Reinventing the Automobile

By William J. Mitchell, Christopher E. Borroni-Bird, and Lawrence D. Burns, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010, ISBN 978-0-262-01382-6, 227 pages

Reviewed by Bernard L. Cohen

For a person to move from one place to another within a city requires energy to produce and maintain the kinetic energy of motion, but with our present system of personal automobile transport, this required energy is much less than one percent of the energy in the fuel consumed. This system requires large personal expense to the person using it (now over 50 cents per mile), uses valuable and expensive space for parking, wastes lots of time due to traffic congestion, kills tens of thousands of Americans each year and seriously injures many more, causes serious environmental pollution, contributes heavily to our national economic and political problems (including two recent wars), and so on. If we could start from scratch and redesign the system, how much better could it be?

That is the question addressed in the book “Reinventing the Automobile”, and it is loaded with solutions. The solution begins with small, light weight, electrically driven cars. Numerous designs are illustrated. For example, one which folds up to fit into small spaces is a four-by-four foot square that can be rotated in place to any angle and is entered and exited from the front directly onto the sidewalk, thus minimizing parking space.  Still smaller is a 100-pound, 2-wheel Segway with a top speed of 12.5 miles per hour.

The solution includes a mobility internet system connecting all nearby cars that manages traffic flow, safety, parking, and electric supply, and even allows driving on auto-pilot. Congestion and collisions are greatly reduced, and convenience is enhanced.  In one example, occupants can leave the car at the destination and the car will find a parking space, park itself, and later be recalled by remote control.
There is a chapter on battery charging infrastructure which includes overnight charging at home, inductive charging from parking spaces, and even charging from the road surface while driving.

There is a chapter on integrating electric cars into smart electric grids to take advantage of dynamic pricing and real time feedback loops for buying, storing, and selling electricity.  This integrated system is used for trip planning to minimize travel time and parking costs; parking spaces are continuously auctioned in real time.  There is a lengthy discussion of avoiding ownership costs by mobility-on-demand systems with electronic tracking and billing, and some even with one way rental; these greatly extend the fraction of time that each vehicle is used, thereby reducing vehicle costs. 

Many futuristic innovations of all sorts are suggested, including advertising displayed on car dashboards rather than on billboards, transfer of speed limit signs, stop signs, and other highway signs to car dashboards,  and pedestrians carrying connections to the mobility internet for their safety. 

An important shortcoming of the book is that there is essentially no mention of the down-sides of many of the proposed new measures.  For example, lighter-weight vehicles or abandoning impact-absorbing devices present possible safety problems, and placing billboards or highway signs on car dashboards would appear to present unsafe distractions for the driver, but these difficulties are not discussed. 

The authors claim that the measures foreseen in this book will result personal city transportation systems that are cheaper, faster, safer, and less polluting even than extensive use of mass transit and all the inconvenience that approach entails.

At only 200 pages long, the book is a fast and easy read. It is full of illustrations, diagrams, and data plots. There are many tables with relevant information, and about a hundred references to scientific and technical literature.

The final chapter discusses “how we get there from here”, facing the very formidable problems in implementation. There is perhaps more optimism than many readers can accept, but the authors really seem to believe that much of this is going to happen. This reviewer can only hope they are right.

Bernard L. Cohen
Physics, University of Pittsburgh

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.