Article by Michael Bettencourt, photos by Michael Bettencourt and courtesy Michelin Challenge Bibendum

Chengdu, China – If modern 20th century society was shaped around the car, with the growth of roads, suburbs, highways and rush hours, the next century will see the car shaped around cities, with smaller cars, more emissions-free cars, and more automated vehicles in cities that won’t even be cars, or at least cars as we recognize them today.

That’s the future of driving in cities, where 60 percent of the world’s population will live by 2025, concluded Sarwant Singh, the automotive and transportation director of consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, and author of the widely cited book New Mega Trends. His presentation in Chengdu, China to auto execs, suppliers, media and government figures helped kick off the 12th edition of the Michelin Challenge Bibendum, a global symposium on the future of sustainable mobility put on by the tire giant that attracted about 5,000 delegates from all around the world.

What makes this large gathering of global delegates unique is that many of them aren’t in the car business at all, but have been identified as leading experts in technology businesses, infrastructure, finance or policy that will help shape how we all get around our cities in the future, whether in our own car, someone else’s (with the rise of car sharing services) or not at all.

Michael Fahl, a director for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) said that with 14 million people, the city of Chengdu is expected to grow to a population of 20 million within six years. “You can’t just add a million cars per year to any city and expect it to function.” The same concept goes for any large city, he said, even at lower overall numbers – there’s relative congestion everywhere.

A divergent set of experts such as these were also involved with Michelin for a year before the event, as the company researched the Green Paper which it released in Chengdu, which identified five game-changing issues that need to be addressed to ensure global sustainable mobility: urban health, global temperature rise, congestion, inclusive mobility and private funding for transportation infrastructure.

Some solutions to these key issues found in the Green Paper won’t be universally welcomed by automakers or other key industry players, predicted Jean-Dominique Senard, Michelin’s CEO, as it calls for ambitious carbon dioxide reduction targets, as well as the establishment of ultra-low emissions zones in cities, among other measures.

“Though some believe sustainable mobility is a threat to economic activity, we believe it’s necessary for progress,” said Senard. “I don’t know of any government that can ignore this book, and I’m sure it will be in many government hands by the conference in Paris next year (successor UN’s Kyoto climate change conference), and likely before that as well.”

Michelin Challenge BibendumUrbanization PresentationRenault Twizy
Michelin Challenge Bibendum in Chengdu, Presentation on Urbanization, Renault Twizy. Click image to enlarge

So how will those targets affect what we’ll be driving in the immediate future? In North America, lower carbon dioxide (CO2) targets for consumer vehicles have already been confirmed in the form of increasingly stringent fuel efficiency standards that ramps up greatly between 2017 and 2025, and which includes recently adopted measures to ensure that pickup trucks and SUVs become proportionally more efficient as well – big thirsty trucks can no longer depend on other more fuel efficient cars in the lineup to boost up any firm’s overall average. Witness the aluminum-bodied 2015 Ford F-150 pickup truck, introduced a year after the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel, which averages very close to V6 full-size sedan numbers: both radical advancements in a class not known for pushing technical boundaries. They won’t be the last.

Zero emissions mandates we’ve seen adopted in California and seven other states – and currently being considered by the province of Quebec as well – will increase the number and proportion of plug-in hybrid, battery-electric and (perhaps) fuel cell electrics offered in this country.

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