Creating the blueprints of tomorrow

Fresh from New Mobility Global in Liverpool, David Wright discusses the future of design with Alex Kreetzer. 

Coventry University has a worldwide reputation for automotive and transport design and has currently the largest undergraduate course in any university in the world. Coventry has been doing this for around 45 years now, cementing its place in the industry, as its alumni are positioned all over the world in senior positions including Ian Callum, the Director of Design at Jaguar and Gerry McGovern, his counterpart at Land Rover. Through a global network of designers who are heading the automotive and transport industries, Coventry and its design centre is a leading force through emerging transport trends. I speak to David Wright, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Coventry University, to find out more about the Midlands-based institution and its National Transport Design Centre (NTDC). "Over the years, we have done a huge amount of student projects and internships, but we've never really exploited the capability and reputation that we have as much as we could have in the areas of research and collaboration within the industry," he says. "Securing some Growth Deal funding from Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership, gave us the opportunity to invest in a more significant presence with a physical facility."

The NTDC is a manifestation of these ideas, concentrating on research, post-graduate education and industry engagement. Research funding is self-explanatory, allowing the centre to further invest in R&D into the factors and methods which will influence future design; post-graduate education allows new opportunities to teach new subjects in a different way and industry engagement allows collaboration within the broad spectrum of the industry, which for NTDC encompasses aerospace, rail and marine, as well as automotive. "We don't want to try and set ourselves up as a private sector design consultancy," states Wright. "We want to work closely with those private sector companies, which play a very important part in the supply base; we are not trying to compete with them." Ultimately, the NTDC is looking to work with these companies to enhance their capabilities and enable them to take risks that they couldn't otherwise do with commercial projects, in order to raise the capability and competitiveness of the UK’s private sector design industry. 

The next-generation 

The NTDC has a great role to play in the future of design, as the automotive and transport industries are experiencing a great shift that possesses endless possibilities to match new models, such as mobility services or self-driving cars. Coventry is introducing the new generation of young designers into the world which, if its existing alumni are anything to go by, will lead the transition across the world. This younger generation are aware of the massive change the world is about to experience and are vital for progression in this sector. One major change in terms of design is the use of virtual and augmented reality, especially when creating future transportation ideas. "Although you may be able to tell someone what a future transport design would be, you have to be able articulate your ideas through both the physical and virtual worlds," says Wright. "We don't just view this as using tools, but actively developing and designing the way that we use these tools and technologies to create new and super-efficient design processes." The NTDC's vision is to be the leading authority on understanding the inputs to future vehicle design, as well as effectively articulating the outputs. In fact, as Wright says “NTDC isn’t about drawing pretty red sports cars; it is more about understanding what "pretty" means, why it should be red and even why it should be a car at all. We are not here only to make models; we are researching all of these individual factors that are going into transport design in the future." 

Mobility isn’t limited to just vehicles, but any form of movement - this shows that future mobility design is an extremely broad and exciting space. However, the creation process is complex, especially when you look at turning concepts into production models with minimal changes. Through new mobility concepts, designers must draw inspiration from many different areas and understand what has to be done to transform this idea into a production model in the future. "One of the great things about giving a vision of the future is that no one can actually tell you that you're wrong, as we haven't got there yet!" jokes Wright. "A lot of the forward-facing, 'futuristic' stuff that some of the design companies have put together is pretty good, bearing in mind that they don't typically have the resources to put the depth of research behind it. Although I respect what they are doing, I do get upset by some of the management consulting companies which push forward a vision of the future without having an argument for why the design looks a certain way." It all comes down to an opinion, which can be a bad thing in this case, so there needs to be more education on future transport and a better understanding of the design process. It has to be more than just an opinion. "We get frustrated by some of the things we see which have clearly not had a fully-considered rationale behind them and are only there to promote an aspect of someone's thinking or business." We see countless designs now that are, quite frankly, ridiculous and don’t serve the agenda well or help keep moving it forward. It is key that the industry doesn't get carried away with new ideas and technology, in order to avoid overcomplicating and wasting time. 

Creatively vs complexity

Regulations are one of the most obvious roadblocks in future transport design, even if they are there for a reason. On one hand, these will stop people getting carried away with ‘out there’ concepts, although it may also prevent certain innovations getting to market due to restricting creativity. Wright believes that the industry has to respect regulations, as they are there for good reason. "Ultimately, they are there to make sure that we are protecting the safety of our citizens, even if sometimes it doesn't feel like that," he says. "They are there to make sure that we are not doing anything irresponsible and that we are doing something that doesn't endanger the lives of our families and friends." It is important to constantly question these new regulations coming in and the validity and appropriateness of them because, in certain industries, there are still people trying to execute designs based on regulations that were put forward in an age where technology, materials and the way which people travelled were completely different. "Regulations need to keep pace with the changing nature of the world, but, if you look at some of the railway regulations, for example, many are still based on things that appeared in the golden age of steam," states Wright. "The great danger of this is that it stifles innovation." 

It is both a challenging time but also a really exciting time, due to the opportunities that are offered by some of the directions people are taking with technology that could genuinely be life-changing for the population. But we still have huge questions that we need to address and we are, in some respects, still being distracted by the technology rather than having logical conversations about what is trying to be achieved. If we start asking the questions such as what's it for, who's it for and what the product is going to deliver, we can progress organically and create a hyper-efficient and safe ecosystem for everyone to enjoy. Autonomous technology is a great example of this, as there are countless opportunities, whether that is designing products or implementing them into urban environments. "Autonomy will work well in certain circumstances," says Wright. "The most attractive benefits are not for every minute of every day and this need to be properly considered.” 

Mobility for all 

When it comes to the future of transport, the likes of London, New York and Shanghai will all blossom with innovation and revolutionise the way people move around cities. However, this isn't necessarily the same case for cities that do not have the infrastructure or capabilities to implement these new mobility solutions. It is impossible to make the world a better place with one single design format, so it is important that designers identify separate solutions to cater for each urban settlement. Wright explains that the solutions provided will have to be specific, sensible and appropriate to the situation in which they are applied. "This stems from the needs of the population in a region, the availability of energy sources, the historic attitudes to mobility and the desire of what people want to get out of mobility," he says. "However, we should expect to see a bypass of the traditional route, which is entirely feasible and desirable. Why should we expect developing countries to go through 100 years of automotive development before they get to what's available just because we had to?" The new world of mobility offers fresh and exciting opportunities for the introduction of new modalities and energy vectors to be introduced into areas where personal mobility hasn't been seen as an inalienable right more quickly than we see in the Western world. 

The real point behind all of this, is that the industry will not solve this problem by looking at point solutions. Future mobility needs to be addressed at a systems level because there is going to be so much interconnectivity between industries and technologies that have never had to talk to each other before. "If we are going to deliver the benefits of what we think autonomy can offer us, then that's got to be looking at the vehicle, the road infrastructure, the power distribution networks and the telecommunications surrounding it," Wright advises. "The whole thing is now a much greater system and if we want to get all of the benefits, then we have to look at the complete system." If the technology takes the industry to a place where a large number of self-driving cars can operate safely in an environment, the transition through the mixed ‘fleet’ will cause significant issues if not addressed. This aspect of future mobility is not being debated anywhere near as much as it should be. "There is a lot of investment going into the technology from governments and companies, but R&D and investment in the infrastructure is still lagging behind," says Wright. "We're not discussing what has to be done with the road infrastructure and some of the solutions that we can deploy to allow this change to happen." If these future mobility solutions existed today, would you let them loose on public roads? Like many, Wright thinks not. "To enable the technology to be deployed, you must first look beyond the car and set the standards." 

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