Radically Innovating the Transportation Industry

I am feeling really, really guilty. I just bought a new truck. And it is not a small one – it is a Ford 150. There are bigger ones… the 250 or the 350. Without a running board I have to have someone push me up into the seat. I fell in love with this truck when we had to rent one in December as our other care was in the shop for repairs.

Right now I am rationalizing this purchase along four lines of reasoning:
1) It has four wheel drive and there is a lot of snow outside.
2) I have a lot of animals and a very big garden so I need a truck to carry all my stuff… that is not a great sign either…
3) I am extremely affected by the glare of car headlights and I have to teach at night. Sitting high up in a truck helps – that’s really why I started to love the truck we rented in December.
4) Our other car is extremely environmentally friendly, so net net, perhaps we’re not a major cost to our surroundings.

You ask… ‘What does all this have to do with innovation?’ Well it started me thinking about what was wrong with my decision and us in general with regards to transportation innovation. I was reminded of a case I taught on the hydrogen economy in our class on Business Implications of Emerging Technologies. I chided the students for only thinking about it in terms of automobiles. I challenged them to totally rethink the way we transport ourselves around on a daily basis. Then I started to think about the auto industry bailout and wonder if that might provide a stimulus for rethinking the design of farm vehicles, trucks and the lot, or how we go about solving the problems that such vehicles now solve. There is a lot of talk about electric cars and hybrid vehicles and that is good…they are much more fuel efficient and friendly toward the environment – but they are not really radical in terms of how we transport ourselves on a daily basis. Then I thought of the stimulus package the The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009and its support for highways and parking garages – once again supporting our entrenched ways of transportation.

So why can’t we embark on a more radical approach? One thought is we don’t have the innovation capacity to do so given our sunk costs in highways, gas stations, car dealerships and culture around the importance of large homes on large pieces of property.This suggests we have to reshape our innovation capacity – change some of the linkages and types of institutions that are key players in the energy and transportation sector. We have to refocus our priorities and values and how we think about transporting ourselves. All of this is an arduous, political and very futuristic, long time endeavor. But it does strike me that if some of the stimulus money was spent on novel types of infrastructure we might begin the process of exploring new ways of thinking about transportation. Yes, the administration wants shovel ready projects, but couldn’t there be a requirement that a certain percentage of these would have to identify how innovation was being taken into account and paving the way to potential new futures? This gets me to my fifth rationalization point. In order deal with the realities of globalization and the rise of China and India and the environmental impact they are and will continue to have, we have to begin to think systemically about innovation. We not only need to lead the way with new technology but also with new ways of deploying it.

One Comment

  1. 1. http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/89826753/ note that I ride a bike…

    2. WRT innovation, sadly I didn’t go right on to graduate school, as I had some concepts back then about “intensive” vs. “extensive” use of resources and organization of industry that were pretty important. You might find this interesting too:


    Pick up and read a copy of _On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors_ and then reflect on the fact it was published 30 years ago! Michigan would be in a much better place today had the process of change occurred then, just as it did with Sloan at a different period in the industry’s history

    cf. Saxenian’s work on “innovation ecologies” (she doesn’t call it that I don’t think)


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