Do we need cars? three types of innovations

When people talk about sustainable mobility, they mostly think of electric cars. But actually, they are only the first step towards a future-proof mobility culture. They’re easy to implement because this innovation doesn’t really need people to change their behaviour. Everyone still got their own car in which to drive around. Everyone also still has to refill its energy in more or less regular intervals at those places where you can do exactly that. No big change there, even if oil  industry lobbyists are convincing everyone of the opposite. But what, I hear you ask, are the next steps then? Here’s an overview, showing the three types of innovations.


product innovations

New cars are what we call product innovations. They may be faster, more comfortable, or more energy-efficient. But it’s basically the same thing. 
For a really sustainable and future-proof society, this won’t be enough. A third of the greenhouse gases caused by cars is emitted during their production process, sourcing of raw materials and logistics. Also, even if you have a car that’s powered by batteries or hydrogen, these are only energy containers, which can still be filled by future-negative energy sources such as brown coal or nuclear power. Higher efficiency doesn’t change this. 
Also, there’s all the evolving south-east Asian economies. There’s just no room in those cities for every adult to have a car.

usage innovations

So how do we get everyone from where they are in one moment to wherever they want to be in the next? Trains and buses only connect nodes and taxis are expensive. Bikes have been around for ages, but the average human doesn’t want to use them for larger distances. Or they don’t want to arrive at the office soaked by sweat and rain, with a ruined hairstyle.  
So, cars are the obvious choice for many people. But most people only use their cars 5 – 10% of the time, which makes them pretty uneconomical. That’s why people invented carsharing. If you haven’t heard of it yet; A company distributes cars over town, you sign up to use and pay them only when you need them. Apart from the carsharing companies, there also are online portals where people can share their own cars.
So, usage innovations take existing products and use them in a new way or context. By means of implementation, these are easiest, because the used products are already there.

system innovations

The problem with carsharing is that most companies want you to bring the cars back to where you took them. So they’re good for daily chores, but less so for travelling, since they can’t drive themselves back.


But making cars drive themselves has shifted from being a matter of science fiction to research and field tests. Recently, Tesla’s Elon Musk announced a feature which enables their cars to change from being a private car to being an autonomous taxi. This way, they’re able to generate income for their owners in the 90 – 95% of the day they don’t need them. Supposedly, this will considerably raise a car’s economic value, while reducing the ratio between citizens and ‘necessary’ cars. In cities where there are no tesla’s, the company plans to install their own fleets.

knightbusAs an extension of this concept, Elon announced a bus working in a similar way. It won’t have a fixed route but rather be summoned by pushing a button in the app, or a physical one at an actual bus stop, for people without a smartphone. 




Autonomous driving is already safer than human driving, but Tesla wants to make it ten times so. Elon Musk estimates a need for 10 billion miles of fleet learning. Right now they have 222 million, growing by 5 million each day. 

After reaching tenfold security, this innovation enters the legislation  process. Afterwards, market forces are going to summon concurrence, spreading this around the world and driving prices down.

So this combines product innovations (self-steering function for cars, appropriate apps, bus-stop-buttons, special buses, automated charging docks) with usage innovations. This is often the case in system innovations. These are generally the biggest innovations, because they require huge investments of money and time. Like in this case, their implementation often has to cope with legislation. Also, they might raise the most resistance. In this case, I can imagine taxi drivers not being happy slowly having their job changed from actual driving to teaching shortcuts to algorithms.
Like every automation, this reduces the amount of necessary work, which currently translates to inducing existential fear in people, instead of having everyone sleep a bit longer in the mornings. Here would be a bigger system innovation, probably being met by a lot more resistance. 
In every case, system innovations take a lot of time. But the achievable transformational depth is a lot greater than with product or usage innovations.

Also published on Medium.

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