SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

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Cars, Car Sharing and the Future Pragmatic – SVA MA Design Research

John Cantwell

Cars, Car Sharing and the Future Pragmatic

If auto manufacturers were actually interested in helping the planet, they would make fewer cars. This will not happen so long as they rely primarily on an ownership-based business model.

At the end of 1985’s Back to the Future, Dr. Emmett Brown and Marty McFly blast to the future (of 2015) in their time-traveling Delorean, where flying cars are powered by do-it-yourself nuclear fusion kits and famously “don’t need…roads.” Sadly, most of our space-age fantasies about cars remain unrealized. Today’s car is still a terrestrial creature, surrounded by buildings, plants, animals and people, rumbling over deteriorating and clogged roadways, powered by increasingly scarce fuel. In many ways, today’s car is a beast at odds with the world around it.

In lieu of flying cars, then, we must consider more pragmatic ways of using vehicles. This presentation looks at one possible solution along these lines—the system of car sharing. Embodied most prominently today by companies such as ZipCar, car sharing systems aim to address many of the problems endemic to private automobiles. Car sharing can significantly reduce the number of vehicles needed to serve a population and make more efficient use of resources such as fuel, materials and space, yet requires new industrial, economic, and behavioral models to succeed.

Car sharing is not new. The first programs were being attempted as early as the 1940s, and by the mid-1970s there was a radical sharing program underway in Amsterdam called Witkar. The name Witkar (meaning “white car”) referred to both the system and the cars within it. The Witkars were three-wheeled electric vehicles built especially for the program. They reached a top speed of 20 mph and could recharge in just a few minutes. Amsterdam residents referred to the cars as “the flying bathtub” and “the top hat on wheels”; a Time article from 1974 described the Witkars as “a cross between a golf cart and a moon buggy.” If you saw one today, you might also think “Pope-mobile.” In the early years there were only 15 Witkars, and about 1,500 Witkar members. Each member paid the equivalent of $15 to join, and was given a magnetic key fob that unlocked the cars. When swiped, the magnetic key sent a signal to a computer that began billing the member’s account. Rides cost 3½ cents a minute.

Witkar was way ahead of its time.

The program was the brainchild of Luud Schimmelpennink, a designer and member of the short-lived Dutch anarchist group Provo. A progenitor of the hippie movement, Provo gained notoriety in the mid 1960s by provoking violent reactions from the Dutch police through nonviolent acts. One week Provo would distribute pamphlets explaining how to construct a bomb out of a pineapple (the instructions were useless); another they’d issue a press release stating that Queen Julianna had declared herself an anarchist and was actively transferring power to Provo.

The group also had serious ideas about transportation and urban planning. They believed cars were dangerous to people and the planet, that private vehicles had no purpose in dense urban areas, and proposed a series of sweeping reforms known as the White Plans. Some aspects of the White Plans were at once wacky and profound: the White Victims program proposed “that anyone who caused death by driving be made to carve their victim’s outline at the site of the accident and fill it with white cement thus creating a permanent warning to dangerous drivers.” Others began to have real influence in Amsterdam. The White Bike program was a forerunner to Witkar. Provo took 50 old bicycles, painted them white, and left them around the city, free for anyone to use. When city officials threatened to confiscate the bikes on the grounds that it was illegal to leave a bike unlocked, Provo chained up the bikes with combination locks and painted the combinations on the bikes. Suddenly, Amsterdam had a bike-sharing program.

Like Provo, however, Witkar could not last. The program ended in 1986. The problem was not a matter of political ideology, though – Amsterdam officially sponsored the program and for a time planned to expand the fleet to 1,500 vehicles. Luud Schimmelpennink even went on to become a city councilman.

The problem was the sharing model on which Witkar was based. Like the White Bike program, Witkar used a one-way sharing model. In a one-way sharing scheme, the driver picks up a vehicle in one location, drives it wherever they need to go, and then leaves the vehicle at the final destination. Theoretically, one-way sharing models are dynamic, the constant movement of vehicles creating a flowing network of cars throughout the city. Dan Sturges, president of the community mobility company Intrago, says that in a full-functioning one-way network, you become “like Tarzan swinging from vine to vine. Car share services are the vines.” This dynamic potential is surely what appealed to Schimmelpennink and the members of Provo.

Though Witkar was more regimented than the White Bike program—Witkars could only be driven from one station to another, so the cars could recharge, while the White Bikes could be ridden and dropped pretty much anywhere—the one-way model put tremendous stress on the Witkar system. By the end of the day, one Witkar station would be overflowing with cars, while another would be empty.

With bikes, the problem is easier to rectify: a program operator can collect the bikes in a truck and redistribute them at stations that need them. This is how the Vélib’ bike program in Paris currently redistributes its fleet. For obvious reasons, though, the redistribution process is more cumbersome with cars. Redistribution usually entails driving each vehicle back to an appropriate station—this is what happened with Witkar. This is problematic for two reasons: 1) having to needlessly drive the vehicles runs counter to the mission of an environmentally focused program like Witkar. 2) Any time the vehicles are being redistributed, they are effectively removed from the network, preventing members from using (and paying for) the service.

