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The Road Ahead

Words by Greg Quinton
Date 2020-06-24

What should the future of mobility look like? The smartest minds have wrestled with this question for years.

Suddenly, life under lockdown has provided an unprecedented window into an alternate travel universe. Here is my personal view on how travel from A to B could look, while being stuck at A.

With most modes of transportation grounded, we have seen clearer skies, cleaner waterways and breathed better air. The way we work has changed, technology is our saviour. Time has allowed us to reassess the big stuff; our relationship with health, wealth, how and where we live, but also whether our journeys are necessary at all. There is a quiet travel revolution underway. If mobility shifts from necessity to choice, customers will choose an experience. The question is, how earthbound do we want this brave new experience to be?

Backwards or forwards?

For decades, design has delivered the future by plundering from elsewhere.The post-war nuclear age gave us Futurism. Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe and Oscar Niemeyer gave us modernist architecture and a new ideal living. Throw some sci-fi production design into the mix from Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Conquest of Space and it’s easy to see why the crazily beautiful Cadillac Cyclone or Lincoln Futura concepts were born. Design confidence was sky high.

Product designers Dieter Rams at Braun and Jacob Jensen at Bang & Olufsen took a 'less is more' approach and stripped buttons and fuss to the minimum, influencing the next generation in the process, including Jonny Ives and a company called Apple. We can only wonder what Apple’s mothballed car design, Project Titan, could have been. Minimalist perfection?

Like many, I believe that sci-fi production design has a massive influence on the public, designers and our collective idea of what the future looks like. British designer Alex McDowell stated that Minority Report "influenced the future" and helped make dozens of contemporary technologies become a reality. Gestural interfaces, flexible displays and voice activation are among the predictions in the film that exist today, in part thanks to the movie. Imagination made real.

Have we reached the design future?

Recently, our clear blue skies were rudely interrupted by a giant rocket in the shape of Space-X/Nasa’s $2.6 billion Dragon mission to the ISS. The mission illustrated a clear truth about design and mobility; the future needs to look as we dreamt it.

It’s hard to imagine that the last shuttle mission was just nine years ago, but in that time, the hundreds of analogue buttons, dials and control sticks have been replaced with just three touch screens. The visual comparison between Wall-e and Eva might be simplistic, but hard to ignore. Technology has enabled this rate of change and can finally deliver the sci-fi promise. But, are we still interested?

The road ahead

We shouldn’t underestimate the dramatic social, cultural and mobility effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Assuming remote working and social distancing continues, the frequency and way we travel will fundamentally change. As existing alternative personal travel modes (e-scooters/boards/car-share/cycle schemes) increase and self-drive/autonomous vehicles establishes its role, I think the next period of design language could feel more human centric:

Honesty and humility: The demand for new technology will continue at haste. However, whereas the last two decades were about its bold visibility, the next will be about its discretion. Technology will be integrated, less heroic. More craft, more honesty, more humble and natural materials. Longer product life, less waste, too.

Trust: Consumers will hold the sector to a higher standard going forward (quality, safety, environment and ethically). Accountability provides an opportunity to create deeper product relationships, too, and if there’s one thing brands are good at its developing rich emotional connections.

Personalisation: Car ownership (especially in cities) will become the questionable luxury. Personal choice will increase the demand for customisation. Drivetrains and platforms will continue to standardise so product and brand differentiation will need to come from elsewhere, probably an increase in whole-car-body-style options in a similar way that Mini (BMW) revolutionised personalisation (250+ options) 20 years ago.

Personality: Travel puts your life at risk (especially one where you are not in control) so confidence and trust are paramount. Google’s recent autonomous vehicle concept looks suspiciously cute. The soft curves and panda-like features are designed to create an emotional bond between user and machine. Sophisticated enough to carry you across country while you sleep, but endearing enough that if it curled up next to you on the sofa you’d stroke its head. Happiness is a drug we crave.

While the Space-X Dragon mission and Google AV ‘Panda’ seem wildly different on the surface, they are both reshaping our relationship with mobility. And that is what it is: a relationship. Mobility is more than getting from A to B, it’s the feeling the vehicle inspires, the memories it evokes, the shared vision of a future it reflects.

The desire to create safe, clean, friendly-looking vehicles has meant that some of the spirit of endeavour and romance of speed has been lost along the way. We are now presented with an opportunity to enjoy travel again. Just take care.

First published in Shots.