Accessibility: The Future of Mobility

Innovation allowing us to use our time more flexibly and efficiently has become more important than finding ways to speed up travel. The implications for automakers are profound.

Accessibility enhancements are transforming whether, where, when and how we travel, and where and how we use our time. (Shutterstock)

In August 1975, I headed west from Michigan in my new Chevy Van, personally customized for living on the road. My destination was the University of California, Berkeley, where I was enrolled to pursue a doctorate In transportation engineering. My van allowed me to experience the parks, mountains, and forests along the way. I felt like a prospector driven by the Gold Rush, but I was searching for new adventures instead of gold. My “rush” came from the freedom to go where I had never been before. As it turned out, this freedom ultimately motivated my research at Berkeley.

Significant GM concept vehicles highlighting new electric/autonomous DNA of automobiles include the ‘skateboard’ pioneer AUTOnomy and the DARPA Challenge-winning ‘Boss’ AV. (General Motors)

At the time, roadway transportation was a hot topic as significant safety, fuel economy and emissions regulations were established. Roadway transportation planning was fixated on the trips people made and the modes they used, with personal automobiles by far being the mode of choice. Governments collected data on trip origins and destinations, and then used it to plan highway projects and transit systems to accommodate predicted travel patterns.

One issue with this approach is that the value we get from owning vehicles cannot be explained solely by the trips we make using them. Instead, we buy vehicles because they allow us to go where we want, when we want, with the people we want. If you have a car and it is parked nearby, you simply get in it and go. You are not constrained by routes and schedules. Nor do you need to rely on others to get around. This explains why people spend a lot of money to buy a vehicle and then leave it parked most of the time.

Automobility is having a profound, disruptive, and transformational impact on the auto industry, and promises to significantly enhance accessibility with AVs. (Burns)
Book based on research at University of California, Berkeley. (Burns)

From my perspective in 1975, buying a car was buying accessibility — the freedom to access whatever is needed or desired, wherever these activities are located, and whenever they’re available. With this in mind, I focused my research on how accessibility depends on where and when activities occur and the capabilities of transportation systems.

Getting cash when I was a GM engineering student in 1969 illustrates my thinking about accessibility. Each Friday, my supervisor handed me my paycheck. I then had to go to a bank to get some dollars and deposit the rest of my pay. While I had a car and there were plenty of banks nearby, the only time I could get to a bank was during my lunch break. So, my accessibility to cash was constrained by my work schedule and banking hours, not by transportation or the location of banks.

America’s first automatic teller machine (ATM) made its debut in 1969. ATMs eliminated the need to visit a bank to conduct basic financial transactions. They freed people from having to plan their schedules around when banks were open and provided access to cash at many more locations. This enhanced accessibility to currency and increased flexibility to do other things elsewhere.

I was fascinated by how innovation allowing us to use our time more flexibly and efficiently increased accessibility more than did methods to speed-up travel. Examples in those days included flexible working hours; video tape recorders for TVs; telephone message recorders; pagers; instant dinners and permanent-press clothing. I was also convinced that America’s love affair with cars would not wane until another transportation system emerged that offered better accessibility. My research at Berkeley led to a visual and analytical framework for assessing ways to improve accessibility and my dissertation was published as a book. I was hopeful others would embrace and extend my perspective on accessibility, but this didn’t happen.

The future of accessibility will significantly impact the future of cities. (Burns)

After graduating in June 1978, I packed my van and headed back to Michigan to continue my career at GM and learn the business of designing, engineering, manufacturing and distributing automobiles. It wasn’t until 1998, when I was named GM corporate VP of R&D and planning, that I began to reflect on accessibility again. This occurred when Rick Wagoner, my boss and GM president at the time, asked me: “If we were inventing the automobile today rather than 100 years ago, what would we do different given the serious side-effects of automobiles and the new technologies that exist?”

A flurry of innovation

The future of mobility. (Burns)

This liberating question allowed me to think about the future of automobiles in the context of the broader accessibility system within which they operate. As it turned out, I spent the next 25 years (eleven more at GM and then fourteen as a business advisor and academic) addressing it.

