Why isn’t Mobility as a Service Circular?


Why isn’t Mobility as a Service Circular?

By John Routledge
Designer, artist, engineer and stuff, writing about design, sustainability and future mobility. Opinions are my own.

Article published originally on Propelling Mobility Forward, Movin’On’s Medium Page.

The move to electric drivetrains and renewable energy to power them is important, but what happens when we reach the goal of running all vehicles on electricity? This alone won’t ‘fix’ the environment, and unfortunately this alone also won’t ‘solve’ all the environmental issues associated with mobility and transport. There is more to do, we should not focus solely on electrification, and we should start thinking about the other problems now.

Perhaps the biggest environmental issue after emissions is material usage. All the vehicles we make use large amounts of materials, including many rare and exotic ones. These materials are not an infinite resource, in fact the United States Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute states that shortages of some materials used in many vehicles (especially new electric ones) “may develop within a few years.”(1) We need to start using materials in loops, or cycles, constantly reusing material over and over again to make, new, different, better things. To do this effectively we need to redesign products, processes and businesses.

Many businesses across a range of industries have already started using methodologies like Cradle-to-Cradle (2) to help them develop products and services that facilitate a circular economy framework (as opposed to the linear economy we have now). As part of this, many companies are adopting service based business models to ensure effective material flows. Rather than selling their product (which has been redesigned to be easier to deconstruct and properly recycle), the product is shared with the user and taken back when it is no longer useful, the material can then be reclaimed and reused. Many people think that the future of mobility is going to take the form of a service too, but the discourse around the sustainability of Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is focused on using electric vehicles and better asset utilisation. So why are we not already talking about MaaS being circular?

The reason we’re not talking about it is because mobility services so far have not been designed to be circular. Vehicles are complicated to make as there is still a complicated supply chain between manufacturer and user, and the companies that make vehicles are not used to thinking this way. This process needs to change. We are on the verge of a paradigm shift in the mobility sector- the transition to CASE (Connected, Autonomous, Shared, Electric) vehicles is already beginning and we need to already be thinking of redesigning vehicles and how to use them.

So while we’re thinking about redesigning how mobility will work in the future, let’s ensure that we input circularity into these new concepts- let’s make it a truly integral part of MaaS. Let’s work with new and old companies and suppliers to ensure that we redesign components, systems, and products that are easier to disassemble. This will allow us to extract as much valuable material from them as possible; it will be challenging, but the improved awareness of circular economy along with the environmental and financial benefits will be worth it.

The transition is coming, the changes taking place over the next two decades will be the biggest changes to occur in the mobility space in the past one hundred years. Now is the time to make circular thinking an integral part of the way we develop this future, to ensure that future mobility solutions have a positive impact on the environment as well as on the people.

(1) See CMI status update here: https://cmi.ameslab.gov/materials/rare-earths-and-critical-materials-status-update — “Rare earth supplies currently meet global demand, but demand is projected to rise steadily with increasing electrification of the world’s economy, and shortages may develop within a few years.”

(2) A brief description of the Cradle-to-Cradle methodology can be found here: https://www.mcdonough.com/cradle-to-cradle/ or you can find out more by reading the book: ‘Cradle-to-Cradle: Rethinking the way we make things’ by William McDonough and Michael Braungart