The London Design Festival runs for 9 days every September, the center of which revolves around the Victoria & Albert Museum, the hub for the event since 2009. I was in London this autumn, which gave me the perfect opportunity to immerse myself in the creative energy which surrounds the talks, workshops, and exhibitions that pack the schedule. The session that caught my eye was entitled The Future of Transport Design. I cannot deny that things with the word ‘future’ in the title will always get my attention for a few seconds at least, but changes in how people move around can have such a significant impact on our design of the built environment that I couldn’t pass this opportunity up. The buildings that HCMA work on will be there for decades, we intend for them to be not merely fit-for-purpose, but highly functioning for their entire lifespan, and that includes us seriously considering how users arrive there, leave, and the infrastructure which connects spaces together.
Rather than blue sky thinking about new and wild ideas for transportation in the far distant future, the session was predominantly a clash of two possible futures, mass-transportation vs individual driverless vehicles.
On the one side was Paul Priestman, from PriestmanGoode. Priestman is an illustrious industrial designer whose firm is on the forefront of human experience design for mass transportation. They have recently worked on increasing capacity on existing train carriages, designed the vision for the new London tube train, kitted out the interior of the airbus fleet and even conceptualized the future of near-space travel. The next big challenge they’re taking on is the hyperloop, a pod within a series of sealed tubes which allows for friction-free movement. Priestman believes that due to the challenges our planet faces, including climate change and increasing populations, mass transportation will be the only way forward in the future. That redesigning networks, functions, and interactions between different modes of transport is the direction we should take if we are truly to address the needs of the world.
What the world of mass transportation has yet to solve is the 'last mile'; a person’s journey to or from a mass transportation vehicle, and it’s this last major hurdle that fuels the argument for driverless cars.
It's hardly surprising that Julian Thomson, as the Advanced Design Director at Jaguar-Land Rover, feels differently. For him, the futures streets are filled with autonomous vehicles. These will, most probably, be electric cars, in all shapes and sizes, with sharing models overtaking ownership, but will address what he feels consumers want; personal space, and on-demand convenience. With the growth of the sharing economy, Jaguar-Land Rover can see benefit in what these platforms provide, rather than the potential loss in sales they could lead to. Jaguar see that owning a car or two has probably never met every need a person or family has had; one day a small car would be perfect to pop to the shops, another day a large one is required to go on vacation. To reflect this variety in need, the car giants feel consumers will be better satisfied by becoming part of the Jaguar ‘club’. This way you pay a subscription instead of buying a car, and although you may still have a certain vehicle outside your house most days, you can request different models depending on the particular activity you have planned. It will even drive itself to you at the time required.
Arguments between the two sides went back and forth relating to autonomous vehicles clogging up the roads, and mass transportation only ever being able to cover part of any journey, but what really stood out were the themes surrounding user experience. It is, in the end, going to be the consumer, who determines which model works. To do that, not only do the interiors of these vehicles need to be fit for purpose, but the process and systems behind them, and the experience at either end of the journey will be highly critical too. This is the time for architects and designers of the built environment to step up and play a part in the future of transport design. What is a person going to experience when hopping out of a driverless car? What will their first impression of a place be when a train drops them off within the envelope of a building?
We might not have the answer yet - but the consideration of both future scenarios will be the starting point for our explorations.