Mobility is changing in response to emerging technologies, disruptive business models, evolving demographics and consumer demands, as well as government policy and global sustainability goals. While the future of mobility is likely to look different from today, there is great uncertainty about how mobility systems will evolve in different parts of the world. Current mobility systems are highly heterogeneous and driven by local factors including pollution, congestion, population density, economic growth, infrastructure provision, energy security, and land use.

The Mobility Systems Center, an MIT Energy Initiative Low-Carbon Energy Center, brings together MIT’s extensive expertise in mobility research to understand current and future trends in global passenger and freight mobility. Approaching mobility from a socio-technical perspective, we identify key challenges, understand potential trends, and analyze the societal and environmental impact of new mobility solutions. Through developing, maintaining, and applying a set of state-of-the-art scientific tools for the mobility sector, the Center aims to assess future mobility transformations from a technological, economic, environmental, and socio-political perspective.

The Center continues the multidisciplinary research started under MITEI’s Mobility of the Future study, which gave primary attention to the U.S. and China, light-duty passenger vehicles with four wheels, urban mobility, electrification, and greenhouse gas policies. The Mobility Systems Center has a broader scope and is designed to evolve in response to the interests of its members and emerging challenges in mobility systems.


Goals and approach

The Mobility Systems Center analyzes trends in global passenger and freight mobility systems to guide them towards an efficient and sustainable future. Constructed as an industry-sponsored consortium, the Center brings together the diverse expertise of MIT faculty with the on-the-ground knowledge of industry partners. Funded by consortium members, MIT faculty evaluate the economic, social, and environmental impacts of emerging trends in mobility using state-of-the-art methods, including big data, machine learning, chemistry, engineering, economics, urban and regional planning, and business strategy. The ultimate goal of the Center is to provide insights and analyses that can guide member companies in developing and executing mobility business strategies that support sustainable economic growth.


Research themes

The Mobility Systems Center brings together academia and industry to adopt a multidisciplinary and pragmatic approach to the study of mobility. Industry consortium members guide the Center leadership in identifying pressing topics that lead to insights into current and future trends in global passenger and freight ground transportation from technological, economic, environmental, political, and social perspectives. For the period 2019-2022, the Center’s research is focused on the following four themes:

Mobility evolution in high-growth countries

The growth of the middle class in high-growth developing countries will be the primary driver of future demand for mobility of people and goods. We outline the unique mobility context of these markets as well as analyze the potential impacts of policy and technology interventions to combat local challenges of congestion, road safety, and air pollution without curtailing growing accessibility.

Freight ground transportation

Ground transportation of freight has a similar global energy demand to that of all light-duty vehicles. Freight transportation is expected to continue to grow. We analyze operational and technological approaches for improving economic and environmental efficiency of goods transport. Our analyses include long-haul freight by road and rail and urban delivery of goods.

Clean fuels and propulsion systems

Various alternatives for clean fuels and propulsion systems can help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions as well as local air pollutants and their health and mortality consequences. We conduct techno-economic environmental analyses to assess tradeoffs in performance, cost, and environmental footprint of battery electric systems, fuel cell propulsion systems, and other clean burning fuels with emission control systems.

Disruptive technologies and their supporting infrastructure

New business models and technologies are disrupting current mobility systems and shaping how they will evolve in the future. We assess how mobility-as-a-service, mobility-on-demand, and the vehicle sharing economy will continue to change consumer behavior and the transportation value chain. We also tackle uncertainties surrounding connected and autonomous vehicles, particularly the role of supporting infrastructure and issues of cybersecurity.

The Mobility Systems Center is building on decades of research at MIT in the transportation sector, including MITEI’s recent Mobility of the Future study focused on the economics, global and municipal-level policies, and consumer behaviors around light-duty vehicles and urban mobility.


Ongoing projects

Long-haul freight on highways: techno-economic assessment of options for powertrains and fuels
William H. Green

Across the globe, significant volumes of freight are carried by diesel trucks on highways. However, current diesel trucks emit climate-warming greenhouse gases and other local air pollutants. This project assesses proposed alternative powertrains and fuels, to see which combinations offer significant advantages in terms of emissions reduction at reasonable cost. For a few of the most promising options, we investigate in more detail the costs of fuel manufacturing and refueling infrastructure, and assess what research is needed to define fuel standards to ensure that these new fuels perform well in the new powertrain.

Design, Planning and Operation of Highly Responsive & Sustainable Urban Last-mile Delivery Networks
Matthias Winkenbach and Yossi Sheffi

This project aims to understand the impact of rapid urbanization and the growing importance of highly responsive/on-demand last-mile delivery services in e-commerce and omni-channel retailing on the design, planning, and operation of urban last-mile distribution networks. To understand the implications of these trends on the optimal structure of distribution networks and carrier fleets, we analyze the economic, social and environmental viability and impact of various innovative approaches to the design and operation of future urban last-mile distribution systems. These innovations include the use of alternative transportation modes for distribution (e.g., cargo bikes, alternative fuel vehicles, drones, on demand couriers); the integration of public transport systems (e.g., subway, bus network) in the efficient urban distribution of goods; and the use of new and existing urban real estate assets (e.g., store fronts and back rooms, gas stations, public transport stations) as hyperlocal fulfillment locations for time critical deliveries.

Can Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) really disrupt the private car ownership model?
David Keith and Joanna Moody

This project explores what factors influence consumer willingness to adopt MaaS as a substitute for private vehicle ownership. That is, what will it take for MaaS to disrupt people’s current reliance on their personal vehicles? To answer this question, we first measure the ‘option value’ of owning a car (including convenience, flexibility, control, and status that comes from having one’s own asset) separate from the utility of using a car among respondents in the U.S. and Germany. Second, we explore the system-level attributes of MaaS (such as quality of service, annual cost, etc.) that will be most important in determining its competitiveness with the private automobile.

Price of Privacy: Towards the Quantification of the Value of Location Data in Smart Mobility
Jinhua Zhao

This project investigates potential trade-offs between data privacy and data utility in the context of mobility sharing applications. By providing mobility sharing applications with transportation and location information on their activities, users reveal personal habits, preferences, and behaviors. Given that data breaches and misuse of personal information have become increasingly common over the past few years, users may be less likely to share their (potentially sensitive) location information. We evaluate to what extent location privacy could affect the performance of mobility sharing applications, in terms of transportation efficiency—namely energy consumption and vehicle miles traveled (VMT)—and quality of service. In an effort to identify a compromise between individual privacy and the societal need from a system design perspective, we simulate different privacy-preserving methodologies and fine-tune their settings to achieve and study different levels of anonymization granularity within a mobility sharing service.