Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying, about the time that he was conjuring up the Model T Ford, that if he’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse. That’s the thing with disruptive innovations, not many people can really picture what that disruption looks like. Henry also famously applied a systems-thinking approach towards his business, developing entire supply chains that were owned and controlled by the Ford Motor Company.
I was reminded of Henry recently when a friend, not normally one to embrace any of these hippie concepts around saving the planet, told me he’d just spent a significant sum of money on an e-Bike. In an effort to convince me that his political leanings hadn’t suddenly veered towards socialism over the lockdown, he was quick to tell me that climate impact was only the third or fourth criteria on his list when making his decision. More pressing drivers revolved around maintenance costs, capital outlay, parking fees and other additional costs that vehicles generate.
His comment was in response to my opinion piece which suggested that the Government, in order to spend some of the billions it has earmarked for post-Covid recovery, should roll our electric vehicle recharging infrastructure nationally, and make it cost-free to recharge an EV.
My buddy’s response was quick and to the point, suggesting that by simply incentivizing electric vehicles, the Government would be missing the point entirely. They would, to paraphrase his words, be like all those people asking for a faster horse when, in reality, a complete paradigm shift was barrelling down at the world that would make said horses (of either velocity) obsolete.
As my mate saw it, electric vehicles don’t really solve the problem because they still involve private ownership of a large vehicle that, for the most part, sits idle waiting for the rare occasions in which it’s actually used. In his view, the Government should, rather than trying to encourage everyone to buy and use electric vehicles, instead massively subsidize the cost of other electric mobility options – eBikes, eScooters and the like. By doing so, they would miraculously reduce traffic densities and the associated need for huge infrastructure spending, especially in our urban areas.
His counterpoint got me thinking and sent me down a few rabbit holes that made me feel sympathy for those who actually have to make the policy decisions that will impact upon the next years and decades. First I got all excited about the notion of moving from private, to shared ownership models. When I first started visiting San Francisco around 15 years ago, Zipcars were all the rage. The Zipcar approach was to allow people to hire a car for a limited time – as little as an hour. They booked and accessed these cars via an app, and Zipcars, rather than relying on a rental car depot, could be found parked up at various locations within the downtown San Francisco area.
I thought about applying the Zipcar notion not only to vehicles (in this case electric ones) but more broadly to mobility solutions – in the same way that we can use a Lime, Flamingo or Beam e-Scooter based on time or distance, imagine a platform that covered the variety of different mobility use cases – scooters for very short trips, eBikes for slightly longer missions in the city and electric vehicles when distances increase.
All of a sudden the millions of vehicles we have on the roads in New Zealand could be hugely slashed as people would simply hire a vehicle when they used it. I got so excited about this that I almost forgot the practicalities – school and work hours tend to be fairly generic meaning that everyone would be wanting to use these shared mobility solutions at the same time.
My bubble (although, I have to add, not my Coronavirus one) was further burst as a well-meaning correspondent took me to task for being an electric vehicle proponent – apparently, hydrogen fuel cells are the answer and EV’s are merely a distraction.
The sum total of all of that is that in my mind, much like in our society, I’ve stalled at the status quo. Without all the answers, and a multi-year (really, multi-decade) perspective thinking about the problem at a systems level, it’s almost impossible to get viable and optimal solutions. What we need to do, to resolve the huge problems of our time, is to agree to generational strategies, and progress towards those.
Old Henry had it easy – he could design an entire system that would not only build the vehicles, but source the raw materials, create the supply chains and even generate the demand for said vehicles. If only a country could be run like an automobile factory… or maybe it can.