Here's what the pandemic has taught an automotive designer about the future of mobility

The COVID-19 crisis is shapeshifting mobility on a global scale. To understand better how the pandemic will impact how we travel and thus create spaces for transportation, we turned to Richard Seale, lead automotive designer at Seymourpowell.

London – Hurried train commutes, late-night Uber rides, cramped airplane journeys. Each feel like a distant memory, with mobility of any sort severely limited by the COVID-19 crisis. Designing the future of transportation is top-of-list, being that we are now living in a time that’s not only defined by relentless climate change and rapidly developing cities but a global health crisis too. So where does one even begin in imagining what travel post-COVID will look like – near and far? One team of innovators is already on the task: Seymourpowell, a London multidisciplinary group comprised of design researchers, strategists, brand experts and product, UI and UX designers and makers. We talk with Seale to learn more about the group’s future-proof mobility solutions, how the pandemic may come to permanently affect transportation projects and why design needs to move forward – quite literally – in a whole new way.

You’ve worked on a number of transportation-focused projects. Are there any that you reflect back on with new eyes, given this crisis?

RICHARD SEALE: Our latest concept Quarter Car, an autonomous vehicle specifically designed for ridesharing, was released just before the lockdown. It seems even more pertinent now: during this global pandemic, maintaining hygiene is of upmost importance. Q-Car proposes a vehicle that allows people to book their own private seat in a shared automobile, featuring a flexible interior split into quarters with dividers. Something between a private ride and public transport, it is designed to be a well-serviced system, with cars cleaned periodically throughout the day. We have to consider many factors when designing a vehicle. Clean-ability is particularly high on the agenda when designing for the rail and aircraft industries – this is not only to give passengers a better experience, but also to enable easier solutions for service-staff. Aircraft and trains lose money when not in use, so dwell-time can be a real problem. We leveraged our experience in these industries to design the interior of Q-Car to be as easy to clean as possible; there are no nooks where dirt can be trapped and the upholstery is designed to be easy to remove, renew and replace.

Shared mobility will be affected as a direct result of social distancing: there will be an extended need for personal space post-lockdown

It is clear to me that shared mobility will be affected as a direct result of social distancing: there will be an extended need for personal space post-lockdown. This presents issues for shared mobility platforms, where there is no knowing who has previously used the vehicle. We need to navigate this potential roadblock for these systems, as we believe they will play a huge part in the future of mobility. Consequently, we must re-evaluate the way in which they are serviced and used.

Another project that springs to mind is our concept Nomad, a level-five autonomous mobile home that travels between cities at night, allowing flexible work patterns, longer commutes and the ability to live an off-the-grid life. These connected vehicles, which support renewable power generation and food and water harvesting, could change the way in which communities form and our cities grow, building mobile towns with very little permanent effect on the ground they temporarily sit. Now, that could be brilliant: If you can’t leave your home due to a lockdown, why not take your home with you? Or even better, let your home take you with it…

How do you think this situation will affect the future of mobility in both the short term and beyond?

Many people exercising outside during COVID-19 restrictions are replacing their usual gym time, but I imagine that others have also chosen to do so in order to legitimize leaving the house. Will we see a surge in fitness levels – will people who would normally choose public transportation or a car for commuting in urban areas now feel that they can do this by running, walking or cycling?  It has often been said that the future of transportation in cities is the bicycle. If we do see the trend for health and fitness grow, it will no doubt have a direct knock-on effect on urban mobility. At the same time, I speculate how the pandemic will affect private car sales in the short term – now, I choose my private car if I have to make an essential journey.  I would think long and hard about making that same trip in a rideshare solution, unaware of the health of the driver and the passengers that may have used the car before me. That anxiety is only multiplied when thinking of travelling via public transport. Perhaps those who were once thinking of getting rid of their own vehicle, in favour of using services like Zipcar, will now be holding onto it.

 

If we all jump back into our old carbon-heavy travelling habits then we will have learnt nothing about mobility from this time

This pandemic is a global catastrophe and the loss of life and effect on the global economy is terrifying. But as designers, we have to be optimistic about the future and look at the positives in the situation: undeniably, there has been a beneficial impact on the environment.  People are not travelling abroad for holidays or work, causing air pollution to drop dramatically. Similarly, wildlife is thriving due to the lack of human interaction. Using technology to replace things that would normally have a large carbon footprint, like daily commuting, is bringing about an ‘enforced future’ where we are all learning to do things in a different way, creating a better work-life balance and perhaps even an improved humanity-to-nature balance. All of these factors will prompt us to re-evaluate what we believe to be essential to our lives moving forward. Will this experience fast-track the adoption of electric vehicles – will it boost Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) sales? Although incredibly difficult to see right now, there are upsides to be taken from this tragedy. If we all jump back into our old carbon-heavy travelling habits then we will have learnt nothing about mobility from this time.

With this insight, are there things that you would take into account for future projects of this nature?

It is clear that our key workers are woefully underpaid and overworked: this is widespread in the transportation industry. Many frontline workers, like NHS employees and London bus drivers, have lost their lives to the virus. When was the last time you heard a child say, ‘When I grow up I want to be a train driver’? I hope that once we have time to collectively reflect on this crisis, we find a new appreciation for all of those who have had to put themselves in harm’s way for the greater good.  As designers, we should continue to make things better for passengers, mobility users, the car-buying public and the transport businesses that profit from ‘good design’. But crucially, we should also design for the people who work in these systems, the people that service these systems and ultimately dedicate their lives to them. Perhaps through design-thinking we can help create a world where kids want to be train drivers again.

seymourpowell.com

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