PriestmanGoode’s Paul Priestman explains what most visionaries get wrong about autonomous vehicles, designing for approachability, and why people shouldn’t trump parcels.

How have the events of 2020 rerouted discussions and developments in the urban mobility space?

PAUL PRIESTMAN: I think it's made cities think again. As I peer out of the window right now, there are hardly any cars going down Great Portland Street. If you look at cities like Paris, where they've shut and pedestrianized roads temporarily, as they have in London, there’s clearly a reassessment of how public transport and infrastructure should operate. Though it may sound counterintuitive, walking and cycling have long been seen as a marginal commuter activity; the idea never really went ‘mainstream’…until now.

I had a concept a few years ago called ‘walk lines’, which where essentially tram lines, but without any trams. Rather, municipalities would create proper walkways and cycleways through cities that were fully segregated from cars. These would have station stops, which are in effect cafes and drop off points. This new type of covered infrastructure would encourage people to walk whatever the weather. They would also be much safer,  as they wouldn’t require people to traverse dangerous traffic intersections. If that sort of option was available, and the journey was within a reasonable distance, I believe most people would choose to walk rather than take a metro. When you look at one of the major problems many major cities face in terms of transport, it is that networks get clogged by people travelling only one or two stops. If you can take them out of the equation, you free up space for people doing longer journeys.

What makes your recent work on autonomous network transit with Dromos Technologies different from existing visions for urban transport?

What really impressed me about Dromos Technologies' proposition was that it is truly mass transit. So many of the proposed concepts for electric autonomous vehicles don't offer the capacity to really challenge current public transport options; you’re shown these minibuses with no driver travelling at seven miles an hour on our existing congested road networks, and you think ‘what’s the benefit?’. What we’re helping design is a system that allows you to go from point to point, but on a mass-transit scale. This is where autonomous networks throw up interesting arguments about the increasing overlap between public and private transport.

So many of the proposed concepts for electric autonomous vehicles don't offer the capacity to really challenge current public transport options

A benefit of the Dromos project within the context of the current situation is that this system allows you to travel in small groups and the vehicles can then be cleaned between each use. To that extent it is like you're traveling in your own private vehicle. It also follows through to the evolving discussion around when and where we’ll all now work and what that means for the commute. The privacy of these vehicles mean you can still get on with an array of different tasks that you wouldn’t consider in a crowded carriage. That shift was something we were already exploring in our work with Hyperloop: this idea that transportation is almost a byproduct of you carrying on with your daily life. You’ll no longer be commuting to work and then start working; you’re working wherever you are, or doing whatever you're doing, but you happen to be traveling at the same time.

You talk about the design approach for these vehicles in terms of ‘approachable minimalism’. Can you expand on the reasoning behind that?

One of the main design aims for any early autonomous vehicle project is to create a product which is entirely non-threatening. We've approached the challenge differently to how a car manufacturer might. They often think primarily about the expressiveness of the external envelope. We're thinking first and foremost about the passenger experience. At the same time, this is a piece of public transport. It has to be hose-down-able. That doesn't mean it has to become a world of stainless steel, however.

I think back to the work that we did with London Underground on the new tube designs. I’ve always found it interesting that the seats have always been made of fabric. We showed the designs in New York while we were doing some work out of there, and the opinion was that upholstered seats wouldn’t work on their subway, that they wouldn't last five minutes. Perhaps it's a cultural thing I don't get, but in general I think if something is designed well then people will treat it with more respect.

When you’re addressing the idea of something being ‘approachable’ or ‘non-threatening’ in terms of transport design, it has to be considered in  aggregate as well as on a unit-by-unit basis

As a result, one of the ways we’ve made the Dromos designs feel approachable is through an emphasis on reclaimed and recycled materials. But it is important to note that, when you’re addressing the idea of something being ‘approachable’ or ‘non-threatening’ in terms of transport design, it has to be considered in  aggregate as well as on a unit-by-unit basis. Often when when people are designing new modes of transport, not enough thought is given to what it looks like when there are lots of these things occupying a cityscape.

The Dromos project marries personal and freight transport. What’s the thinking behind combing that infrastructure?

One of the things that I've been campaigning on for quite a while now is the role delivery vans play in traffic congestion. Often the finger is pointed at cars and taxis, but you just need to look at the fact that New York gets around 1.5 million deliveries a day into the city, and that most of that is road-based, to understand the issue. That’s why it makes a lot of sense that we should look at ways in which public or personal transport and parcel carriage can come together. There are already good examples of this, such as in Hong Kong, where the metro is already used for transporting packages. If these systems are in place and offer these affordances, why not use them? We can't just throw away and suddenly recreate all of our metros and trains; we've got to really make better use of what we’ve already got given the current situation.

Another recent project we’ve published proposed making better use of the socially distanced space now mandated on public transport by creating more bike storage. We’ve also developed a concept called Metro Freight, which looks precisely at using the downtime on public transport to bring  goods into city centres. Stations would become almost like international farmers market where people can go and pick up and drop off their goods. In effect it’s a local delivery system that utilizes the community and preexisting infrastructure. It’s an idea that made complete sense to extrapolate for a future-forward project like Dromos, but taking all the opportunities inherent in the technology to make it more effective and organized. For instance the company is looking at how the scale of these units mean that they would be able to deliver people and packages not merely adjacent to where they’re needed, but directly into buildings. That means we can move the idea one stage further and truly eradicate the first- and last-mile problem.