Book Review: Futurama

Futurama

Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century by William J. Mitchell, Christopher E. Borroni-Bird, and Lawrence D. Burns. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010, 225 pp.

Martin Wachs

It goes without saying that most Americans love their cars. Yet today there is a great deal of debate about the appropriate future role of the automobile. For decades, cars have been by far the most convenient and cost-effective way to travel to and from work, shopping centers, schools, and doctors’ offices. The downside of our car-based transportation system has also long been recognized: traffic congestion, injuries, and deaths from accidents, air pollution, reliance on oil imports, and more recently, climate change. In recent years, there has been a push for alternatives: transit, walking, and bicycling.

But cars are not going away. More than 1 in 8 workers in the United States depend on the car, directly or indirectly. And most Americans continue to strongly resist alternative modes of travel, even though many endure long and frustrating commutes.

In their stimulating Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century, William J. Mitchell, Christopher E. Borroni-Bird, and Lawrence D. Burns consider these realities and envision a different future, one in which technology has transformed our transportation system, with a new, more intelligent car at its heart. They are eminently suited for their task. Mitchell, an architect and urban theorist, serves as director of the Smart Cities Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) famous Media Lab. Borroni-Bird is director of Advanced Technical Vehicle Concepts at General Motors (GM). Burns served for a decade as a senior vice president for R&D of GM. This dream team of advanced thinkers was helped by a bevy of creative students at MIT who enrolled in GM-sponsored courses and design studios that were part of the Media Lab’s Smart Cities Program. The book is thus the result of the interaction over several years of many minds. It blends insights and images from people who like to dream with those from people who have had their earlier dreams harshly tested by market realities.

Indeed, people have long theorized about technological advances that will let us be whisked cleanly and efficiently from where we are to where we want to go with greater safety and comfort in far less time without getting lost and without long delays. A utopian fix always seems to be near, but just out of reach. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, GM’s Futurama exhibit helped millions of visitors imagine that they would soon travel on automated highways, with people in their cars reading newspapers, talking to one another, and eating meals while being carried from coast to coast without looking at the road or touching the steering wheel. In 1997, illustrating the promise of what were then called intelligent transportation systems, a platoon of driverless cars traveled at close spacing at 60 miles per hour on a highway near San Diego, with Vice President Al Gore, and one of the authors of this book, riding in the procession. This demonstration by the Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways Program of the University of California presented a vision that has inspired continuing research, testing, and anticipation, but the vision remains mostly unfulfilled.

Reinventing the Automobile addresses the future of the automobile and the highways on which it travels in terms of four basic transformations. By successfully integrating these four concepts, the authors argue, we can transform urban passenger travel. First is the transformation of the underlying design principles of vehicles, which they call the DNA of vehicles. The new DNA is based on electric-drive vehicles and wireless communications. By shedding the internal combustion engine, manual control, and petroleum fuel, vehicles can be much lighter, far more flexible in form, and designed to avoid crashes while being physically attractive. The second idea is the “mobility Internet,” which will connect cars electronically with one another and with roadways and destinations, enabling vehicles to collect, process, and share information to help manage flows to make travel times more predictable and reliable. The third concept is the integration of electric-drive technology with smart electric grids so that clean, renewable energy sources can supply the vehicles with needed power while the vehicles store energy to intermittently supply the grid with energy when it is needed. The fourth element is real-time control capabilities that link the vehicles and drivers with their energy sources wirelessly, providing information and varying prices to influence travel behavior and parking choices, and balancing supply and demand to increase the efficiency of the use of streets, highways, parking facilities, and energy supplies.

Each of these four ingredients is developed carefully in some detail, citing the history of the current system and reflecting its strengths and weaknesses, explaining recent technology trends that make the proposed end state seem feasible, and arguing how the proposed benefits are actually achievable. The book features images of cute lightweight vehicles that hold one or two passengers, have the intelligence to find their destinations and available parking spaces, and can be parked perpendicular to the curb or travel in “trains” when and where that is desirable.

Although I know a lot less than the authors do about engines, the technology of batteries and electric grids, and the workings of computer information systems, their careful articulation of their positions enabled me to follow their arguments and to find them plausible. The attractiveness of the book is the clarity of the vision by which it presents its promising technological utopia. I felt challenged by the possibilities and concluded that their vision might someday be attainable. Still, knowing that similar visions of Futurama and the promise of intelligent transportation systems have not been realized despite the passage of decades during which thousands of people labored to make them realities, I was less convinced than I would have liked to have been.

In the final chapter, entitled “Realizing the Vision,” the authors conclude their imaginative and stimulating presentation by stating what we must do to bring about the system they would like to see in place within several decades. They say that “we must learn from the invention, development, and widespread acceptance of networkbased systems with the scale and scope of personal urban mobility systems.” They assert that their vision will lead to the adoption of “appealing new services” that are not yet well defined, just as computer networks have given rise to new products such as Amazon’s Kindle. They urge us to be attentive to the need to develop broad, open protocols like those that allowed the development of the Internet. In the closing sections, they observe that we “must develop effective strategies for overcoming the enormous inertia in today’s automobile transportation system.”

It is difficult to disagree with these observations, but the devil is always in the details, and it also is relatively easy to see that we have not achieved the vision of Futurama in large part because to do so our society needs not only new technology but also substantial institutional change to facilitate adoption of the technology on a large scale. The technological changes put forth in this book are themselves enormously complex and challenging. But in all likelihood, should the author’s vision of the future fail to happen, it will most likely be because of unmet challenges related to governance and social institutions. The technological challenges are themselves surely enormous, even though the authors deconstruct those very well and creatively put the pieces back together. But the societal and institutional challenges are even larger, and the authors leave those to be dealt with later and by others.

But these are not mere details that can be worked out later. Our ability to address them is critical to attaining their vision. How will we deal with goods movement that today uses the same road systems as personal automobiles? How should we manage the complex processes of transition from where we are today to where they say we someday will be? There are, after all, different technologies and regimes of control in use on one system at the same time. How will we deal with liability issues should fledgling or experimental systems fail with disastrous consequences? What will be the economic costs of achieving the technological vision provided so powerfully by the authors, and how should we attempt to finance the transition that they advocate, with financial responsibilities surely falling on many different private industries, their customers and suppliers, and government bodies as well as financial institutions?

Reinventing the Automobile presents a fascinating and challenging model of technological possibilities. The authors go further than many others by articulating in depth the many interrelated components of a future system of personal mobility. I thoroughly enjoyed reading what might in the future be possible, and I encourage transportation specialists, urban planners, environmentalists, and policymakers to consider their thoughtful visions. Yet the future will look quite different once lawyers, insurance agents, state and federal legislators, and consumers have given these concepts careful consideration. That is, after all, why the world envisioned in Futurama is still not at hand.


Martin Wachs () is director of Transportation, Space, and Technology at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California.

Cite this Article

Wachs, Martin. “Futurama.” Review of Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century, by William J. Mitchell, Christopher E. Borroni-Bird, and Lawrence D. Burns. Issues in Science and Technology 26, no. 4 (Summer 2010).

Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Summer 2010