Digital Nexus of Post-Automobility

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Report: Dennis, Urry (2007) ‘The Digital Nexus of Post-Automobility’, published by the Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YL, UK,


"Rapid dynamic changes in several key areas are transforming the physical geography of global regions as well as their interrelations. In this Report we set out a list of processes that we consider pose significant influence upon future mobilities, lifestyles, and social relations. We identify these as global climate change; global security and the ‘War on Terror’; digital technologies and pervasive computing; and the rise in complexity thinking. This Report demonstrates how their possible combination and synthesis could impact upon mobility trends within technologically developed regions, specifically upon automobilities. Taken individually they pose significant impact; taken together they have the momentum, power, and potential to create major shifts in how socio-technical mobilities are framed. By taking automobilities, and their transformation, as the focus we outline how we conceive a possible shift occurring that would take individualised automobility use from a series to a nexus system, particularly one framed within physical/digital networks. Principally we frame these dynamic systemic changes as shifting the car system from being autonomous to becoming post-car automation. This transition would take place within a parallel shift towards increased digitisation of physical movement whereby coded environments and software-sorting systems would frame such future mobilities."


"In this Report we specifically focus upon the ‘system’ of automobility. In particular, we frame automobility within a cluster of rapid dynamic changes in several key areas that are now transforming geo-physical relations, systems, and policies worldwide. Our central thesis is that these dynamic systemic changes may shift present car automobilities into a post-automobility system in a manner that will transform the car from autonomous to post-car automation.

In this Report the argument is set out in four chapters. Chapter One – Global Systems & Vulnerabilities – establishes the various influential processes and frames how they comprise dynamic and multiple shifts that may affect each other in a systemic manner. Chapter Two – Auto-Assemblages – examines the car system as a hybrid assemblage and outlines the principle processes that may produce a potentially new automobility assemblage, a post-car system. Chapter Three – A Digital Nexus – goes into more detail as to how we envision the ‘car’ assemblage shifting from a series to a nexus. This principally involves intelligent transport systems and related digital developments becoming embedded within networked infrastructures. Finally, Chapter Four – Post-Automobilities – engages with social implications and examines a range of social scenarios that may be necessary for a shift to a post-automobility ‘system’."


"Transport policies for the future are shifting towards providing capacity, safety, security, and data basing. This can be achieved through intelligent network infrastructures that interact with road vehicles and their users. Whilst this may appear as leading down the road to a ‘control society’, it may be an unintended outcome of how these technologies have become enmeshed within social practices. It is presently unclear whether these digital technologies will be used for benefit and gain or as part of clandestine and covert strategies.

Thus, car mobilities may become transformed from a series, or sequential platform that is only loosely connected to a social fabric of people, objects, environments, information, and mobility, into a nexus. This nexus will construct automobility futures into complex assemblages of networked structures, both natural and digital, that will combine individualised and social components into a multiplexing arrangement of interconnectivity and embodied movements. We refer to this as a transition to the digital nexus of post-automobility."



"‘Automobility’ is a hybrid assemblage, of humans (drivers, passengers, pedestrians) as well as machines, roads, buildings, signs and entire cultures of mobility with which it is intertwined (Thrift 1996: 282-84). What is key is not the ‘car’ as such but the system of these fluid interconnections since: ‘a car is not a car because of its physicality but because systems of provision and categories of things are “materialized” in a stable form’ that then we might say possesses very distinct affordances (Slater 2001: 6). It is necessary in any consideration of future automobility to frame this discourse within a ‘system assemblage’; a web of material interactions and networks that position the possibility for movement and constitutes an embedded environment that hosts the user. Whilst automobility is a system in which everyone is coerced into an intense flexibility, it also enforces certain relationships of dependence within the temporal, spatial, and geo-physical constraints that it itself generates."