My initial response focused on creating a new design “DNA” for automobiles based on the convergence of connected, electric and autonomous transportation. I had great colleagues at GM to help advance and communicate this vision through a series of concept cars including AUTOnomy (the world’s first “skateboard” EV concept), Hy-Wire, and EN-V, a radical proposal for urban mobility aimed at the China market. And GM was privileged to team with Carnegie Mellon University to develop ‘Boss’ and win the DARPA Urban Challenge, which was the catalyst for autonomous driving technology.

I eventually coined the term automobility for this new design DNA and co-authored two more books to help convey how the century-old age of automobiles was destined to transform.

Today, automobility is becoming a reality. Connected vehicles are past their market tipping point with 500 million ride-hailing users worldwide in 2021. Electric vehicles are at their tipping point with over 125 new models launching in the U.S. by 2025, many of them based on AUTOnomy-like “skateboard” architectures. And, while taking longer than hoped or hyped, autonomous vehicles (AV) continue to appear inevitable, with ever-increasing commercial use cases being validated and breakthrough sensor, machine learning and system-on-chip technologies sustaining progress.

Automobility is having a profound, disruptive, and transformational impact on the auto industry. And it promises to significantly enhance accessibility, with AVs eventually giving personal-vehicle drivers their time back and robotaxis promising affordable demand-responsive transportation in cities without the need to for personal-vehicle ownership.

But the answer to Wagoner’s question does not end with automobility. Innovation (1) beyond connected, electric and autonomous vehicles, and (2) outside the roadway transportation industry, is transforming the future of accessibility and dramatically changing how people interact physically, economically and socially.

Numerous accessibility-enhancing innovations have become mainstream since I graduated from Berkeley. They include mobile phones; the Internet; search engines; telematics; video conferencing and streaming; online learning; telehealth and social media.

Consider e-commerce. Recently, I needed tandoori seasoning for a meal I planned to cook the next day. Rather than driving to the nearest grocery store three miles away and hoping they had it, I shopped on Amazon Prime. It was delivered to my porch in 18 hours at a cost of $5.60 including shipping. My round-trip travel cost to the store (not including my time cost) would have been $5.00 (6 miles at $0.83 per mile per AAA). In essence, my tandoori seasoning cost me just $0.60!

E-commerce has fundamentally enhanced accessibility by providing a new way to access most goods. Today, we can buy things from almost anywhere in the world at any time online and have them delivered to our homes. While transportation plays a key role in e-commerce, we do not have to travel to shop. And not having to make trips to stores saves a lot more time than being able to travel to stores faster.

Consider video conferencing. Before the pandemic took hold in early 2020, I was making around 40 business trips per year to engage with clients. In 2022, with the same number of clients, I did my job making just 10 business trips. What changed? Out of necessity, videoconferencing was embraced by businesses as an alternative to travel, and in turn, virtual meeting service quality improved.

For many people and businesses, videoconferencing has enabled remote work, with a corresponding reduction in commuting. While it remains to be seen where business travel and remote work are headed, videoconferencing has clearly enhanced access to work and impacted whether, when and how a lot of people travel to their jobs. As with e-commerce, not having to commute to work even one day per week saves a lot more time than being able to commute faster.

How about mobile phones? My two daughters who are in their early thirties today grew up along with mobile phones. When they got their first cars, I asked them what they would give up first — their phones or their cars. Without hesitation, they both said their cars. I concluded the accessibility they gained from their phone was more valuable to them than that gained from their cars. And the impact of mobile phones goes far beyond how they have transformed accessibility.

The greatest competitive threat

Substantial innovation occurred between 1980 and 2010 to transform how we use our time, yet little occurred to change how we move around. While digital-age companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google and Amazon enhanced accessibility, auto companies mainly fixated on features which did little to improve accessibility. This is remarkable, given that accessibility remains the fundamental value proposition for owning a vehicle. In fact, prior to 2010 (when ride-hailing and AV technology surfaced), the last significant innovation to improve accessibility from automobiles was the U.S. Interstate System launched by President Eisenhower in 1956!

