Taking Future Vehicle Design Ideas From a Horse?

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Could the humble horse and wagon hold key insights to future transportation systems and vehicle design? How could an animal that man first domesticated over 5000 years ago be at all relevant in a modern world of drones, ride sharing, ride hailing, ride pooling, transportation network companies, one hour package delivery, and autonomous vehicles? To be clear, I’m not talking here about off the grid, back to the land stuff but rather about looking to the horse and wagon for design queues about our technology future.

It’s a busy month for mobility thinkers with several trade shows and academic conferences stacked back to back, and the press and social media are abuzz with dozens of industry-changing announcements. I spent the weekend at Transportation Camp, an uber-nerdy conference in the DC-area, with an amazingly diverse, bright group of people eager to debate the future of transportation. As we talked about what lies ahead, apps that do this, smart technologies that connect that, an underlying need for flexibility was obvious. And that’s when the horse came to mind.

Here are a few clues that I’ve teased out about what a horse and wagon can teach us about future vehicle design.

Modular power source

We don’t call it horsepower for nothing. James Watt’s calculation describing foot-pounds of work per minute set the standard which we still use today. But more than establishing the baseline of a unit of measure, the horse is a modular power force to be reckoned with. Need to haul more stuff? Go faster? Travel farther? Add a few horses to the team or leave most of them behind. Each is a discrete, relatively interchangeable power supply that can be dropped into and out of a system.

Rechargeable on the go

Horses can be recharged along a trip route with fuel that is abundant and affordable. Sure, we have this in a way with gas stations and cars, but I think the lesson is deeper. The future parallel might be solar cells that charge vehicles as they drive or inductive charging lanes on city roads and highways.

Trip-specific vehicle size

Much effort is being made these days to optimize empty seats in vehicles traveling our roadways, but the horse and wagon offer a solution focused on optimizing supply rather than demand. If the rider needs to travel somewhere alone, he doesn’t get the team and wagon all rigged up for no good reason. He just hops on the horse and leaves everything else at home.

Passengers, packages… or both

A flatbed wagon can be easily and quickly adapted to carry people or goods as the trip demands. Seats can be swapped in or out, and the same wagon that carries a family to a neighboring town one day can carry a load of goods the next. This form of flexibility actually is quite easy to find today. It was evident in Ecuador on my recent winter trip where pickup truck “taxis” bounced along dirt roads shuttling townspeople, tourists, luggage, and whatever else someone else would pay to have delivered. I also vividly remember traveling by charter bus in Kenya as a teenager and and the great surprise when the driver pulled over to the side of the road to pick up a hitchhiking Masai — and his goat.

On-demand before it was a thing

If you are taking your wagon into town, you might stop by and pick up a friend who also needs to go. You might pick up someone you don’t know walking along the side of the road who is tired from the heat and flags you down hoping to get somewhere faster. Or you might carry home a shipment from the store on behalf of the shop owner and drop it off to your elderly neighbor who has a hard time getting out. The expectations haven’t changed. In the on-demand economy, the key difference is scale and formalization of what used to be ad hoc.


So what do you think about using the horse and wagon design for mobility solutions in the future? Where else does this rabbit hole take us? What am I missing? And if you want to argue that there will always be place for the horse itself within mobility, chime in!

Photo credit: Txema Aguilar Sánchez

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