Car to Car Swarming Systems

"These vehicle communication and safety technologies seek to extend beyond the individual car unit to connect with other ‘cars’ in the immediate vicinity, in a car-to-car communication network that forms a nexus that transcends the present car series system. Rather than cars operating in Euclidian geometry, a pre-complexity approach, non-Euclidean mobile spaces will be opened up through networked communications operating in real-time between cars in transit, similar to swarm behaviour. Swarm Intelligence and Traffic Safety , a project under development at CalTech by Yizhen Zhang and Alcherio Martinoli, is based upon complexity notions of how natural systems aggregate . The aim of such safety technology is to take some degree of autonomy away from the driver so that response-reaction times can be quickened under such automation. In other words, the cars take on some of the responsibility in communicating their presence to other cars similarly to how people signal their presence to others within a social context. A new development by a German research project envisions a peer-to-peer network for vehicles on a road passing data back and forth (Ward, 2007). Likewise, the ‘Car 2 Car Communication Consortium’ is a non-profit organisation set-up by several European vehicle manufacturers for researching and developing road traffic safety by means of inter-vehicle communications. Already ‘Audi, BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen have formed the Car-2-Car Communications Consortium to seek consensus on standards for dedicated short range communication (DSRC) communication’ (Bell 2006: 148)."



De-privatisating the car:


"New ‘smart’ technologies are enabling how people can flexibly share, schedule, and access de-privatised cars being offered by the rise in car-sharing car clubs. The offer of flexibility within the increasing need for sustainable practices encourages the demand for urban car-sharing schemes. Already there are significant moves to de-privatise cars through car-sharing, cooperative car clubs and smart car-hire schemes (see inter alia Hawken, Lovins and Lovins 2002; Motavalli 2000). Even by 2001 six hundred cities in Europe had developed car-sharing schemes involving 50,000 people (Cervero 2001); prototype examples developed in La Rochelle (Liselec), in northern California, Berlin, and Japan (Motavalli 2000: 233). In Oxford there is the UK’s first hire by the hour car club scheme named Avis CARvenience. There are various other car clubs such as CityCarClub, Car Plus and Carshare. Two US car sharing companies are Flexcar and Zipcar, yet in the United States it is estimated that there are just over 1,000 shared cars in all (Rosenthal, 2007). One of the largest single companies, Mobility, is well-placed within Switzerland, and currently has 60,000 members and 2,400 cars, whilst in the Netherlands Greenwheels is experiencing increasing popularity. Car-sharing clubs usually involve smart-card technology to book and pay, with flat monthly fees and a pay-as-you-drive costing. The ease and flexibility to book a car on the (mobile) Internet will be attractive to many potential users.

In the past few years car-sharing has also become more significant in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands, where it has been commercialized by a small number of companies (Rosenthal, 2007). As urbanised centres face increasing residential parking problems, as well as congestion, cities in Europe, North America, and Asia - from Singapore to Turin to Minneapolis - are turning to car-sharing practices on a commercial scale. In January 2007 the European Union held a conference in Brussels to promote car sharing. The Report stated that ‘We see a big potential for European cities’, estimating that ‘at least 500,000 private vehicles could be replaced in Europe by car sharing’ (Rosenthal, 2007).

More unique and customised forms of participatory car services are also appearing due to the use of Internet capabilities. One of these in the UK is ‘Peasy – Car Parking Made Easy’ which is an online site for people to book – or offer – car parking space within the United Kingdom. Peasy’s mission statement is ‘to provide a platform to enable people to travel to locations more efficiently and easily through enabling the spread of information and utilising underused resources’ . This type of scheme works similar to an online marketplace where people can also offer their own parking spaces for strangers to use and can enter negotiations over price based on short-medium-long term requirements. Peasy also advertise that ‘Homeowners can also sign up and offer their underused driveway, garage or secure parking space for rent, thereby earning a significant additional monthly income’ . Such services make it easy for people to participate in distributed schemes and certainly make for an attractive financial incentive.