Today, the future of accessibility is resulting from the convergence of transportation, communication and information innovation.

Communication is being advanced by 5G cellular networks, augmented and virtual reality, streaming, voice recognition, human holograms and remote prognostics. And, information is being driven by quantum computing, digital twins, systems-on-chips, artificial intelligence/machine learning, advanced analytics and cloud-based platforms. Each of these innovations is significant individually. But when combined and integrated with automobility, their impact on accessibility is profound.

Because buying a vehicle is akin to buying accessibility, the biggest competitive threat to an auto company is not another auto company. Rather, it is how the digital age will reshape how people move around and interact. Auto-industry leaders should not take solace from having positioned their companies for automobility. As big as this change is for all facets of the industry, the future of accessibility could be an even bigger disrupter.

The auto industry must re-imagine how vehicles fit within the broad accessibility system, not just the roadway transportation system. Gaining access to something you need or desire without having to travel saves a lot more time than being able to travel faster. Changes in the trips we take in the future and when and where we travel will profoundly impact automobile use and design.

The future of accessibility will significantly impact the future of cities. (Burns)
The future of mobility. (Burns)

Future accessibility machines will serve as our personal valets, run errands for us, offer compelling experiences when they move us around, and transport both people and goods in a “choreographed” activity system at significantly lower cost per mile than today’s cars and trucks. They will have masses, top speeds, seating and payload capabilities, and ranges tailored for specific use cases, not over-specified based on extreme and infrequent use cases.

Imagine the digital age impacting accessibility machines the way mobile-phone design has evolved. Accessibility machines likely will have less than half as many parts as conventional vehicles and an even greater reduction in moving parts. The impact of this design simplification on auto industry jobs, supply chains and sustainability will be astonishing. Einstein said, “The best design is the simplest one that works.” This principle is destined to wash over the auto industry like a tsunami, especially as accessibility machines become tailored for specific market segments.

Future accessibility enhancements will fundamentally change how we live. Consider cities: throughout the history of civilization, people and enterprises have located in cities to access markets, workers, goods, jobs, education, ideas, religion, culture, knowledge and healthcare. These fundamental drivers of urbanization now are being redefined by enhanced accessibility and megatrends reshaping activities.

Remote work, e-commerce, telehealth, online learning, streaming and virtual/augmented reality all enable us to access jobs, goods, services, knowledge and entertainment without having to reside in or commute to cities. Accessibility enhancements are transforming whether, where, when and how we travel, and where and how we use our time.

Based on the future of accessibility, fundamental assumptions about cities, suburbs and rural areas likely will no longer apply. This has significant implications for future public policy and geopolitical dynamics. Consider the following questions:

  • How will people work, consume, learn and socialize in the future?

  • How will businesses produce, distribute and innovate in the future?

  • Where will people live and businesses locate?

  • What is the future of people movement vs. goods movement?

  • What will the “experience economy” entail?

  • Why will people want to live in cities in the future?

Policymakers need to rethink infrastructure investments. Investing in accessibility infrastructure means transportation, communication and information infrastructure should be planned, designed, and operated as an integrated system, not as individual silos managed by different government departments and agencies.

Fueled by the digital age, accessibility innovation continues to accelerate. While many with vested interest in the past would like to slow or derail this change, the value it offers people, businesses and society makes it inevitable.

Lawrence D. Burns, Ph.D, advises organizations on the future of mobility, logistics, manufacturing, energy and innovation. His current clients include Wejo, Niron Magnetics, Neural Propulsion Systems, Nanoramics, and Kitson & Partners. Larry served as General Motors corporate VP of R&D and planning from 1998-2009. Between 2010 and 2016, he was professor of Engineering Practice at the University of Michigan, director of the Program for Sustainable Mobility at Columbia University, and an advisor to several major companies. He is author of the books ‘Reinventing the Automobile’ (2010) and (with co-author Christopher Shulgan) ‘Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car’ (HarperCollins 2018).