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Beijing’s congestion, which causes commutes of up to five hours and traffic jams that can last days, exemplifies the problem of too many cars in dense urban settings.

ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Think of all the ways to get around town. Think about driving or carpooling. Flagging down a cab or summoning an Uber. Taking a train or hopping on a bus. Cycling or walking. Consider which methods are the quickest, the safest, the least expensive, the least stressful. Think about the cost in terms of time, money and personal well-being.

Now you're thinking like a car company.

Over and above these concerns, though, is a bigger question: What role will the car play in people's lives in the future?

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"We're always going to manufacture vehicles, but also want to be a mobility company," Sheryl Connelly, manager of global consumer trends and futuring at Ford, said during the Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto.

"We're an industry that has historically been resistant to change, but that's not the case any more."

The move toward mobility as a general concept makes sense when you consider the dramatic shifts taking place worldwide.

According to the United Nations, 54 per cent of the world's population lived in cities in 2014; by 2050, that number is expected to reach 66 per cent, with an additional 2.5 billion people living in cities. While every one of them will need some form of transportation, they won't necessarily need their own car; by 2050, owning a car in a big city could be onerous.

"There are 22 million people in Beijing and some of them commute for up to five hours a day," Connelly said. "Years ago, they had a traffic jam that lasted for 12 days – and this was not on a small road, it was a 50-lane freeway."

BMW has also been looking at large-scale problems such as congestion. The German manufacturer launched its iVentures subsidiary in 2011 to develop electric vehicles and mobility solutions.

"The mobility of the future and our industry is being defined by the increasingly rapid pace of technological change," Klaus Frohlich, member of the BMW board of management, said in a news release.

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"Anyone who wants to succeed must shape this change and have access to the best ideas."

In 2012, iVentures played host to a roundtable on mobility solutions and one of the speakers, Mitchell Moss of New York University, revealed that there is an emerging trend sparked by technology and the 2008 global recession. Referencing his co-authored study, The Emergence of the Super-Commuter, the professor spoke about people in North America, notably in Texas, who commuted many hours to work – but did so only one or two days a week.

"The changing structure of the workplace, advances in telecommunications, and the global

pattern of economic life have made the super-commuter a new force in transportation," Moss wrote.

"Super-commuters are well-positioned to take advantage of higher salaries in one region and lower housing costs in another."

According to the research, then, manufacturers should focus long-term on the transportation needs of two large segments: people living in cities, and people commuting to and from those same cities.

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The former group may not need a car at all; the latter may need a car only on a part-time basis. This helps explain why manufacturers have jumped on car-sharing and short-term rental concepts, even though this could, in theory, lead to fewer cars being sold.

In January of 2016, General Motors invested $500-million (U.S.) in Lyft, a car-sharing company, acquired a similar company called Sidecar and launched its own service, Maven. Available in 10 U.S. urban centres, Maven's first Canadian outpost – in Kitchener, Ont. – opened in mid-February.

As far as the short-term rental business goes, Car2Go (a Mercedes-Benz subsidiary) is considered the biggest, with more than two million members in eight countries and 40 cities worldwide. In 2011, BMW launched DriveNow, a rental business in five countries, with about one-quarter as many members; a version called ReachNow is offered in six U.S. cities.

But not all solutions have proven successful. The speed of change and the uncertainty around what types of mobility solutions will rule the road have caused many to fail.

BMW launched a DriveNow initiative in San Francisco in 2012, but shuttered it in 2015 after it couldn't secure enough parking spaces for its cars. In March of 2016, Ford introduced a shared-ownership trial run in Austin, Tex., that would allow three to six customers to co-sign a lease on a new vehicle; the experiment ended in December with a total of zero early adopters.

The upshot: Our relationship with cars is built upon a century of integration into our daily lives and into the infrastructure of the places in which we live. For many, cars will always be an indispensable form of transportation. For others, though, the relationship is more transactional; if the cost-benefit of owning a car – or even using a car – doesn't measure up, people will go another route.

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"Time is a currency and it's the same for everyone, rich or poor," Connelly said. "We all only have 24 hours in a day, and what we do with that time is becoming more important."

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