Dr. Borroni-Bird has a very successful 25-year career in the automotive industry behind him and talked about "Sustainable and Affordable Mobility for ALL the World's People" and the project “Afreecar” - a solar-powered electric vehicle, in the form of a bike-trailer system, using recycled material.
This is clearly something you are very passionate about – how come?
“It’s for a couple of reasons, the experience I had in volunteering in Mali really hit home to me how vitally important something like this could be, and when you combine that with the knowledge that I have developed over the years, working for car companies, I feel as if I have an opportunity to make this happen. I can understand the technology and what might be possible, and what gets me so excited is that I am not looking for technology to be invented here, this is all about putting together pieces that already exist separately in a way that could be impactful for people’s lives. So it is a combination of knowing that it could make a big difference in people's lives, with the ability to do something about it.”
“And it really meant that I needed to leave the industry, because this was beginning to occupy a lot of my mind and it wasn’t right for me to continue working on other things – for the richest ten percent of the world’s population, when this was really what I wanted to be doing.”
Afreecar - what are your thoughts about how the concept will develop, possibilities and challenges?
“I have built a proof of concept so far, that demonstrates the idea of a solar-powered vehicle that can be extremely lightweight, efficient and affordable. So what I need to do now is to find willing partners who can help me take this to the next level, which is to build a real rugged prototype. One that can be demonstrated to people in the cities, governments, nonprofits or companies, with a view to leading to a pilot program. Because this needs to be tested in a particular location, across all the seasons of the year, to see how it truly operates.”
“Also to see what people are needing power and mobility for, and figure out what is the capability of that local community to actually make this vehicle. So, a pilot program would begin to address the questions that would need to be answered, as well as getting local government support – that’s important whether it’s in a rural place in Africa or a city in Europe. You also need local people willing to invest in making these vehicles. But before we get there, we have to have something rugged and reliable enough to get their attention, and if they like it, we can deliver vehicles for a pilot program straight away.”
Dr. Borroni Bird also underlines the possibilities of this kind of EV for the developed world – with its environmentally friendly features
“If we bring this back to the developed world and how this would be relevant, I really see an opportunity for cities around the world to take this concept and develop it, to operate in the city center. The vehicles could be made in local factories, using local waste materials and locally available materials and creating good quality jobs in the design and the development and the manufacturing of these vehicles, as well as providing very energy efficient, sustainable and affordable transport solutions inside the city center.”
“Because even in the city centres people are going to need to move around in the future, even if you ban cars. So wouldn't it be great if the city basically said to its residents; “We are going to have a competition – create a design that leverages our city's heritage and culture and locally available materials, and the winning design will be what we make in our factory”. So this vehicle becomes a badge of honour for that local community, just like London cabs are emblematic of London, and New York cabs are emblematic of New York. Wouldn’t it be great if each community had their own vehicle to feel proud of?”
With an impressive 25-year career, heading advanced mobility initiatives at Waymo, MIT Media Lab, GM, Chrysler... what has been the most exciting course of events?
“I think the most exciting period of my work career probably was developing the electric network vehicle for the Shanghai World Expo, and I say that because it was immensely challenging to manage that program, but immensely rewarding at the same time, because of the cultural aspects of it."
“You know, the need to work very closely with the Chinese partners, with GM in Shanghai and to work with the local government in Shanghai and make sure that we developed vehicles that were appealing to the Chinese population. I love traveling, seeing new cultures - and to see how people relate to vehicles in different cultures is very useful. So that was an interesting experience, but also extremely challenging from an engineering perspective, managing that program – but very, very worthwhile!”