Whenever anyone brings up innovation in transportation, the first thought is usually electric vehicles. EVs are gaining serious momentum with the rise of companies like Tesla Motors and Coda Automotive — as are hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to a lesser extent. With all this focus on cars that tap alternative sources of energy, proposing gas-powered solutions to the world’s climate and transportation crises has become passe.
But it shouldn’t be. There isn’t one silver bullet for solving the driving emissions issue — it’s going to require a portfolio of complementary strategies. Luckily, several companies with this foresight are gaining ground — companies like EcoMotors, which has nabbed millions from Vinod Khosla and Bill Gates to build a more efficient combustion engine. Yet one of the youngest plays in the space is also the most compelling: Mobius Motors.
Designing and building affordable, fuel-efficient vehicles for developing regions in Africa, Mobius Motors is galvanizing a different, equally important revolution in transportation. Recognizing that the majority of people residing in remote and rural parts of the continent have no access to transit, the company predicts that great strides in economic development, education, sanitation, etc. will come when more people have mobility.
Mobius’ goal is provide enough cheap, off-road-capable vehicles — they look a lot like mini Jeeps — to build a reliable public transportation system. The company believes that this will allow for better access to schools and health clinics, expedite profitable agricultural activities, foster small businesses, and even empower women who spend so much of their time walking to collect water and firewood.
Sounds great, right? But building and distributing cars for this environment is no easy task. For one thing, most roads are not readily maintained, making them untenable for standard vehicles. But the biggest challenge is building cars that work well affordable enough for the impoverished communities that need them most. Mobius is targeting people who currently have no choice but to walk up to 10 miles daily for basic supplies and services like potable water, school, banks and hospitals.
To dramatically lower the cost of cars for these markets, Mobius has stripped away frills like air conditioning, normal interior fixtures and glass windows. Using a combination of cost-efficient materials — like steel and off-the-shelf plastic parts — it has focused its attention instead on building safe modular cars with durable suspension systems and ample storage. The end product takes on uneven dirt roads like a champion, goes the distance, can haul major cargo, and can be easily modified by owners to fit a variety of needs. The price tag?: same as it is for ubiquitous motorized rickshaws that don’t travel as fast or far.
Mobius concedes that the reduced price point might still be too high for its target market and has devised innovative financing strategies to make purchase more possible for entrepreneurs. It hopes to one day supply vehicles for mail carriers, ambulances, school buses and more — extending easy and affordable mobility to millions of people.
That’s the grand vision, but Mobius is starting smartly and appropriately small. It has already built two prototypes and plans to launch small-scale production next year. The plan is not to sell the cars directly to poor African consumers, but rather to entrepreneurs who can finance the purchase by offering transport services to the people in their communities. This is a proven strategy in the growing social enterprise sector that seems ideal for Mobius’ goals. And its business plan was validated earlier this year when it was named an Echoing Green Fellowship Finalist.
But Mobius’ ambitions have even broader implications for the world’s changing transportation system. Now that more developing countries are industrializing at a breakneck pace, rapid car production is becoming more important than ever. Look no further than China, where automotive demand has spiked. But the world’s climate can’t afford another stretch of dirty industrialization. The cars built to satisfy this voracious demand need to be different: lighter, smarter, vastly more efficient but with comparable utility.
Electric and hydrogen cars are still too expensive to make them a viable alternative at this point. Companies like China’s BYD are chasing affordable EVs but have yet to realize a workable model. It will take small, brainy upstarts like Mobius Motors, who think differently without abandoning gas altogether, to get the job done right.