Good morning. First off, I would like to thank Ramen and the SAE Team as well as Toyota for inviting me here this morning. I’m Alisyn Malek. I’m the Executive Director of the Coalition For Reimagined Mobility. I’ve been many things in my career, including an automotive engineer. So really excited to be back here at World Congress and speaking with you all this morning. Six years ago, the Detroit Free Press published a story I still think about often. The headline was “Heart and Sole.” That’s sole spelled S-O-L-E. It was about a 56 year old black man named James Robertson who walked 21 miles each day to and from the engineering plant where he worked. Why? Because the vast majority of his commute lacked any public transportation whatsoever. The conclusion of the story, a heartwarming one, as the media and readers saw it, was that the community raised money to buy James a 2015 red Ford Taurus.
Obviously, generosity is a good thing, but I’ve always found this story a bit troubling because the problem that people wanted to help solve was that a man lacked a car, not that a major American city lacked functional public transit. Maybe that isn’t surprising here in the Motor City, but you’d likely see a similar response anywhere. In the ’60s and ’70s, two Israeli psychologists named Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman conducted a series of groundbreaking studies on the human mind and they found that people suffer from a broad set of cognitive biases that make us act and think irrationally in somewhat predictable ways. One of these is anchoring bias. It’s when an individual’s judgment relies too heavily on the first piece of information that they encounter on a topic.
Now, quick, with a show of hands, how many of you have ever bought or rented a home working with an agent? Anybody? All right, good. I was worried you all live under a bridge, but we got some good data points. When you’re looking for a home and you’re working with that agent, for example, they probably showed you the most expensive listing first that pre-conditioned you to think that all of the homes in the area were expensive and potentially pay more in the end, both in rent and in your agent’s commission. In the transportation world, cars are our anchoring bias, the family car is the first mode of transportation that a lot of us as children experience. So cars are what transportation decision makers default to when thinking about how people travel.
Around the world, but especially here in America, I’m sorry to say it, but we have a terrible case of car bias and it’s led us to make too many bad choices, choices that don’t make sense if your goal is to build the best transportation system for a given community, or even just to get people quickly and cheaply from points A to B. And this is coming from a former automotive engineer at an engineering conference. I get it. The car bias though has forced us and led us to put the car before the trip. I want to give one personal example. My family has been a natural experiment in the far reaching effects of this car bias. My husband’s grandmother, Flo, lives in Westland. Some of you may be familiar with it. It’s a first string suburb here of Detroit.
It has a dedicated bus system for senior citizens and for those that are handicapped. It allowed Flo to stay in her home, take care of her healthcare, make it to doctor’s appointments, socialize with her friends at her bowling league, and do all of these things well past retirement. In contrast, my own grandmother, Alice, lived in Yale, Michigan, a rural community up in the thumb with a population below 2,000 people, and basically no way to get around except for cars. Though Alice was about the same age as Flo and in roughly the same health, Alice could really not visit doctor specialists. That was a really long trip. She couldn’t really make it to the grocery store. All of these things had to be done with driving, and that became much harder with age. Eventually, she had to move near my aunt in Saginaw.
For the elderly such late in life uprooting takes a huge toll on them as we think about both their physical and emotional wellbeing. Not to mention the strain that in this case it plays on my aunt. My grandmother’s story is a prime example of what I tend to call the first order effect of a car bias. In many places, if you can’t afford your own vehicle, you’re essentially deprived of the freedom of movement, which isn’t just a convenience. It’s such a fundamental right that the United Nations included it in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Let’s pause for a second. All of you are here because you work in the automotive industry. We all work on automotive and transportation and our work, your work directly impacts people’s experiences with a fundamental human right. That’s huge.
As we think about this, there are also second order effects that we have to consider, especially the broader societal effects of car bias. Cars have already reshaped the landscapes we call home. Highways have been cut through residential centers. We have I-375 heading straight towards this conference facility that went right through a historical neighborhood and now we’re actually looking at paving it back over. Furthermore, the exhaust from the millions of vehicles on the road makes the air in our neighborhoods noxious to breathe, and defaulting to roads has created urban sprawl. Perhaps the most overlooked and yet most terrible impacts of car bias are on public health. For example, traffic related pollution may impact pregnancy outcomes and child development, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Additionally, studies have shown that well connected public transportation is directly related to better maternal and infant health outcomes. It helps explain why disparities in transportation access have contributed to disparities in health. In Ohio. For instance, the mortality rate for Black babies is three times higher than that for White babies in part because majority of Black communities are more likely to have inadequate transportation. Our work here matters. In Ohio’s major cities, only about a third of jobs are accessible by a public transit and it can take residents up to an hour to reach hospitals by bus. So let’s think about that. You got to get to work on a bus and then you have a doctor’s appointment. You got to take an hour to get to the doctor’s appointment.
