German futurologist: Transition to sustainable mobility needs state intervention

"oday, it would already be possible to have fleets operate efficiently 24 hours a day, occupied 50% of the time, and be electrically powered. But it would be necessary to eliminate harmful subsidies such as the commuter allowance or diesel subsidies to kick-start such a process," Stephan Rammler told EURACTIV's partner Wirtschaftswoche. [Audrey Suslov/ Shutterstock]

In an interview with EURACTIV’s partner Wirtschaftswoche, Futurology and Transport Design Professor Stephan Rammler predicts the year 2019  may have been a historical turning point for the transport industry.

Stephan Rammler is the scientific director of the Institute for Future Studies and Technology Assessment and professor of transportation design at the Braunschweig University of Art. He researches sustainable, post-fossil mobility and questions of social and environmental policy. He also recently published his book “Volk ohne Wagen” (people without vehicles) in 2017.

Mr Rammler, I would like to start with a quote and ask you from when you think it dates back.

Go ahead.

“The combustion engine has a very unpleasant characteristic of emitting burnt gases, which is very unpleasant in a big city. The air at a traffic centre consists mainly of exhaust gases from cars. If you consider that traffic will increase about tenfold in the next few years, then you can understand the call for electric operation in the big city in terms of hygiene.”

This might have been written at the beginning of the 20th century, in Berlin, New York or any other large metropolis. It was there that we experienced a battle between two different drive options, the combustion engine and the electric motor. What appears to be almost forgotten these days is that the electric motor was widely used in the field of logistics and by taxi companies in Europe and the US. And we know how this battle ended.

The quote is from a 1927 edition of the Deutsche Volkswirt (an influential German newspaper that focused on politics and economy). Could futurologists have predicted the problems that the fossil-fuelled automobile industry would create back then?

Avoid futurologists who pretend to know what’s coming. There is no certainty. Our world is characterised by high volatility, contingency and technological, cultural and economic opening processes. Because of this uncertainty, we, as futurologists, should act very humbly.

So, why do we need futurologists at all?

We, futurologists, are needed to carry out technology impact assessments and generate orientation knowledge for a society in transition. We draw up possible scenarios and enable society to discuss possible future paths.

Back to the opening quotation: today’s arguments against the combustion engine were already being discussed 100 years ago. What can we deduce from this about the future of mobility?

It’s crazy that it sounds as if it had been said today, isn’t it?

The quote shows two things. There is no future without a provenance. Everything that we perceive as new and innovative meets a world that is already formatted by infrastructures, needs, spatial and settlement structures.

The world from which we think our future is shaped by a 100-year-long process of embedding fossil-based automobile technology, which has generated lobbies, tied up a great deal of capital to certain production facilities, irrevocably shaped the lives of people in both rural and urban areas, and caused lasting damage to our climate. Every future scenario must be based on this.

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And what else does it show?

It also shows that new things always have a hard time asserting themselves against what’s already established. The fact that the internal combustion engine is causing great damage to the climate is not something we have just found out about this year.

And the worsening of the climate effects after two hot summers is nothing that seems out of reach these days, but rather something visible to every European citizen. But collective learning is a limited resource. People are creatures of habit and have no great interest in change. This also applies to the way they shape mobility.

FDP leader Christian Lindner preaches that technical innovations would solve the problems and that considerable changes in our behaviour are not necessary at all.

That is complete nonsense. Technology is, first of all, neutral in its mode of operation. The question is always in which way a society appropriates technologies. Digital technologies, such as machine intelligence and machine learning, create opportunities for entirely new forms of trade, market economy and capitalism.

However, if we simply use these technologies to tread old paths, they act as a fire accelerator. Technical innovation alone does not create sustainability.

Artificial intelligence could at least control traffic more efficiently. Wouldn’t that be a step towards greater sustainability?

Since the early 2000s, politicians have been telling us that if we digitised everything, prosperity, sustainability and social justice would simply follow.

