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AD: How will car-sharing and wireless networking create a new mobility system?

DS: We're striving to make it simple to gain access to a wide variety of vehicles and transportation services. At the heart of this is a personal transportation assistant (PTA, like a PDA) that would tell you when a vehicle is available for car-sharing. It may also tell you when a smart dial-a-ride service or bus is coming. You might be part of a ride-sharing club, which would be hooked dynamically into the PTA. The PTA would also be integrated with wireless billing and reservations.

AD: When will these technological advances be available?

DS: The basic hardware building blocks are here. The technology needs to be coordinated and standardized. It's a matter of creating the services using on-demand wireless information. It will be a slow adoption because no business knows exactly how to proceed. Many existing institutions are slow to change. For example, buses should be the easiest means of transportation in the world to track, but nobody has succeeded in making them smart.

AD: Will there be a change in consumer travel habits?

DS: From a human behavior standpoint, the change will come easily. New mobility systems will be better and cheaper. Right now, cars cost $6,000 or $7,000 a year [to maintain]. With a shared car, you won't be fully responsible for its upkeep, so your costs go down. If you're going to have a birthday party and want to transport a horde of 10-year-olds, borrow the minivan. Or to pick up furniture, get a pickup truck. These could even be delivered to your door, as part of the service. Or they could sit in a neighborhood garage. We hypothesize that if you create a web of mobility services, modes of transportation will be more specialized and efficient.

AD: What would be the economic or environmental benefits of such a system?

DS: Commercially you are creating an entire new industry. The system is more economical because right now, we drive SUVs wherever we go. That's 2 tons of steel carrying a 150-pound person one mile. As the energy futurist Amory Loins said, we're using a chainsaw to cut butter. The present system takes up space, requiring wide roads and more parking spaces. It consumes large amounts of energy. With the new mobility system, you use technology more efficiently. And accessing the car doesn't have to be difficult. I've been to a Honda facility where the vehicles in the parking lot drive themselves up to you as you walk out the door.

AD: Would you need the support of automakers for car-sharing to work?

DS: Some automakers think they're just in the car business. Some realize they're in the mobility business. Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen, BMW and DaimlerChrysler are dabbling in new mobility services, but it's early. It could start as an extension of a neighborhood-based car rental company, such as Enterprise. Or a technology company would make the key investment in the network. Or the car companies themselves might even take the lead.

AD: How will our landscape change?

DS: With increased diversity of vehicles — moving away from a transportation monoculture — there will be increased demand for small neighborhood vehicles. Streets will be narrower and emptier. Right now 98 percent of ground travel is done by car, 2 percent by transit. PTAs will make transit more desirable, and congestion will improve. You won't see any more five-car garages.

Car-sharing. It sounds like some kind of failed Soviet experiment. Yet scientists believe that combining large-scale car-sharing programs with a supercharged wireless network could someday form the basis of an entirely new transportation system — one that's more energy-efficient, less traffic-congested and more economical.

Cars cost a lot to maintain, and people end up paying for downtime when their autos are sitting in a garage. With car-sharing, drivers can borrow different sized cars depending on their driving needs, while paying less than they would to care for a car of their own. Car-sharing companies — which have already been successful in parts of Europe where parking is scarce and gas prices high — have sprung up in Seattle, Portland and Boston. But adoption has been slow. The problem is convenience. Who wants to have the family troop to a garage just to pick up a car for a quick run to mall?

The panacea: wireless technologies, says Dan Sperling, Ph.D., who runs the Institute of Transportation studies at the University of California at Davis. Sperling believes in a wireless network that's programmed to give consumers up-to-the-minute information about shared cars and other transportation options.

The network will transmit the locations and schedule their delivery. Honda Motor Co. recently seeded the New Mobility Center at U.C. Davis with $500,000 to further explore car-sharing. American Demographics' David Whelan recently spoke with Sperling to get a peek at the master plan.

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