A similar online service is currently being offered for residents of New York City (soon to be expanded to Brooklyn and Boston) through Hitchsters . is an online service that connects travellers so they can share taxis and split the cost to and from a local airport. The site claims that ‘In many places taxis are the most convenient form of transportation between metropolitan centers and airports, but they are expensive, too. The matching system (patent pending) makes riding in a taxi more affordable, more environmentally friendly and more fun’ . Hitchsters allows prospective taxi-sharers to look-up a co-rider on an online notice board or to leave their information. As soon as a share becomes available the person is contacted by both a text message to their mobile phone as well as an email giving first name and mobile number of the co-rider to contact. As an added security the company states that it preserves the phone number of all successful matches in case of disagreements. Gender specific co-riders can also be specified.

It is developments in these areas of innovative de-privatisation schemes and organisational technologies that, we argue, may likely form a more visible addition to car mobilities and which will be significant for how auto-networks are constructed within a post-automobility scenario. Also, such schemes are not only restricted to urban areas. For example, in the UK in rural areas car-club schemes have been initiated by The Countryside Agency in order to mobilise community members whilst reducing private car use and ownership (Countryside-Agency, 2004). Such car-clubs have been established in Cornwall, Devon, Wiltshire, West/North Yorkshire between 2002 and 2004.

These developments reflect the general shift in contemporary economies from what Rifkin terms ‘ownership to access’ as reflected by the delivery of many services on the Internet (2000). This could potentially favour the increasing payment for ‘access’ to travel/mobility services rather than the owning of vehicles outright. One important consequence is that if cars are not domestically owned then the coops or corporations providing ‘car services’ would undertake both the short-term parking and especially the long term disposal of ‘dead’ vehicles. The former would significantly reduce the scale of car parking needed since vehicles would be more ‘on the road’, while the latter would radically improve recycling rates (as demonstrated in Hawken, Lovins and Lovins 2002). Overall with improved digital management and securities it is possible to propose within post-automobilities a notable shift from cars as owned and driven by individuals, to de-privatised vehicles owned either by cooperatives or corporations and ‘leased’. This change may itself be reflected within newly emerging transport policies. Car drivers who retain the use of their private car for urban journeys are likely to be impacted by how digital systems will individualise their movements and costs.

There is little doubt that transformations in the transport sector are seen as being urgently required. A constant flow of governmental reports in most societies demonstrates this. Re-structuring future mobility forms are high on various policy agendas and are part of a potential post-car assemblage."



"The development in car-sharing and car-clubs, as previously discussed, has aimed to initiate the shift from private car to car-access as part of travel-sharing schemes. Ongoing urban and rural travel management organisation and strategies are needed to be introduced in order to prepare for the re-configuring of car regulations as envisioned for post-automobilities. As well as changes to urban physical/digital infrastructures, social policies should also take into account how residents can manage sustainable travel arrangements. This would need to include more detailed arrangements such as residential parking; whether houses are built without parking spaces; and relative distances to strategic travel points/centres. The shift to a potential digital nexus of post-automobility entails that changes be made to expand the availability, flexibility, and convenience of public transport, and that action be taken in order to provide better amenities to encourage changes to travel habits as well as increased public amiability towards forms of shared and public transport.

Some cities in Europe and North America have been experimenting with bicycle ride-share schemes for localised journeys as well as to facilitate the movement between different city public transports. Cities such as Lyon, Stockholm, and Portland, have taken influence from Amsterdam and have introduced bike kiosks around the city for members to pick-up and use. Generally the cycle-club member pays a minimal annual fee (around 10 euros/$15) for a smart-card that they can swipe at a bike kiosk. Bikes are then rented for up to 2 hours at a time with the first 30 minutes free, then paying for each subsequent 30 minute use (Karni, 2007). A similar scheme is soon to be introduced into areas of New York, with 100 bikes to be placed in each designated neighbourhood. In the summer of 2007 Paris is introducing 1,450 new kiosks which will provide an extra 20,000 bicycles to be scattered throughout the city (Karni, 2007).

