5 questions for
We talk to Ross Douglas, founder and CEO of AUTONOMY, a company that hosts international events and platforms for the urban mobility industry, about his interesting career path and the challenge of convincing a car owner/motorist to switch to more sustainable mobility options.
Ross, you started as a guide in the Okavango Delta and a wildlife film-maker for National Geographic. These days you have become a strong believer in alternatives to car ownership and "autosolism". How come? Please explain your interesting life journey.
As a child I had a strong interest in nature and wildlife so not surprisingly after university I worked as a guide and later wrote for Africa Geographic and made wildlife documentaries. At that time, the big focus of environmentalists was trying to preserve large tracts of pristine wilderness from habitat destruction. In the early 2000s, I became interested in the bigger picture of the environment and how our lives impact ecosystems thousands of miles away. I read widely on global warming and what became obvious to me is the need to radically reduce our energy consumption if we are to have any hope of reducing climate change. One of the easiest ways to do this is to change the way we think about cars. Owning and driving 2 tons of vehicle to move 80kgs of human will never be sustainable.
You have been observing the mobility sector for a long time. How have you been experiencing the two years of the pandemic and has this changed your mobility behaviour? In your opinion: What are the chances for the post-pandemic mobility sector? And what are the obstacles?
The single biggest change I have witnessed in European cities is the rise of the bicycle and in particular the e-bike as a commuting tool. The streets of Paris, where I live, look different today because of the volume of cyclists and not any other forms of mobility. The other major trend is the growth of home delivery. Unfortunately many of the drivers are using cheap combustion mopeds for their deliveries that has radically increased the air and noise pollution in the city.
I think the pandemic has generally been good for the mobility sector as it has created the ability for people to meet physically or digitally. This flexibility can radically reduce the need for car ownership as workers spend 2 or 3 days per week working from home. The other big benefit is that there is no longer the need to arrive and leave work at the same time allowing public transit operators to have less capacity to accommodate the peaks.
Reducing emissions and therefore having less cars in a city is a noble goal. But sometimes you get hit by reality. For example: How can a family with two kids can be fully mobile without a car? Isn’t a car in the end necessary for transporting goods or for a vacation?
The problem with car ownership is that we buy a car for the weekends or holidays that we then use every day. So a car that is designed to do 180 km/h, crash at high speed, transport a family and luggage ends up being a 2 ton SUV that spends most of its time taking the driver to work at an average speed of 14kmh. This obviously does not make economic sense but it is a legacy from the days when car ownership did represent freedom. So there is nothing wrong with car ownership if you need a car to commute and carry kids every day. But if the commuter purchases a small light EV made with light composite materials that was built and designed to do 40km/h it would represent a massive environmental and financial saving. Those savings could then be spent on car rentals for the holidays.
If you described mobility in a perfect world, what would it look like in 10 years? What would it look like in 20 years from now on?
That depends on the lens you use. I always use the objective of reducing carbon emissions as I believe that global warming is our top priority. The unfortunate truth is that we are unable to scale up renewable energy fast enough to keep up with the growth in energy consumption so the “energy transition” is not really working. What we need to do is try and reduce energy consumption so that we can reduce the burning of fossil fuels and give renewable energy and nuclear (which has the lowest CO2 footprint) time to become the dominant energy source. What this means is that every trip would be optimised by applying the simple logic of how can I get from A to B using the least energy. A combustion car on a long drive is 4x more efficient when the driver sells 3 seats on BlaBlaCar and an e-bike is 20x more efficient than a Tesla. So instead of focusing only on replacing the hardware from combustion SUVs to Electric SUVs, we would change the behaviour so that commuters were conscious of how to move with the least impact.
You are founder and CEO of “AUTONOMY” – that includes an annual trade show in Paris which is specialized in showing alternatives modes of transportation. How can the show help in reaching these goals? What can the visitors expect?
Our focus at Autonomy is the transition from Motorist to Mobilist which is now a strong trend in European cities. Our event brings innovators and policy makers from all over the world to meet, discuss and build mobility solutions that can provide a better experience than car ownership. Many of these solutions include using motor cars on ride-hailing, car sharing or rental platforms. Once urban commuters have a strong ecosystem of alternatives they will replace car ownership for the freedom and joy of being truly Autonomous - the ability to move without owning a car.