Students Design a Transportation Future

I teach transportation design at College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit at a time of massive change in the automotive industry. We once primarily taught automotive design and styling, now our students are learning about the larger mobility eco-system. I am teaching my students more about moving people, and a bit less about designing just cars.

Last semester my students got a project sponsored by Michelin to redesign mobility in the Great Lakes “mega-region,” which encompasses Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto and other locales, an area where 55-million people live. Some of my students proposed a new “bi-modal” mobility system that potentially offers major energy, land-use and economic benefits to both consumers and cities alike.

One of the big ideas of urban mobility future discussed today is offering a rich network of self-driving cars operating (on-demand) as “Ubers” to consumers. Some experts expect this will reduce the number of cars in our cities by 90 percent. Did my students design a bigger idea than even this? Yes, I think they did.

The larger problem has to do with the size or “footprint” of the automobile, SUV or light-duty truck. Looking down on our vehicles, they are roughly 16 feet long, 6 feet wide, and require 96-ft2 each. The earth has 1.2 billion of them on it. In cities such as Denver, only 1.1 people on average are in a travelling car. That means they are mostly empty and travelling about in an inefficient manner. By driving over-sized vehicles, land is used less efficiently, and the unused land is kept from being used for a better purpose.

My students’ idea was to design a micro-size personal “pod” vehicle that would travel with ease around one’s home community and adjacent environments. To travel longer distances, the pods would more or less “catch a ride” on a bus, train or monorail to a further away destination (think of a car ferry that carries vehicles across waterways). My students designed a “Pod Ferry” mobility system. It may sound impractical to have a mobility system dependent on a long-distance carrier and its required infrastructure, but it’s little different than depending on a freeway (or other mobility infrastructure) to get somewhere today.

The potential benefits of a new American mobility system based on a 24-ft2 micro pod mobile rather than a 96-ft2 automobile is exciting.  With the multitude travelling in smaller vehicles, roads all over the country could be redesigned to give considerable space to bicycles and pedestrians. Did you know only 52 percent of Americans have a sidewalk in front of their house, and many communities don’t know where to find the land for the needed sidewalks. My students helped me see an exciting future where people don’t just switch over from rolling rectangles they drive to ones they ride in, but into a new system that repurposes land in a meaningful way.

What’s more, when the pod ferry drops off a user (in a pod vehicle), the user can drive right to their condo, and drive right inside with the tiny vehicle. This system design will allow our seniors to enjoy a new level of mobility that they are unable to even dream about today, and offer many equally amazing benefits to the rest of us.  Essentially, their “chair” in their house can take them anywhere in the mega-region, in hardly any time. Revolutionary. 

As we imagine small chair or pod-like vehicles shooting us across town, I hear some worry that we are heading into a future like in the Disney/Pixar "Wall-E" movie, where people are overweight and don’t walk any more. But that is ridiculous. The students' design shows how we can convert many of our streets and parking lots around the country into places where we bike and walk more. Many of us don’t walk now because we are overly car dependent. Wouldn’t creating tons of great active corridors around the U.S. make it better to exercise and lead to a healthier population? I think so.

My 14 students looked at me weirdly on the first day of class, as I took them outside and had a child’s box of sidewalk chalk in my hand. They had come to CCS to design cars, and here I was asking them to draw an outline of a car on the street. I was asking them to think bigger. Yes, it will require a massive change-up to integrate pod vehicles in our mobility system. But they were dreaming. And where would the automobile industry be today without dreamers?  


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Dan Sturges is mobility design consultant for team red and has been supporting “transformative” transportation projects for nearly 30 years. He trained as a car designer and worked as an entrepreneur to bring to market a new intermediate vehicle category. He supports a wide range of vehicle design and mobility planning efforts for both government and corporate entities.