The paradigm shift

Jaguar Land Rover Designer and future mobility imaginator Jonny Culkin discusses the architectural freedom we will see in our cities with Alex Kreetzer 

Jonny Culkin studied automotive design at Coventry University, which many in the industry regard as a great course with a lot of heritage. This paved the way for him working with Jaguar Land Rover's research studios, where he has been ever since thanks to the company's forward-thinking focus on the new opportunities that are entering the automotive industry. "JLR wants to bring in students who have fresh ideas, immerse them into the company culture and prepare for the future,” he says. As well as designing the Jaguar Future Type concept, Culkin also works on his own future mobility solutions outside of the workspace, most noteworthy the Clean Air Concept and Urban Mobility Vision, after spotting certain areas that he believes can be improved on, such as public transport. It is great to see this kind of passion in the mobility-driven era that has allowed designers to take over the reins to these ideas that were deemed too far-fetched five years ago. Now, these ideas can be taken more seriously, meaning that there can be better exposure and thought over new transportation methods.

"It is a really exciting time for the industry, especially with the technology changes we are seeing, such as self-driving cars and a focus on electric architecture,” explains Culkin. “The combination of this creates architectural freedom. For example, we are seeing interior experiences within cars that we never would've had before if we were limited to steering wheels.” However, the self proclaimed petrolhead believes that the public may be quite upset with this shift and expects to see a mixture of both autonomous and manually-driven vehicles on our roads in the future. “I think that driving will still exist in a more purified form, but this shouldn't hinder us realising the great opportunities self-driving cars can provide, as they will be safer, cleaner and your last truly private space." This idea illustrates that the car may not be used solely as a transportation device, but as a new space where the passenger can shut off from the rest of the world and relax, which Culkin believes is extremely important. "These vehicles should create a rich experience for the user as this will be one of the few chances we will get to relax in an environment you wouldn't get anywhere else." Like many designers, Culkin is excited about the architectural freedom and the new experiences that we will soon be able to build into vehicles, thanks to an injection of innovative mindsets and advanced technology.

Reimagining transport

The end of private car ownership and a new era of mobility will certainly have an affect on vehicle designs of the future. Culkin's portfolio is broad in this sense, as he has looked at many different methods of making mobility products work, with ideas that range from reinventions of older vehicles to revolutionary multi-level transportation devices. Culkin explains that the latter is more of a metaphor for what we can achieve in the future, however he believes that we are nearer than we think to innovations like this, thanks to the introduction of autonomous technology. "In the public realm, autonomous vehicles are the next paradigm of public transport. We cannot only have privately-owned self driving vehicles which, like we see with cars today, won't all be in use at once. In urban environments we don't have any fit-for-purpose autonomous hardware; we have companies like Uber which are providing transport and mobility services, but they are retrofitting this into the hardware," he says. Due to this, it is important for designers to question what route we can go, creating awareness of future transportation in cities.

For example, Culkin’s Clean Air Concept questions whether autonomous taxis can be the future and whether will we see a world where there will be no privately-owned autonomous vehicles in the city. This could be expected, especially if we start to see this technology being regulated and commissioned by authorities who will run the mobility service themselves. “I think that autonomous vehicles will be a huge part of the cities of the future as we can essentially design much richer experiences that we've never looked at before,” continues Culkin. “The Clean Air Concept is able to raise above street level and dispatches from the underfloor mobility platform to allows passengers to get away from the claustrophobic city below. This is a metaphor for what these vehicles are capable of and there are loads of possibilities from taxis to virtual tour guides." Autonomous cars are the solution within our overcrowded and over-polluted cities, especially through new public transport networks and we will see a huge drive to bring concepts to life. However, we cannot allow privately-owned autonomous vehicles as a lot of them will be out of use for 95% of the day. These 'Zombie’ cars will create the same issue as we are already seeing today, which means that governments need to address this issue before it is too late. Fortunately, the Paris Deputy Mayor Jean-Louis Missika announced last year that the French capital will not allow privately-owned autonomous vehicles, in order to prevent congestion and lower pollution levels. Hopefully, this will set a trend for the rest of the world. "If we can switch over to mobility services, then we will start to see real tangible benefits through smarter and holistic solutions,” says Culkin. “Cities cannot hide from congestion, air quality and efficiency problems so I think it will be down to regulation change and a force of the automaker's hands. We're hitting a point where these things converge and that's why I think it is so important to put out concepts that, although might not necessarily work in the future, cause us to ask questions of why things are the way they are today." It is evident that all of the statistics for autonomous vehicles read true and it is hard to see how we can deny this progress much longer just because of a lack of public awareness.

Scaling back

Something which divides many is how city infrastructure needs to change in order to cater for future mobility solutions. This incredibly broad area includes autonomous cars, ride sharing, new public transport networks and the general formation of urban areas. For example, building dedicated lanes for autonomous vehicles sounds, to me, rather inefficient, especially when Vehicle-to-Vehicle and monitoring software exists today - although this does again come down to the products that will be rolled out. "I think that we will see a big roll out of image mapping from the automakers, using a load of cameras to navigate through the environment, along with lidar and radar sensors,” Culkin adds. “To me, it is a combination of everything, and I think that a city is one of the best places to understand the environment.” Dense cities do not have the room to expand the infrastructure so there is a reliance on the vehicles to navigate through the space. Culkin hopes that cities in the future are much less reliant on cars so that the city can start to reclaim areas lost. “Through this approach, we can start to remove such things as traffic lights and lots of the traditional infrastructure that's related to vehicles passing through that space.” This is a selfless way of looking at transportation, with a strong desire for collaboration to create a new transport system that caters for everyone living amongst it. It is important not to look at concepts in isolation, as they are simply a brushstroke in the portrait of future mobility.

"In truth, I think that concepts like mine are only one part of future mobility in urban areas,” continues Culkin. “It all depends on the type of journey that you need to do on certain days and, essentially, there will not be a fixed format as to what is best to use every single day.” Although it sounds strange, our cities are moving forward by stripping back infrastructure, thanks to software inside and outside of vehicles. An autonomous car does not need a red light to tell it when to stop, nor any signposts, monitored through smart infrastructure at all times, opening up more space for pedestrian areas and greenery, improving air quality and the day-to-day lives of the people who live there. Yet, people still need to get their heads around autonomous, electric and smart infrastructure in order for this change to happen, which Culkin believes is the greatest barrier in our cities. “As soon as you get the public behind it, that's when it will move forward very quickly,” he assures. “I genuinely hope that we move towards a society that's cleaner and sustainable, as we've all heard so many worrying things about the world in which we're going to live in the future. The vehicles we drive today are completely outdated and I hope that each object designed in the future is much better than it is today.”  

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