Though many might think the future of mobility lies in flying cars and jetpacks, experts say the future entails dependence on equity of mobility companies and policy framework needed for a revolution. 

At least, that’s what professionals in transportation, economics, energy and the environment discussed Friday for the University of Michigan Energy Institute’s fourth TE3 Conference. 

The conference featured multiple researchers who presented their work and conclusions before the crowd of roughly 150 faculty members and students. Following the presentation of research projects, there were panel discussions and Q&A sessions for audience members to have an exchange with the presenters. There were also frequent breaks where attendees had informal conversation and networked.

The conference brought scholars from other universities like Arizona State University and the University of Chicago to speak about their work in each field in order to present an interdisciplinary view of the future of transportation.

Engineering Junior Matt Jankowski spoke to The Daily about the benefits of having the conference include work from a wide array of fields saying, “I’m glad that attention is being devoted to looking at (autonomous vehicles) in an interdisciplinary way, because when new technology comes out it’s not just engineers who help make the transition.”

He also added the unique approach provided a broader view that adds meaning to projected impact autonomous vehicles will have.

“I think the transition has a lot of potential to make transportation more energy efficient, not just by getting better gas milage or using better materials but by changing the overall role of the car,” said Jankowski.

One speaker, Kenneth Gillingham, an associate professor of economics at Yale University, presented his research on how Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards — which are government standards that require car companies to have fuel economy weighted by sales to average 54.5 mpg by 2025 for better fuel economy — and how they affect vehicle safety.

Contrary to the belief that more fuel-efficient vehicles are lighter and therefore more dangerous, Gillingham’s research found CAFE standards actually increased safety on roads because vehicle weights became more equal — there were fewer big-car-versus-little-car crashes, which are more dangerous.

Gillingham also attested to the importance of the conference taking an interdisciplinary approach, writing in an email to The Daily, “ I had the opportunity to speak with stakeholders from several audiences—academia, government regulators, and industry—providing useful perspectives and feedback for further improving the work in preparation for submission to a journal.”

Researchers grappled with the cumbersome nature of transportation data. Even data on the cost of vehicles is hard to pin down because car prices are often haggled down from the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Vehicle attributes can be difficult to compare directly because of the often-different problems cars may exhibit and their customizable nature. Additionally, consumer habits change based on many factors, such as region and owner demographics.

Many presentations and panels focused on the topic of subsidies for electric vehicles, as well as the infrastructure needed for their rollout, and political attention that transforming mobility systems — like designated lanes and charging networks — will need.

One panelist, Rod Lache, a managing director at Deutsche Bank Securities in the autos and auto parts sector, was optimistic about the onset of autonomous technology.

“They’re taking the safety driver out of (driverless test) vehicles in the next few quarters, not years,” he said.

Panelists referred to driverless technology being synonymous with shared mobility, saying personal ownership of vehicles may soon be obsolete. Instead, the future could look like subscribing to a vehicle service where people are driven to their destinations and the car would move on to others. Lache added urgency to this principle, too, stating: “Shared mobility is going to happen a lot sooner than people believe.”

More panelists detailed the gravity of shared mobility.

“If you think about the elderly, they don’t have (mobility),” said Neil Schloss, vice president and chief financial officer of mobility at Ford. He added this principle has a broader scope than convenience, saying, “Mobility really is a right as we go forward.”

TE3 co-chair Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, a senior economist and interim associate director of social science and policy at the U-M Energy Institute, spoke about the work of Fellipe Balieiro, a senior consultant at IHS Markit, which is a London-based consulting firm that advises companies in transportation, energy and aerospace matters.

“They have just completed a study to look at what the dimensions are in terms of takeoff of electrified, connected and autonomous vehicles, and they’ve done studies of each of the different markets — Asia, Europe, the U.S., Latin America,  et cetera — and what they’re trying to do in the study is look at what the capacity is for the physical production of these units and also what kind of regulatory and policy framework is being developed to either hinder or promote the development and adoption of these new modes of transportation.” Hughes-Cromwick said.

Hughes-Cromwick also spoke more generally about the conference’s nature of joining the private and public sectors with academia.

“Academics and this research enterprise here combined with teaching provides a really important framework for furthering thought in many areas and it’s a very valuable and necessary part of any kind of analysis that somebody would do whether they’re in the private sector or government, we rely substantially on academic research in these different areas.”

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