I’m not optimistic that this will happen first in the United States, and that concerns me, as an American, because the United States really drove the development of the Internet, and I believe that the impact of the Mobility Internet will be just as significant. There’s no real barrier to entry for building the vehicles — it’s like designing an appliance. But the Mobility Internet will be a different story. Think of the fortune that Microsoft made by creating the operating system that most of us use, and the business that Cisco built by creating the routers and the traffic management systems. Cities, regions, or countries will start building the infrastructure to allow this vision of the automobile to happen, and the companies that create that infrastructure will be enormously valuable some day.
You need to drive the innovation time line from invention, to laboratory proof of concept, to demonstration, and to first-, second-, and third-generation commercialization, so that you can get some experience and some data, and show people that this utopian vision is actually achievable.
S+B: If you and your coauthors had a perfectly free hand, what would you do to accelerate that time line and push the tipping point forward?
BURNS: I would demonstrate the integrated system in a controlled setting where there was policy support, and establish an “A-team” of companies and communities to work together to realize what’s possible. I would fully engineer and build 5,000 to 10,000 small electric networked vehicles and create the foundation of the Mobility Internet. Then I would deploy what we developed in a few communities and learned from real consumers going about their everyday activities, and incorporate this insight into second- and third-generation system designs to be sure we have a mobility solution that consumers desire to own. I would continuously improve manufacturing processes and the overall operating system to reduce costs and enhance quality, and keep going until the system matures sufficiently to reach a tipping point.
I think you could do it in five years for less than $1 billion. You could have this demonstration going quite nicely somewhere at a scale that would allow you to learn, and that’s what would be really important: measuring the impact on carbon footprints, energy consumption, travel times and their predictability, cost reductions, safety gains, and consumer satisfaction. Once you’ve provided those proof points — showing that this can work, showing that it’s safe, and showing how inexpensive it would be — then consumers will demand it, and the market will take over.
Now, $1 billion is a lot of money, but it’s not a lot of money given the issues we’re trying to address. We need to find a way to take this to the next level. When we do, I think it will accelerate the implementation of the sustainable mobility solutions that I believe are within our grasp, and it will absolutely be transformational.
Reprint No. 10307