The writer Upton Sinclair famously remarked that it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

How true-even though we all like to think that we’re always receptive to new and challenging ideas ourselves. So it is good to see the Department for Transport seriously questioning part of its own traditional raison d’être in a new report this week.

Alternatives to Travel: Next Steps looks at how businesses can integrate advanced telecommunications technologies into their working practices in order to improve productivity and reduce overheads.

Reading the case studies in the report makes me glad I don’t work for an airline or airport operator. Microsoft, for instance, reckons it saved $97 million in travel costs and 100 million flight miles in a year by making increased use of flexible working and teleconferencing. Another company easily eliminated 38 million flight miles.

Down on the ground, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service estimates that it’s saved £70,000 over three years by making smarter use of vehicles (e.g. reducing the number of single-occupancy journeys for business and commuting) as well as holding more meetings electronically.

The DfT’s focus on travel alternatives makes a refreshing change from its usual ‘predict and provide’ approach (as in, predict more travel, provide more roads). As the report’s foreword stresses, it’s all about businesses finding new ways to move forward:

“The purpose of this report is not to press the case for any one method of travel. It is not to argue that you should stay at home or invest in the latest gizmo. Instead, it seeks to challenge inflexibility. The insistence on doing things because that’s the way they’ve always been done.”

That’s timely advice. 2011 is shaping up to deliver the highest-ever world average price per barrel for oil in inflation-adjusted terms. Given the key role of oil in advanced economies, crude oil’s rapid switch from dirt cheap to historically expensive in two decades has enormous implications not only for fleets but for business as a whole.

High oil prices are inimical to strong economic growth, meaning that there will be little let-up in the squeeze on firms’ profitability and therefore on fleet budgets. And while a lot of business meetings and some other activities can be carried out online, there’s also a lot of activity that can’t.

But, as the man at the DfT said, we don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done. We can change the way we think about mobility and about the assets needed by businesses to provide it.

Technology and flexible working are freeing businesses from the restraints of geography and the nine-to-five workday. We live in a world where GPS, telematics and those smart handheld devices formerly known as phones allow us to create alternatives to the traditional ‘one driver, one car, one key’ company car model.

That is why we’ve talked a lot about new forms of business mobility in our announcements about the merger of Alphabet and ING. It’s all about using technology innovatively to allow customers and their employees to get more productivity out of vehicles: smart mobility to suit new ways of working.

After all, in the traditional automotive economy based on $20 oil, the vast majority of cars – including many company cars – spent 95% of their time sitting empty outside homes and workplaces. In the $100 oil economy, business cars become ‘mobility assets’, which employers will want to get as much productivity out of as they can; 24 hours a day, seven days a week if necessary.

We have the technology, as they say, and I will have quite a bit more to say here about new mobility solutions over the coming weeks, months and years.