In the end, Witkar was perhaps too far ahead of its time.


Car sharing is still too small to pose any major financial threat to the auto industry. Even though ZipCar has a 50:1 member-to-car ratio, the scale at which car sharing operates is microscopic compared to the auto industry. ZipCar has a fleet of 5,500 cars. In 2008, General Motors sold about 22,000 vehicles a day.

Despite the predicted growth of car sharing, certain trends indicate that the auto industry has little reason for concern. Perhaps the most encouraging news from the manufacturer perspective is that Asia and the world’s emerging markets do not seem interested in car sharing. Last year, the biggest automotive development in India—and perhaps the world—was Tata’s Nano, a frills-free $2,000 mini car that for the first time makes private auto ownership a reality for millions of Indians. Brazil, flush with new cash, has seen auto sales skyrocket. There is only one CSO in Brazil currently, Zazcar, which launched in Sao Paolo in late 2009. In China, car sharing is actually illegal, considered a black market service. All of this is good news for the industry, which can chase new profits in these emerging markets while trying to stave off the effects of market saturation and declining sales in America and Europe.

So, engaging the emerging markets is one way manufacturers intend to grow sales. Another is by selling a new fleet of more fuel-efficient cars. The industry has big hopes for this idea. Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn recently stated that he expects 200 million electric vehicles to be on the road by the year 2040.

Such a development could be an environmental disaster.

You may ask: Isn’t this a good thing, trying to make money by selling cleaner cars? In one sense, yes, it is. There’s no denying the importance of increasing fuel economy and developing alternative fuels and powertrains. In another sense, however, it’s utterly illogical.

The first problem is that fuel consumption represents only a portion of cars’ total environmental impact. As of 2004, worldwide auto manufacture consumed 15 percent of the world’s steel, 40 percent of the world’s rubber and 25 percent of the world’s glass. The impact, of course, extends far beyond the manufacturing process itself. There is also the waste associated with maintaining, storing and shipping cars and their attendant aftermarket parts and accessories, not to mention the space and resources required by secondary service facilities like parking garages, gas stations and car washes.

The second problem is that the auto industry still predicates its business on the idea of individual ownership. The goal is to sell more cars to more people, to consistently put more vehicles on the road. In turn, the current push to develop and sell more fuel-efficient cars is inherently contradictory: Without a drastic overhaul of the systems of auto manufacture and distribution, a radical breakthrough in materials technology, or a diversified business strategy, the environmental burden of all this new production will diminish most potential benefits of a more fuel-efficient or emission-free generation of cars.

If auto manufacturers were actually interested in helping the planet, they would make fewer cars. This will not happen so long as they rely primarily on an ownership-based business model.

Some manufacturers are patently against service-based models like car sharing. The president of a German luxury manufacturer told me at this year’s Detroit Auto Show that his company would never engage a concept like car sharing because of the damage it might do to his company’s brand. “We wouldn’t want one person making a mess of one of our cars,” he said, “and then another person gets in and has a bad experience.”

Other manufacturers have been experimenting with the idea for some time. As early as 1994, Honda had deployed on its corporate campus in Japan a system called the Intelligent Community Vehicle Service (ICVS). ICVS featured a fleet of ultra-futuristic cars – cars that could park themselves, cars that drove themselves. Honda later launched ICVS pilot programs in California and Singapore that tested linkages between car sharing and public transit systems, and were the grounds for some of the first Honda electric-hybrids tested in the real world. Honda was also an investor in FlexCar, a Seattle-based car sharing company that was eventually bought out by ZipCar. Toyota was also experimenting with car sharing around the same time as Honda. The Toyota eCom program featured the Crayon, a soft, friendly electric car made with the intentions of sharing. That program, however, like ICVS, was never fully brought to market.

Different kinds of service-based models have also been proposed. At the 2010 Los Angeles auto show, Mazda presented an electric car concept called the Souga. In the Souga model, customers are charged a relatively low price for the car itself—around $2,000—and then billed monthly according to their power usage. It is the same idea as the business model used by cell phone companies—customers pay less for their phones than they are worth, and then the company recoups the money in future add-on services.

To be sure, there are legitimate barriers that manufacturers must consider before entering into car sharing. A company like Ford, for instance, which sells mostly lower-cost cars, might cannibalize some of its customer base by entering into car sharing. Another issue is that the manufacturers have to keep a lot of people happy. It was rumored at the time of the FlexCar deal that some Honda dealers felt they were being left out of the loop. Honda’s public stance was that its involvement with FlexCar helped put Hondas into the hands of new drivers, and would eventually lead to more sales.