Last week I spent 72 hours attending what I would describe as part revival meeting, part problem-solving lab. Actually, I should say labs and panels discussions and seminars, test drives of zero-emissions vehicles and displays showcasing all sorts of assorted cool things. We ran the gamut, from autonomous technologies and such to clever ideas for how to change thinking about moving from here to there, especially in increasingly crowded cities.
Yes, there I was in a steamy, late-spring Montreal. I was one of several thousand earnest dreamers and savvy realists at the Movin’On by Michelin conference. All of us were there in search of solutions that should preserve some semblance of safe and sustainable transportation and movement in a world gone a little mad.
Our little planet, which www.newgeography.com says has 37 stuffed megacities (and growing) that each are home to 10 million or more residents, is jammed with 7.6 billion people. The United Nations says that number could grow to 9.7 billion by 2050, and 11 billion by 2100.
We now have about a billion cars, SUVS (sport-utility vehicles) and other assorted light vehicles on the road today, notes, Scotiabank Global Economics. For easy reference, we’ll call all these light vehicles “cars.” On top of the massive number of cars, add in the heavy-duty rigs that move goods and dig trenches.
The “car” population will grow by 81.62 million this year. That represents annual sales that have more than doubled since the 1990s. All those cars and trucks…well, let’s say 98.6 per cent of them, burn fossil fuels and are by definition hurting the planet, almost certainly in a fatal way if we don’t change.
Still, the good news is that EVSales says that electric vehicles are on the rise. Global EV sales were up 93 per cent in April, year-on-year, but the actual number was rather modest – 128,000, for a market share of a paltry 1.4 per cent. Year-to-date EV sales are up 68 per cent, and 61 per cent off all EV sales in 2018 have been pure electric.
Sorry to throw out so many numbers, but they create perspective.
Those of us attending the second annual Movin’On by Michelin conference in La Belle Province were both encouraged and discouraged by the facts on the ground, but also enthusiastic about the possibilities for the future. Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in zero-emissions vehicles, though the maddening problem of securing “clean” sources of electricity remains.
As well, because all car companies lose money on every EV sold, none are willing to bring enough to market to meet what is clearly a combination of emerging and pent-up demand. If you want a Chevrolet Bolt EV in Canada, for instance, you’ll wait a year or more for delivery.
If you put down a deposit on a Tesla Model 3 – qualifying you as a true optimist – you might get your car in a year or three, once the waiting list is whittled down from 400,000 or so, at the rate of about 1,000-3,000 cars a week.
Speaking of optimists, however, I sat down with the incoming CEO of the Michelin Group, Florent Menegaux (he takes the reigns in 2019) and was startled by his candor and persuaded by his charm. Yes, it seems a bit odd that a tire company from France, even on more than 100 years old, would choose to sponsor and organize a giant, one-of-its-kind exposition on mobility problem-solving, but then he made the case and I was intrigued.
Efficient mobility is a sign of social and economic progress and a feature of developed societies. Traffic jams are a very real and also a metaphorical sign of stalling and stagnation. And so, in a world of megacities clogged with fossil-fuel-burning cars, we must, he says, “tackle the negative aspects of increased mobility.”
But why is this Michelin’s cause, I asked the slim and charming Menegaux, looking poised and patient in his grew suit and open-collar tailored white shirt.
Michelin, he told me, may be known around the world as a tire company, but it’s really been in the mobility business for 125 years – at least that’s the way Michelin frames itself. Michelin sees the Movin’On conference – the successor to the more sporadic Bibendum Challenge – as what happens when a forward-thinking global company includes long-range planning in its business plan, he told me.
The current “mobility arc,” as I’ll call it, is unsustainable. So “we’re trying to put all the stakeholders at the same table” to come up with viable, affordable, socially and economically successful answers, he told me. The long-range goal is the meet the 2050 goals in the Paris climate change accord, despite the idiocy of Donald Trump, who has announced the United States is pulling out from this voluntary agreement singed by every country in the world except the U.S. and Syria.
Michelin, he told me, has put itself in the centre of progress on the mobility front, making connections itself with cutting edge, thinkers and technological wizards, while also facilitating networks among all the various players and stakeholders in the world of mobility – from carmakers like PSA to so-called mobility “architects” like Finland’s Sampo Hietanen (MaaS Global) and Vancouver’s Sandra Phillips (movmi) who came to Canada’s West Coast from Switzerland with big ideas about how to get people moving from A to B using a full deck of resources – trains, buses, car sharing, bicycles and more.
Michelin makes tires, sure, says Menegaux, but not just car tires and it’s not selling them all in traditional ways. It’s aviation business leases tires to airlines and charges them per landing, which encourages longevity and durability in aviation rubber. Call it a kind of iTunes model for supplying tires in that the steady revenue stream discourages obsolescence. The better, safer, more durable its aircraft tires are, the more Michelin earns.
Menegaux also argues that Michelin, through its Guides and restaurant rankings, as well as having produced high-quality rubber for more than a century, enjoys a “trusted brand” status that gives it clout with consumers, politicians/regulators, academics and industry types. Hosting this gathering boosts the Michelin brand and builds relationships – and that’s good for business. It’s also the right thing to do in a planet increasingly choked and boiled by too much CO2 and even good old fashioned smog in developing countries with no real emissions rules.
The takeaway for me was that a lot of smart and well-meaning people are in the trenches tacking 21st century mobility problems. And don’t expect a single solution to fix everything. Sure, EVs are in the mix and here you will China is leading the way. Many European cities, and our own Vancouver, are at the bleeding edge of finding mixed-use transportation solutions that real people will buy into and actually support and use.
If you live in a big city or developed country, expect to be asked for funding to improve train and subway services, support car-sharing and offer tailored pick-up-and-delivery services for people with limited personal mobility – those who can’t ride bikes and walk to the bus or subway stop. You will see more solar panels on rooftops, more windmills in fields, ports and mountain tops and more initiatives to move from oil and coal to other ways of generating and storing electricity.
These things are more are on the way, as do-gooders and business people huddle to fix our megacity transportation problems before they, literally AND metaphorically, bring everything to a grinding halt – something Michelin’s Menegaux argues is most definitely terrible for business.