The recent DARPA ‘urban challenge’ car competition has directed attention towards the futures of the the car – especially the urban vehcile – as a transport mode. It’s a reminder of how much our social assumptions about technology shape the way we imagine their futures.

DARPA – an offshott of the US Defense Department – challenged teams to – broadly – produce an automated vehicle capable of navigating a 60-mile course in six hours without knocking anyone over. Its interest, according to Futurismic, is “to have a computer system that can run a supply convoy autonomously, merging in and out of traffic and navigating intersections”. Their metaphor of the future, therefore, is that “the car is OK but the driver is the problem”. Quite a lot of future transport models
take this view.

Meanwhile, courtesy of Fast Company, there is a profile of Johnathan Goodwin [their spelling], a car “hacker” who tweaks engines to reduce emissions while maintaining or increasing performance. Goodwin is working on a Hummer (yes, those tank-like vehicles which are seen in a certain class of American suburb) which will be able to run on biodiesel, do 60 mpg (current performance, from memory, less than 10) and still get from 0-60 in five seconds. In other words, his metaphor of the car is “the car is fine but the fuel is the problem”. (As an aside, reference to the Hummer always reminds me of a John Thackara post, “Is carbon-based enery yuppy crack?” written several years ago. Go look if you’re curious as to why.)

The third recent story, courtesy of MIT’s Technology Review, was about an MIT project to develop a foldable stackable rentable car (there’s a related project for a foldable scooter) powered by electricity. The vehicles are the brainchild of MIT’s ‘Smart Cities” group, led by Bill Mitchell. The premise of the group is that the current model of car ownership and use is a barrier to reducing pollution and congestion, and creating better quality public space. Their vehicles are designed to connect to public transport rather than compete with them.

When systems are in transition, there is often competition between different models of the future, based on competing perceptions of the limitations of the current system. We won’t know which model(s) will succeed for some time. It depends on how different actors make their choices, how they connect (or fail to connect) with other relevant actors, and on the extent to which their narrative of the future’ resonates with society as a whole. And sometimes, as Sky discovered with its approach to interactive television, you can win the battle to build a successful network of actors, and have a credible narrative, and still find that your business model falls on its face.

Incidentally, perhaps by coincidence, a thousand tomorrows popped up recently with a link to Berkeley’s “transportation futuristics” site – with its splendid history of the car of the future, flying cars and all.