. We are going to deal with mobility in a highly urban world with denser population concentrations. 

Friedman’s “flatter” world is also becoming a spikier world. Not only are we becoming an urban world, we are having people agglomerating to preferred population centres. If you are in IT, you want to be in Bangalore or Palo Alto. If you are a financial analyst, you want to be in New York, London or Hong Kong.  We are creating a concentration of people and this is a very natural phenomenon. There are gains for individuals through wider and richer social and workplace networks and efficiencies for organisations through dynamic social and economic benefits out of this kind of agglomeration. There are gains for individuals through wider and richer social and workplace networks and efficiencies for organisations through dynamic labour markets . 

Most of India has relatively high population density. Our Tier-One and Tier-Two cities are rapidly absorbing satellite townships. As we plan for future mobility in India, we have to reckon with this factor. 


Impact of cities

The fifty largest global cities account for a land area of around two per cent; house 55 per cent of global population; generate 85 per cent of GDP and 60 per cent of CO2 emissions, while consuming 78 per cent of energy. This is where much of economic activity is happening and where mobility demands are rapidly growing. 

However, many recent updates on global climate are alarming. In the context of the Paris Climate Accord, we have already exceeded 1.2 degrees of global warming. The threshold of two degrees is not very far off.  We have higher incidences of hurricanes with unusual fury and devastation.  Urbanisation may actually help to alleviate this pressure on CO2. In spite of having higher per capita income, high-density Manhattan has a lower per capita CO2 emission than many other parts of USA. Interestingly, it is transportation which is one of the most significant contributors to lower CO2. Very few people in New York own a car. They are highly dependent on public transit and subways; they walk and they commute to work with so many other modes.


The love affair with smartphones

I belong to the generation that had a love affair with cars. From an early age we were fascinated with cars – they were simultaneously a mobility vehicle, a fun toy and a status symbol. Yet, this love affair is proving very expensive. In the age when many countries are happy to report a 2 per cent GDP growth, the cumulative effect of degraded air quality, traffic fatalities and injuries and traffic congestion is sapping global economy anywhere between 6 and 10 per cent of GDP.  

The younger generation now has a  new love affair-with smart phones. To them, this device provides mobility, connectivity, as well as a window to social interactions. So this is a shift in cultural attitudes and preferences and this is probably going to accelerate the speed with which we see mobility transform. 


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