A similar new service – termed ‘Bicing’ – has just been introduced in March 2007 to Barcelona. The ‘Bicing’ scheme entitles subscribed users to use any of the 1500 available bicycles located across the city's subway and train stations . This service also has a yearly membership fee (6 euros) and provides a smart-card to enable users free use for the first 30 minutes, charging 30 cents per subsequent 30 minutes. This service is used in combination with a network of city public transports that includes energy-saving trams and environmentally friendly subways. The Bicing homepage online provides real time information on bicycle availability by station, city maps, pick-up and drop-off points, bicycle friendly roads and membership information. Since it began operating in March 2007 Bicing has already attracted over 3000 users and provides residents with alternative travel facilities for short-distance localised urban journeys. Alternative mobility schemes such as this and overall improvements to residential travel will be important for shifting towards forms of future networked mobilities."


"Computer software is already being utilised to cross-reference information databases with communications networks on an automated basis in order to discern queuing and congestion times for premium and non-premium customers (Graham, 2005). Callers are thus categorised and ‘privatised’ through social-sorting software in telephone customer service practices. In this context physical location influences the priority status of the caller and their access to services. It will only be a small yet ‘logically rational’ step towards prioritising road users according to location, route, travel necessity, time, and financial status. What we envision as an alternative is a new era of social-sorting of post-automobilities through intelligent digital infrastructures that will emerge first in richer and more developed markets. Graham’s term for this style of social coded space is ‘software-sorted geographies’ in which selective access is organized ‘through particular topological spaces within sociotechnical systems through which actors have to 'pass' in order that the system actually functions in the way that dominant actors desire' (Graham, 2005: 564). Without these coded assemblages and techniques, much mobility will be rendered inconvenient, if not impossible. For example, levels of road pricing may designate 'high demand urban corridors' that are designed for specific traffic and premium road space, with access to these 'e-highways’ being technologically enforced (Graham, 2004a).

The social implications of ‘software-sorting’ may be significant for creating fractured, or tiered, privatised automobilities underneath the seemingly smooth scapes of surface flows. For a post-automobility system to function, access to road space would likely shift to become a privatised and priced commodity, dependent on users having the technology standardised in their cars, and the resources, such as finance and flexible time, to engage with the mobile nexus of individualised yet networked travel. Such travel and mobility infrastructures will need to be interconnected with datastructures which in turn will provide the framework for the corporate privatisation of cities, roads, and cost quantified movement. It may be that post-automobilities will be constructed around further social inequalities and a ‘splintered urbanism’ (Graham and Marvin, 2001).

The days of the automobile being the gateway to ‘unfettered’ freedoms and a spontaneous release and ‘get away’ are surely numbered. This concept of the car is likely to be no longer sustainable in dense urban regions given the increase in car users, and the foreseeable increase in road congestion problems in city areas and privatised routes. The sheer complexity of integrated issues, from individual user rights, individualised pricing schemes, car security, identity validation, etc, will require complex systems of informational databases and coded spaces. We argue that this necessitates a move into datastructures as a dominant form of social-sorting within which mobilities, including automobilities, will be negotiated and ‘permitted’.

Datastructuring, based on the codification of space with database referencing, will be required to transform how movement is enacted through socio-technical systems. Locations and precision routing will be necessary to re-codify the user/traveller/driver within digital time-space coordinates. This is not to imply that codified mobilities will become a forced practice of coercion, or that such social passages will necessarily be uncomfortably noticed by the general legitimised user. The organisation of complex mobilities, and in-built strategies of marginalisation, may be rendered as ‘normalised’ social practices, ever ubiquitous and seemingly rationalised as tools of convenience, efficiency, and effective management. Or, as Graham argues, 'In the medium term it is possible that the language of rights of access and movement may even be replaced by one of provisional mobility where people need to demonstrate in detail why movement and access is necessary on a continuous basis' (Graham, 2001: 415). The digital nexus of post-automobility, as we envision it, will require greater attention being paid to complex systems of rights of access sensitive to securities, intrusions, and threats."



  1. Systemic Complexity Thinking

More Information

Author contacts:

  1. Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe), Lancaster University, Lancaster, LA1 4YL, UK - [email protected]
  2. Dept of Sociology, Lancaster University, Lancaster, LA1 4YL, UK, [email protected]