A review of
Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century
by William J. Mitchell, Christopher E. Borroni-Bird and Lawrence D. Burns
2010, 227 pages.

Reinventing the Automobile presents an inspiring vision of future transportation systems that originates from work done both within General Motors on the Segway P.U.M.A. (Personal Urban Mobility & Accessibility) vehicle and under the auspices of the MIT Media Lab's CityCar project. While the book is in part the outgrowth of an MIT course, its strength lies in its connection with actual hardware prototypes, not just academic publications or CAD drawings.

The volume is about 4 years old as I write, and the most striking aspect of the text is how about half of the predictions already seem out-of-date, while others remain wildly futuristic. The reader is frequently reminded just how rapid technological developments in new vehicle design have been in the last few years and how quickly the worldwide economic downturn changed the market for automobiles.

Chapter 2, "The New DNA of the Automotobile", focuses on vehicle design and centers on the "electric skateboard" project, where the car's chassis is more or less a motherboard on which individually selected components may be mounted. Novel concepts like motors on individual wheels, folding vehicles and front entry-exit directly on the sidewalk are examined in the context of improving urban transportation systems. The ideas owe a debt to generations of tiny European cars, notably BMW's Isetta project. The book is remiss in not mentioning these similar predecessors except in passing. The recently announced BMW i3 appears to be an electric skateboard design.

Others chapters treat the connected car and electrical grid implications of electric vehicles and feel a bit staler. The chapters about "New Mobility Markets" and "Personal Mobility in an Urbanizing World" emphasize the impacts that novel car and transportation systems will have on businesses and on problems like land use in the developing world. At a recent meeting that Tiago Forte of faberNovel organized at PARISOMA, co-author Larry Burns spoke eloquently about this transformation. Paraphrasing, Mr. Burns urged industry players like automakers and insurance companies to "sell trips and experiences rather than cars and policies." The spirit of whole-system reimagination that Burns described pervades the book and has much to offer even technology sceptics who prefer transit and human-powered transport.

Thanks to Steve of Silicon Valley Automotive Open Source Group for recommending the book and to Edward Durney for starting the conversation and sharing his communications with the GM team.

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alison@she-devel.com (Alison Chaiken)