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Sustainable mobility for the world’s poorest people

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

Dr. Chris Borroni-Bird VP, Strategic Development, Qualcomm

Mobility improves quality of life by providing access to people, places and experiences. It also enables economic advancement by providing access to goods and markets. These are considered self-evident truths here in the developed world but can mobility also transform quality of life and economic development for the world’s poorest people, such as rural Africans?

Imagine a solar-powered EV service that is operated and maintained by a village entrepreneur. This could address the need for many women to individually walk to collect wood from the forest (or to collect water from a well) and provide time for education or to make goods that generate income. High insolation loads in Africa can permit a low speed, lightweight vehicle to travel daily between adjacent villages. This could facilitate access to fertilizer distribution centers, to markets for crops and crafts, and to healthcare that may not exist in the village. The business is funded from users as it enables them to sell their goods. It may also be financed by government education subsidies for women and children. When not providing mobility, it could be the village’s power source for pumping water, grinding grain and charging cellphones.

Rural African villages are typically car free. Because this solar-powered EV does not need to co-exist with cars it can be made inexpensively from local, renewable materials. Long-term, this vehicle can generate a domestic manufacturing industry and eliminate reliance on foreign oil. An African company (either a “domestic” manufacturer or a foreign company with strong African business interests) could manufacture the “skateboard”, comprising frame, wheels, tires, brakes, steering and battery electric propulsion systems, in order to ensure quality control and economies of scale across the African continent. The “coaches” (comprising body, seats, storage, solar roof) can be customized locally, based on each village’s unique needs and materials availability.

This type of vehicle could “steer” rural mobility in poor regions along a path very different from what happens today. Instead of importing relatively few and expensive 1500 kg cars that were designed for affluent societies, the world’s poorest communities can develop their own affordable lightweight, renewable vehicles that are safe for all road users because they operate in isolation from cars.

As automakers develop autonomous vehicles and cities consider car-free zones a similar solution (small, shared, short range EVs that do not have to meet crash safety standards) may also proliferate in the developed world. Imagine cities all around the world that design and build their own vehicles and then use them to provide door-to-door sustainable mobility for all their people. If this model is proved out first in rural African villages it will set an important example of Africa leapfrogging the developed world!

Dr. Chris Borroni-Bird Dr Borroni-Bird was previously GM’s Director of Advanced Technology Vehicle Concepts and co-author with Dr. Larry Burns and the late Prof. Bill Mitchell of "Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century", published by MIT Press (2010). He has also performed volunteer work in rural villages in West Africa

This blog post represents the personal views of Dr. Chris Borroni-Bird and not those of Qualcomm.

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