IAA 2017
The hitchhiker's guide to a mobile future

“Volk ohne Wagen” (a people without a car) is the provocative title of a polemic by mobility researcher Stephan Rammler. What solutions does he actually have to offer for future mobility?
by Thomas Wagner | 9/14/2017

The diesel scandal, nitrogen oxides and looming bans on vehicles in German inner-cities – the topic of mobility is putting forth many a toxic bloom in the current German general election campaign. Stephan Rammler, who teaches Transportation Design & Social Sciences at Braunschweig University of Art (HBK), has been addressing questions and models relating to new forms of mobility for some time now. “Volk ohne Wagen” is the title of his latest book. Rammler presumably finds the provocative title with a ring of the Nazis’ phrase “Volk ohne Raum” (a people without space) about it, which they used to justify the war of conquest in Eastern Europe, original and amusing. At best though it displays a somewhat insensitive handling of history, something the “Volkswagen Fairytale” unfurled in the prolog confirms. 

What remains pivotal, nonetheless, is whether the “Polemic for a new mobility,” (the book’s subtitle) actually has any new, possibly trailblazing findings. Anybody who reads it has the problem of the transformation of current automotive and mobility policy explained to them in great detail. The line of argument is structured like a stop-and-go scenario in a slow-moving social process: Rammler first lets the topic (which in terms of diesel is already outdated) “pre-glow,” then moves on to “starting up,” before moving on, with a couple of pit stops in between, to alternative scenarios for future mobility.

One thing in particular seems irrefutable for Rammler: We are “currently witnessing the beginning of the end of mobility as we know it.” Which is why, he opines, we are at a decisive point in time: “After long evolutionary and continual development we are now experiencing a Kairos moment in automotive history, a situation brought to the point of crisis with the use of new, unknown technologies, the impact of which is for the most part unknown, but which could well open up new opportunities. Kairos moments are favorable points in time to fundamentally change something, possibly for the better.” For this reason, there is a need for curiosity, a willingness to go down new roads, and innovative ideas, he argues.

Rammler tries to sound out what it would mean technically, as well as politically and morally, were Germany of all places to do away with the car, the country that “invented, perfected, and made itself economically and emotionally dependent on it.” The author does not take it quite as dramatically as it sounds, however, even if he never tires of emphasizing the “the need for an accelerated automotive transformation.” As such, he discusses the political economy of the automobile, talks about the diesel scandal and major aspects of our consumption of resources just as much as, speculating, he reminds us of the interrupted electric mobility story, implores the end of the fossil age, laments the enormous amount of space automobility takes up and establishes a disastrous link between the oil industry and geopolitics.

For a polemic, however, what Rammler has to say is too abstract and far too rooted in the language of the administered world. Sweeping claims are repeated without any discriminating evidence, as are the sort of stereotypes circulating in everyday political statements. Time and time again good intentions are shrouded in sociological jargon surrounding the actual problems, be it a “resources cake, which stays the same,” politics “for those affected by politics” or a “minimum requirement profile.” 

Which leaves the “scenario mosaic” comprising three visions, sequenced according to the probability of their actually occurring, in which at the end of the book Rammler attempts to “highlight specific development options.” Scenario number one – “Drive on and accelerate” – turns out to be the widely known “expedited high-tech version involving networked, automated driving” by means of electromobility, digital networking, autonomous driving and a sharing economy. In the second, likewise politically moderate scenario – “Drive on and change the engine” – Rammler describes intermodally networked, electric-car-based mobility, which others, for example China, could easily outdo and in terms of development, simply skip. 

The third scenario – “Stop and change” – at least is more speculative. A society is depicted from the point of view of an eyewitness of the future and a fictitious company called “Mobility GmbH” as a “mobility broker,” in which the challenges of sustainable, resource-saving mobility have been overcome. Though the city finally comes into play here, Rammler’s vision of “networked, post-fossil mobility culminates in a “Copenhagenized Berlin” full of “bicycle highways,” in which there is smart parking-space management and half of all inner-city freight transport is done on two or three wheels. People live according to the maxim “use instead of own,” which avoids the build-up of traffic wherever possible. 

That is not really surprising either. Who is this “we” that keeps being mentioned in the review? Who are the agents of change? In his most far-reaching vision, Rammler champions a technocratic future, in which cycling individuals are reduced to a particle in the data stream, and people to an economic factor. “In 2040,” we read, “new digital democracy will entail what in comparison ... is only a very limited need to use space.” The fact that mobility is far more than getting from A to B efficiently, and is perceived differently, is omitted. Nor does Rammler have anything but the efficient use of space in mind when he forecasts “autonomous logistics drones” and dreams of “tele-commuting,” for which he comes up with “beamer balls” in which people work at home two or three days a week – allegedly with beneficial consequences such as the conversion of commercial space into residential and larger homes for everyone. Enjoyment of travel? Profit interests? Social contacts? Surprising experiences? None of that exists in this brave new world. Ultimately, almost all considerations and scenarios culminate once again technocratically in an “enormous increase in usage efficiency.” 

It goes without saying that the path to an emission-free mobility mix suitable for everyday use will be stony. However, just how quickly and successfully meaningful changes can be initiated is proving to be less a question of whether they can, and more of how; after all, not only do existing technical, economic, and political structures have to be altered – what must also change is a mobility culture that has been practiced for around 100 years, with all its attractions, promises, sensations and business models. The sort of purely functional and seemingly ideal scenarios Rammler comes up with are only of limited help in the search for consistent and attractive visions of the future. Giving future mobility a digital or green, alternative look, without touching on the mental and habitual fundamentals, is certainly no solution to the problem, especially as Rammler’s scenarios are rooted in the social and economic system whose powers of inertia he criticizes. Where will so disconnected an increase in performance actually lead? Who does it benefit, and who does it hurt? Who gains advantage from it? The anonymous abstract “we,” to whom individuals have to subordinate themselves in visions of this nature, will hardly be able to get the job done by means of an increase in efficiency and a moral plea based on the ethics of responsibility.

Stephan Rammler
Volk ohne Wagen
Streitschrift für eine neue Mobilität

Fischer Taschenbuchverlag, (Frankfurt/Main, 2017)
191 pages, paperback,
ISBN 978-3-596-29862-4
EUR 10