One of the more approachable topics discussed at the SAE World Congress this week (as opposed to, say, "CAE Simulation/Test Correlation and Optimization in Automotive Engineering." Not that there's anything wrong with that) was a talk by Philip Gott, director of automotive consulting at IHS Global Insight with the title "Is mobility as we know it sustainable?" Gott used IHS' deep resources to look at how the world will deal with the potential of 3.5 billion vehicles in 2035. If that's going to happen (and, if current trends continue, then it will), then the problems we see today with 800 million vehicles will be compounded like mad. What's the solution? There are many, but carsharing and smaller urban vehicles are two. Full details - and audio - after the jump. Oh, and he talks about the AirPod, too.

Here's the Problem

We previously heard some of Gott's predictions back in 2006, when he made bold claims (later dialed back) about the number of hybrids in the overall U.S. market by 2025. Gott has studied the automotive industry since 1975, and focuses, among other things, on ways the technical advantages can be used to "achieve targeted business results." At the SAE World Congress last week, Gott said that the automobile industry has not choice but to change in the coming decades. "Clearly, the current model of mobility is not sustainable," he said.

Why is this? Well, part of his work revolves around understanding what "mobility" means. Sure, it means getting around, but it also encompasses how we get around, and current models say that once per capita GDP hits $5,000 or so, the motorization of mobility begins in earnest. That's Data Point A. Combine that with Data Point B - that by 2035, every region of the world will be above the $5,000 per capita income on a PPP basis - and you can see that demand for motorized vehicles will soon be shooting through the roof. This is where the possibility of a world with 3.5 billion cars in it comes from. Perhaps you thought that Two Billion Cars was a lot.

How will we deal with billions more cars? If we have 3.5 billion vehicles in 2035, we'll need to reduce transport-related CO2 by a factor of more than 3.5 just to break even. Gott said that with the alternative powertrain technology options that people are working on today, we can cut fuel use by almost 50 percent and CO2 emissions by 40 percent. But, in Europe, for example, where diesels are common and some of the emissions numbers have already been dropped, there aren't as many options remaining to cut overall emissions. Biofuels can supply, at most, 15-30 percent of the global liquid fuel demand, and there is an assumption from some that their CO2 emissions are benign (something that is not yet decided). Fuel cells have promise, Gott said, but provide their own challenges. Also, since CO2 emissions are calculated when a vehicle is built - and many of the 800 million vehicles on the road today do not meet the emissions quality specifications that they had when they were new - we need dramatic changes in the way we get around.

Enter the PUMA

Gott said that "the future is in carsharing." Instead of having the do-everything vehicle, people will drive or ride in a car that is the right size for their need at the time. Today, Gott said, we purchase vehicles that are excessive for their most frequent missions. As roads fill up and emissions regulations tighten, more people will accept a truly small car (Tata Nano, Fiat 500, smart fortwo, GM's P.U.M.A.) as a way to drive, especially in cities. Some places - most notably the U.S., because of the long distances and the "natural evolution" of an infrastructure that supports the vehicle - will likely remain above the curve, while others - where legislation is in place to reduce the number of vehicles (Hong Kong, Singapore) will be below the curve. In many places, Gott said, there are already "weak signals" that change is coming. Have you heard someone say they are happy they've gotten rid of their cars? Then you've heard one of these weak signals.

What governments should do and people should push for, Gott said, are strong alternative mobility solutions: new bike lanes, promote buses, systems like Better Place, and "eMobiliy" (i.e., shopping from home and virtual travel) and the like. As these changes come into effect, Americans will, on average, drive one vehicle 12,000 miles a year instead of two vehicles 15,000 miles a year, he said.

With the smaller cars will come an increased worry about injury from accidents. We've certainly heard our share of this fear when we discuss the new city vehicles here on AutoblogGreen. Gott said the answer is to shift safety concerns from protecting people during and after a crash to accident avoidance. The good news is that this is already happening in some cases.

3.5 billion. Really?

If the whole idea of mobility shifts away from using an oversize car for every trip to one where many people recognize that owning a car does not define what it means to be mobile, then perhaps we won't hit 3.5 billion cars after all. In fact, Gott's 3.5 billion cars number is only going to happen if we place the same demand on vehicles in 2035 that we do today. This is unlikely to happen. Most cars sit still for 23 hours a day, for example. While, theoretically, that means that one car could replace 24 if we used car sharing in the most efficient way - the reality is that one car could probably replace 12 with reasonable carsharing methods, Gott said. This is just one way to give people the mobility they need without flooding the world with billions more vehicles.

One last thing

A vehicle Gott singled out for its unique contribution to the future automobile industry was the Airpod, coming at some point from MDI. There are a lot of things wrong the vehicle's design, he said, but did you know that the MDI plan is to produce cars regionally? Since the cars are made out of composites, the material can be shipped tightly packed in containers and built closer to the sales point, thus reducing shipping emissions and cost. This could be a, not the, model of the future, and it's just one of many changes that will define mobility for all of us in the future.

Listen to Gott's presentation by clicking play (36 min) or download the MP3 here:

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