And how many of you are parents? Anybody? So you’ve dealt with some prenatal appointments. Hopefully, they take 15 minutes, sometimes it’s an hour, and then you’ve got an hour bus ride back to get back to work, and then you’ve got to get transit back to home at the end of the day. That’s really hard, if not impossible. And because of this, countless women of childbearing age find it hard to access doctors, jobs, schools, and other support systems. So their children suffer and sometimes even die. So what’s the solution here? Well, don’t worry, it’s not banning cars. It’s not tearing up roads. It’s not further bankrupting the highway trust fund. I will admit that cars are not the enemy. But what I’m proposing here is that our system cannot default to cars as the first and only option because a transportation system that is built for cars is often built at the expense of people.
For my money, one of this century’s best transportation insights comes from the former Mayor of Bogota, Columbia, a man named Enrique Peñalosa, and he said, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s a place where the rich use public transportation.” And this perfectly encapsulates what we need in America and around the world, a system where everyone, regardless of income, ability, or location has at least two ways to get where they need to go in a reasonable amount of time, and at least one of those options is not a private car. It might include subway, a bike share, light rail, or even an autonomous shared vehicle. There are dozens of possibilities. This is a major part of our work at the Coalition For Reimagined Mobility. But one of the big questions that my organization and we should all be asking ourselves is, how can we actually build that system?
That’s going to be the work of generations. It took us a while to get here, but everyone in the automotive and transportation industry today needs to take their own first steps. For our policy makers and city planners, the first step is probably to take a step back. Our cost benefit analyses have to look beyond the bottom line. Anyone can tally up the cost of building materials and labor. It’s less obvious, but more important to factor in the costs like those that I talked about in terms of the Ohio study earlier. It’s the cost of not expanding transportation on mothers and babies, on chronic disease, on access to jobs in schools, and mortality. For everybody in here, most of us are working in the private sector. Maybe you’re a product manager at a transportation startup or even an engineer at a 100 year old company like Ford.
We all need to think about what inclusive transportation options should look like in our particular communities. In India, that might mean paying special attention to gender and safety issues for women on public transit. In the United States, it might entail pushing for policy changes. We have a good starting point in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Innovation Principles, which were released by Secretary Buttigieg this year. They strike a great balance between encouraging experimentation and increasing equity. All of us have to go above and beyond to make sure that non-car options are both attractive and safe. No one is going to use a bike share if there aren’t safe bike lanes or choose to walk if there’s no consistent sidewalk.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t add a discussion about technology. Sidewalks and bike share are old. I acknowledge that. We’re not living in the 1890s. We have a lot more tools to play with. I know we can’t give a speech today about automotive and transportation without talking about autonomous vehicles. In 2017, I myself founded a startup that brought autonomous shuttles right here to Michigan. So I strongly believe that AVs and other technologies have a key role in our transportation future. And when it comes to AVs and these other technologies, an acronym that many of you are probably familiar with is CASE or ACES, this idea of connected autonomous shared and electric transportation. And we must be ready to take advantage of all of the opportunities that are wrapped up in this CASE enabling technology. There’s going to be a great panel after this so please stick around because you’ll hear about many of those opportunities.
To dive into some detail, connectivity, for instance, can help us get better information on how people travel and help us plan people’s trips more efficiently and provide more safety to their transportation. Autonomy can help those who can’t drive themselves. It could be great for my elderly grandmother, it could be great for those who are blind, and being able to leverage these other advancements in self-driving vehicles can increase safety on our roads. Electrification can help clean up tailpipe emissions and make a huge dent in cars’ pollution footprints while also making transportation more resilient overall by utilizing more diverse energy inputs, including wind and solar. But the S in CASE I think is the trickiest and is currently most mobility professionals’ blind spot, and it’s a huge missed opportunity because the S for shared transportation, that type of transportation can fundamentally change the economic model of transportation all together.
It can help us use cars and other finite resources far more efficiently. Sharing is also a huge opportunity for providing a wider variety of mobility options to everyone. But if we really want to add that S back into CASE, the auto industry in particular needs to make shareability into a specific priority. From how we design access to vehicles to the connectivity processes that allow people to hail them, there are countless little product decisions that can go a long way towards creating a better shared mobility experience. When we think about these new technologies, we do have to be careful. They can also perpetuate or exacerbate existing transportation inequities. For instance, when we think about food delivery autonomous vehicles, they could help people in food deserts access healthy food. That is a good thing, but they won’t be able to do that if they only work for people that have credit cards and smartphones, because most people in food deserts don’t have access to even those types of technology.
It’s really critical that these types of lived experiences are part of the design process and that we’re able to bring these perspectives and variety of backgrounds into the entire product design process for both hardware and software. No one appreciates what cars have done for America and for Americans more than the people of Detroit. We were once at the forefront of imagining just how personalized, convenient, and fun cars and mobility could be. And today we can be at the forefront of figuring out a new cooperative and socially beneficial role for cars in part by leveraging a wider set of perspectives as we think about our future solutions. In other words, we can work on creating a world not for cars, but a world with cars. So I’d like to thank you all for your time this morning. I will be in the Expo Hall at 10 o’clock. I did write a book on just this subject, Working With SAE, so please stop by if you want to learn more. You can get a copy and I’m happy to answer questions then, if any came up. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.