When I present this content to automotive designers or engineers I occasionally get more or less laughed out of the room because they all say that Americans simply don’t want to drive little commuting pods. They want to drive big SUVs and alphanumerically named German vehicles. And you know what? They’re right! In the current usage paradigm, that is exactly what consumers want. Consumers don’t want to travel around in an emasculating little commuting bubble. But the problem with that objection is that it’s an extrapolation argument in an industry about to experience the greatest disruption in its history. The automotive industry isn’t taking seriously the psychological depersonalization of transportation that’s going to be an inevitable consequence of shared mobility. Allow me to offer an analogy. A hundred or more years ago we used horses for transportation and labor.
Horses were woven into the very fabric of our society and our personal psychology.
Man and horse weren’t just the team that made America; horses are a sentient species capable of returning love and being a part of a person’s life. In that context it was inconceivable to think that mobility consumers would ever choose the smelly, hard to start, cantankerous thing pictured below over their horse that they had been relying on for generations.
Tens of millions of Americans had a cultural love for their horses, and some even felt a more personal level of love for their horse, similar to what pet owners feel for their pets today.
A hundred years ago some people literally loved their horses the way people love their dogs today. Except that in this analogy the horse wasn’t just a pet, it was the family’s car, tractor and savings account all rolled into one. It was inconceivable that that society would ever give up its horses. And those feelings for the horse ran much deeper than a soccer mom’s preference for an SUV or dad being into hot rods. Those feelings, though, as strong as they were, weren’t enough to save the horse from being tossed into history’s transportation scrap bin.
To quantify this, if one takes the number of horses in 1915 vs. 19601 and then cross references that information with the U.S. historical population,2 there was one horse for every 4.6 people in America in 1915. By 1960 that number had fallen to roughly one horse per 60 people in America. That’s more than an order of magnitude decrease.
The lesson is that nothing is sacred in the realm of transportation, except people’s desire to get around. The history of change suggests that Americans’ love for big vehicles isn’t immutable, and the history of disruptive technologies suggests that our love for unnecessarily large vehicles won’t be enough to prevent a macroeconomic change in the way consumers use mobility technology, just as early Americans’ love for their horses wasn’t enough to keep the horse relevant.
To give a more succinct analogy, saying that American transportation customers will never reduce their reliance on privately owned cars is like saying that American communication customers will never reduce their reliance on telephone land lines.