Mobility Vs. Reality: Tackling the Future of Transportation at Michelin's Movin’On Summit

Bright minds gather in Montreal to discuss roadblocks to sustainability in (mostly) logical fashion.

Eric Adams

According to the United Nations, the percentage of the global population living in urban areas will reach 70 percent by 2050—up from roughly 55 percent now. That’s a big problem, and the effects are already being felt. “In Los Angeles, we added 2.1 million cars in just the last decade,” said Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer for L.A. County Metro. “That’s crazy, and not sustainable at all.”

Schank spoke during the opening panel discussion at Michelin’s Movin’On World Summit on Sustainable Mobility, being held this week in Montreal. The group of transportation leaders featured on the panel broached strategies for eliminating congestion, reducing environmental damage, and generally improving the quality of life for people who live and work in the world’s urban areas—particularly in the face of cultural, political, and economic challenges.

Among the key take-aways: Make the future of mobility an attractive proposition for everyone, even the naysayers. Bertrand Piccard, founder of the Solar Impulse Foundation and co-pilot of the first solar airplane to fly around the world, said the best hope against resistance to the often-costly steps needed to improve mobility was, in fact, the economic argument. “Here in this room, we are all convinced by what we hear about sustainability and technology, but a lot of people are not—they don’t care about the environment or technology,” Piccard said. “They want business-as-usual, and they want to keep their old habits.”

Eric Adams

The solution, he continued, was to defuse the idea that the changes will be a threat to growth or success and instead focus on the personal advantages, including profitable investments that boost bottom lines. Not only that, but companies have to be motivated enough to help move the ball forward of their own accord. 

“We have to get these companies to pull the innovations onto the market,” he said. “Because pushing it through with government subsidies and grants just isn’t going to be enough. It’ll be blocked.”

Not that such government participation won’t be important. Michelin itself goes so far as to say it actually wants government regulation. “I can’t think of a single area of progress where public-private collaboration is not the way forward,” said CEO Jean-Dominique Senard, also on the panel. “We can try anything with our own will, but if there’s no regulation, at some point you’re going to go into a wall.”

Eric Adams

He cites by way of example the company’s own efforts to get its customers to use its products to the end of their natural life, rather than changing tires early on the assumption that increased wear makes them unsafe. (This is a theme Michelin began arguing in earnest at the Detroit Auto Show earlier this year.) “Everyone thinks we should get rid of tires early, but that’s the worst thing you can do,” Senard said. “It generates tremendous waste and tremendous amounts of CO2. We need regulations for tire testing to ensure that they are as safe when worn down as they are when new.”

Though inviting regulation and government participation might be a challenge these days, it’s no surprise to hear it from Michelin, given the nature of the company's conference. It’s also something that—perhaps more predictably—the government-affiliated panelists endorsed. Kate White, deputy secretary of environmental policy at the California State Transportation Agency, noted that the recent state-approved gas tax hike—the first in 25 years and a notably controversial move in the state—will generate $5 billion in revenue that’ll be funneled into clean transportation strategies. 

Of course, what works in California might not work elsewhere—at least not without equivalent support of the population. Mayor Valérie Plante of host city Montreal said the city achieved support for change as much through frustration with traffic as through changing lifestyles. “10 years ago, everyone wanted either a car or public transport,” said Plante, the mayor, whose administration recently ordered 300 hybrid buses to boost its current fleet. “Now there’s a need or even an appetite for other options. People want to bike to work or take the subway, but have a car on the weekend.”

She said a large addition to the subway line came about through this awareness of mobility needs, and it required support on all sides. “We needed to push it and have pressure from the local government, but it has to have the people saying that this is what we need to do," she said. "I need the population behind me to make it happen.”

Eric Adams

Other thoughts broached in the panel, however, didn’t quite pass the reality test. White, who says she has never owned a car herself and who helped launch a car-sharing service in San Francisco that preceded Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar, argued that cars are like a drug we can’t wean ourselves from. “I really see it as an addiction, repeated across the United States,” she said. “They see their car as another member of their family.”

She might be right about that, but cars are also a practical necessity in most areas, including many urban ones. All but the largest cities simply aren’t designed for wide-scale mass transit, and even those alternatives that are offered aren’t necessarily reliable, fast, and efficient. (Not to mention meeting the lifestyle needs of families, or anyone who has errands or adventures on the weekend, or commutes to areas not serviced by public transit.) That, of course, is where car-sharing services come in, as well as personal-mobility solutions like e-bikes and e-scooters—but also electrification in general. White noted the recent boom in shared bicycles and scooters—many of which have been cluttering the sidewalks of urban areas—is generally a positive, in that it boosts electric mobility. 

“It’s controversial and making a mess, but we’re seeing increased usage in China and other countries where it’s more convenient and reduces driving,” White said, citing protected bike lanes, fossil-fuel-free street designations, and the pedestrianization of streets as the next steps.

Electric scooters and bikes will certainly be helpful, and congestion pricing zones also came up among the panelists as an effective strategy in many cities—and such schemes may eventually prove critical in urban areas in the United States. But the panel also agreed that the broader electrification of transportation is critical. This is for health reasons, of course, in that they minimize pollution—Piccard noted that 7 million people die globally from the direct effects of air pollution—but also for economic and efficiency reasons. EVs simply use available resources better, the panel agreed. But Plante acknowledged that electrification must be approached via practical steps, hence her city’s choice of hybrid buses instead of fully electric ones—given the current charging challenges and the strain cold weather inflicts on the batteries.

Another complicating factor: the public’s embrace of the systems, which often comes about because of less-than-noble motives. Car companies, particularly in California, have found that many of their customers purchase their electrified vehicles not out of altruistic virtue or even reduced operating costs, but simply because it let them into the HOV lane during their commute. Honda acknowledged this when discussing its alternative-fuel vehicle customers during a recent briefing at the New York International Auto Show, and Schank indicated it was a factor in the visible congestion now found in many of the dedicated lanes around Los Angeles—which prompted the city to begin charging EVs for the use of HOV lanes.

Eric Adams

Another thing the panelists did agree on is that battery-electric vehicles may not, in fact, be the only solution. Senard noted the practical challenges of mass-charging electric vehicles straining the power grid, and both he and Piccard suggested hydrogen may not be quite as dead as many think for that reason—and others. “Maybe hydrogen is not more convenient, but it does bring together all the actors,” he said. “The oil companies can produce and distribute it, and the gas stations can supply it. You public-refuel in two minutes, and the government can tax the hydrogen. In short, batteries are making enemies where hydrogen is making friends—but we need the electric motor in the end.”

Ultimately, there are still more incentives in play for the adoption of new mobility tech, from performance (i.e., Tesla’s Ludicrous Mode) to reliability to low maintenance—though White again took the idea perhaps just a hair too far: “We need to make it attractive, even sexy to use alternative transport,” she said. “It’s now common to pick up a date in a Lyft or even on an electric bike.”

Attractive, even sexy alternatives to cars? Sure, that's possible. Picking up a date in a Lyft or on an e-bike, though, will never be among them.