The current COVID-19 crisis has impacted mobility on both a global and a local level. Within no time, travels bans and WFH programmes brought the world to a standstill, quite literally. But now that economies are slowly opening up, the question is how the crisis will affect mobility behaviour going forward.

The need for distancing has already lowered demands for ridesharing and public transport, and that is expected to continue in the future. A McKinsey survey conducted among consumers in the US, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and China shows that ‘a third of consumers value constant access to a private vehicle more than they did before COVID-19, and half say they are open to extending their use of private vehicles beyond traveling in order to connect with the outside world in a safe way, such as for drive-in movie theatres’.

Yet, not everybody will have the means to access private transport, nor will it get you everywhere. As we reported on earlier this week, designers around the globe have been spending these last few months drawing up plans for virus-proof transportation. But to understand even better how the pandemic has – and will – impact how we travel and create spaces for transportation, we turned to two designers working in the field of mobility. On our Frame Views video channel, Benjamin Hubert, creative director of strategic design agency Layer and Seymourpowell’s lead automotive designer Richard Seale talked about the ways in which COVID-19 will influence the future of our vehicles.

Finding solutions for shared transportation

Hubert believes that even though the current pandemic has caused a global slowdown of production and productivity, it’s also a great moment of change, fuelling new projects, new thinking and new processes in mobility. ‘Where I think there is the most interest and impetus for design to focus on is personal transport, transport within cities and local transport. [We are] thinking about the ability to have modes of transport that isolate you but allow you to have a degree of freedom, as well as ridesharing and how [one can] consider occupying [shared] vehicles with emotional and physical comfort.’

The public will now think twice about using someone’s shared [mobility] system

Seale agrees that the concept of ridesharing is in need of a rethink. ‘Many of our clients are thinking about how shared mobility solutions are going to affect their businesses. The public will now think twice about using someone’s shared system due to cleanliness. I don’t think it’s going to kill these movements, but we have to understand that peoples’ level of cleanliness and understanding of who used the vehicle before them is going to be right at the forefront of their minds. So we are going to have to think about the way users access these mobility solutions in the future.’ 

Flexible, transparent interventions are key

Coincidentally, Seale and his company Seymourpowell conceptualized a shared mobility project prior to the virus’ outbreak. Perhaps never more relevant, the autonomous vehicle is split directly into quarters which can be booked individually. The barriers inside the interior can be lowered for when you travel with family members and prefer to share the space. ‘I think people are going to look for flexibility like that in spaces. It’s the only way that some of the shared mobility solutions will work in the future,’ says Seale. 

Enabling passengers that are participating in group travel to understand better their surroundings and environment is crucial

Hubert points out that it’s important to realize that a lot has changed psychologically since the arrival of COVID-19. ‘The idea of being with other people, the idea of hygiene and what it means to enjoy the way you transport has changed,’ he says. ‘Priorities have reordered themselves. The current crisis is going to be a major influence on very visceral, short-term thinking around transport, for probably the next year to 18 months. I think very little will be executed that is meaningful, particularly for aviation, in that period. However, once the immediate issues of the virus are overcome, the long-term psychological damage to social and economic ways of thinking is going to need tackling. The idea of enabling passengers and people that are participating in group travel to understand better their surroundings and environment is crucial.’ To achieve this, Hubert explains, designers can look at a range of interventions, from the way they integrate easier-to-clean surfaces to how they communicate improvements in air quality.

Header: Seymourpowell's Nomad is a level-five autonomous mobile home that travels between cities at night, allowing flexible work pat-terns, longer commutes and the ability to live an off-the-grid life. | Top: Autonomous Society, designed by Seymourpowell | Bottom: Quarter Car by Seymourpowell is an autonomous vehicle that allows people to book their own private seat in a shared automobile, featuring a flexible interior split into quarters with dividers.

Environmental awareness will play a larger part in mobility

Seale hopes the now-growing need for personal space won’t lead to a growth in personal petrol car ownership, which will have a negative effect on our environment. ‘People are going to rethink getting rid of their personal car in favour of a Zipcar-type scenario, so I think the coronavirus crisis is going to possibly boost the car industry in the short term. Hopefully, it will also make people think twice about the environment and ultimately boost electric vehicle sales. People are seeing first-hand the effects of putting a hold on all the unnecessary travel and movement that we do as a society.’

He is referring to the fact that, following worldwide lockdowns, animals are re-entering cities and clear blue skies are reappearing. These occurrences, he thinks, will grow environment awareness among frequent travellers and drivers. Hubert trusts there will be a more considered way of travelling as a result. ‘As things become more relaxed, the demands of consumers will come back, but I think you will see a great mindfulness when it comes to the way people travel. It’s not just going to be cheap and quick. It’s going to need to be reassuring and comforting.’ 

Top: JOYN is a near-future concept by Layer for an autonomous ridesharing platform that rewards sustainable behaviours and makes ridesharing more desirable. It offers users a more private, safer, and more eco-friendly alternative to existing rideshares. | Middle: Layer's Pal is a prototype for an intelligent, modular personal transport system that embraces AI and machine learning to offer flexible and convenient ‘last mile’ travel for Chinese electric vehicle company NIO. | Bottom: A prototype airline seat for Airbus by Layer utilizes smart textiles and clever functionality to improve the experience of Economy Class short- to mid-haul flying.

Working from home means a new urban landscape

Seale sees an important role for employers in fundamentally lowering the environmental impact of commuting. ‘Businesses need to start understanding that they can allow their employees to work at different times and from different places,’ he says. ‘I hope that that this situation will prove to employers that their employees can be productive, innovative, and work carbon-light, from home.’ That home, however, can take on many forms. It doesn’t have to be a permanent place per se. Over the last year, Seale’s company has dreamed up an autonomous camper van called Nomad. ‘During the night this vehicle can take passengers from one place of work to another,’ explains Seale. ‘The concept shows our ideas about how autonomy as a technology will affect the gig economy and freelancers around the world. It’s also designed to kind of hold the effects of urban sprawl. So these vehicles would live in those spaces around the cities without ever having any permanent effect on the ground that they sit.’ 

Autonomy as a technology will affect the gig economy

‘I know it’s difficult to look at the positives at the moment,’ says Seale, ‘but as designers and optimistic futurists we have an obligation to. If designers that create the future can’t think positively from a massive global crisis like this then who is going to?’

Read about mobility projects here.