Such an assumption is fundamentally wrong. Even if we allowed artificial intelligence to regulate and optimise our traffic flow to ensure less congestion and reduced fuel use, it would still not be enough. Because the server farms needed to collect, tailor and interpret this data require a tremendous amount of energy.

Digitisation does not occur in a vacuum, there are prerequisites. Today, the energy for computing power is generated from fossil fuels. If we drive digitisation forward under the same basic conditions, the environmental impact will only increase.

What would sustainable transport look like in the future in your view?

Sustainable transport is not only sustainable in the ecological sense, but it must be socially just and economically successful. Otherwise, it is not assertive. Urban transport should be able to do without fossil fuels and be recyclable, i.e. the resources should be 100% recyclable for other products.

The cities would be more electrified and thus cleaner and quieter. Traffic would be less space-intensive. Collective transport, i.e. local and long-distance public transport services, should guarantee basic supply and be supplemented by shared mobility and electric mobility for the last miles.

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That still sounds very abstract. Could you be a bit more specific?

Cities like Vienna, Copenhagen, Zurich or Amsterdam offer a glimpse into the future of transport. There, an efficient public transport system forms the backbone of the transport infrastructure. These cities also already have a well-developed infrastructure for bicycles. We would have to supplement this with digitally networked cars or micro-mobility modules that guarantee flexibility.

These are cities. Surely, this would not work in rural areas?

With a lot of time and high basic investments, this would also work in rural and suburban areas. But the truth is that in some parts of Germany and the world, we cannot say goodbye to cars. For those parts, it is, therefore, necessary to design and use cars as efficiently and sustainably as possible.

How do you envisage this?

Today, cars are hardly ever used to full capacity and are stationary for 23 hours a day. That is insanely inefficient. Today, it would already be possible to have fleets operate efficiently 24 hours a day, occupied 50% of the time, and be electrically powered. But it would be necessary to eliminate harmful subsidies such as the commuter allowance or diesel subsidies to kick-start such a process.

In France, the gilets jaunes movement was ignited following the proposal of a similar project. 

That is why it is essential to create an offer first and provide people with behavioural alternatives to the internal combustion engine before we start charging higher prices or imposing bans.

We cannot just abandon citizens with the costs and problems. In terms of fairness in mobility, we cannot act as if everyone had the same living conditions and infrastructures at their disposal.

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So, you are advocating state intervention?

I believe that the individual is neither able to do so, nor does he or she have the inclination to do anything to change the world by changing private consumption. Private consumption offers scope for behaviour, but it is only limited.

The necessary transformation will not work without the state. A state must regulate society in such a way that it offers security and opens up future options. This worked very well in the days of Rhenish capitalism up to the 1970s, and we should be able to build on that again. We must recall the primacy of politics over business. No transformation is conceivable without a massive infrastructure and regulatory policy, without a major climate tax. The free market will not achieve this.

You have been dealing with climate issues and the future of mobility for 30 years. Doesn’t that sometimes give you pause for hope?

Of course, I am sceptical whether we will be successful in the transition. At the moment, it doesn’t look as if we will. But that does not mean that we should lose hope.

We must also consider that there has never been a more modern, efficient and technologically advanced world community than today. Our societies, with all their well-educated citizens, are prepared for collective action.

In this respect, 2019 could go down in history as a turning point in several ways.

In what way?

Through Greta Thunberg and the international group-building processes in the younger generation, we are experiencing something that I have long hoped for. Greta Thunberg and the team that supports her are doing an incredibly good job.

This is, of course, also the result of technological and cultural changes in recent years. How quickly information spreads around the world thanks to social media channels is something completely new and enables young people to form opinions in a global context.

At the same time, we are witnessing socially critical movements in many parts of the world, in Hong Kong, in Iran, in Venezuela.

There is an exchange between many of these movements. Today, information, positions and tactics fluctuate around the world. That is why I am more optimistic about change today, compared to last year.

Without the Fridays for Future movement, we would not have a Green New Deal at the European level and no debate regarding a climate package in Germany.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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