The Future of Motoring

Cars Culture

Autonomy, Access and Audio

What does the future of motoring really look like?  At London’s Royal College of Art, postgraduate students on the cutting edge Intelligent Mobility program have been trying to find answers to the question. We met three individuals with interesting ideas…

 

Dan Vorley: Autonomy.

Dan Vorley, June 2020

 

Autonomous vehicles are (part of) the future. But how do you learn to trust that self-driving vehicle? How do you learn to love that machine? Designer Dan Vorley looks at how we might begin to understand our vehicle’s thought process. 

 

IN: Tell me about your project and the issue you were trying to address…

Dan Vorley: I started by looking at the emergence of autonomous vehicles as a tool for a more efficient system of transport.  Whole groups of people are wholly accepting of autonomy and want it to be fully integrated. But on the other hand other groups of people reject the whole idea of autonomy entirely. This latter group looks at the accidents that have allegedly happened because of failures in autonomous systems and decide that autonomy is not something to aspire to.  My project is about making engagement and interaction with autonomous systems a much more human thing. It shouldn’t be just about screens and traditional Artificial Intelligence.

IN: How did you set out to address the problem?

DV: I talked to a lot of people. I explored just what it was that builds the trust we have in human drivers, in people we don’t know, like taxi drivers, pilots and so on.  I discovered that it’s all about the little things within those human interactions; the emotional back and forth. I began to try to understand what building blocks in that relationship can be replicated in an autonomous, non-human entity.  If we as humans think that something ‘nonhuman’ will be taking control, we often reject it.  There are lots of concepts today which try and put forward an Avatar, or an Artificial Intelligence, that tries to be human, that gives a human voice and maybe has a face.  But:  we inherently know these things are not really human. We call it ‘gimmicky’. We interact with it in the same way that we interact with Alexa or Siri. We don’t really have a ‘serious’ interaction with it. So: I tried to come up with ideas and technologies that do not try to mimic human features. My focus was on replicating intelligence through visualisation of the thought process… 

 

IN: How is it possible to visualise the ‘thought process’ of a vehicle?

DV: I looked at 3D imaging of the brain. Imaging technology has made a lot of progress in the last few decades. One of the most recent imaging techniques is called Diffusion Tensor Imaging. DTI is a way of mapping the pathways of activity in the brain in three dimensions. By scanning fluid in the brain it can create a 3D image of brain activity. I took this as a motif and an inspiration point to map the activity that would be happening in the neural network of the autonomous vehicle. By projecting what was happening in the Neural Network of an autonomous vehicle, you would be able to change the ambiance of the vehicle, through lighting and display. The passenger wouldn’t have to directly engage with the interface, but instead be able to  understand the process of the vehicle. This would lead to an intuitive relationship with the vehicle. If there is a change of environment as the vehicle moves along its journey, the interface would change. If vehicles or humans or other objects get close to the vehicle, or  if the vehicle encounters a junction,  the interface would change without the passenger even necessarily being directly made aware of it.  They would understand that the vehicle is aware and reacting accordingly.

IN: Would there be an interaction there with this passenger, rather than driver, would there be feedback from the driver to the vehicle, or is it a one way street? 

DV: If you have an emotional response to something that the driver has done, then there is a recognition, and then a change in its driving patterns because of that reaction. If the person driving does a wild, scary, menouvre, you as a passenger are likely to react – and hopefully the driver will act accordingly. When a lot of people think about autonomous cars, they think  that the car will listen to you if you want to go into a service station and get a coffee, or if you are late for work it will automatically pick up the pace.  But I think it will be much more subtle than that. I think the technology is improving in terms of reading out emotions and understanding the state that we are in, through blood pressure and eye fluctuations and things like that, so I think it will be a more nuanced interaction. If we get angry or annoyed or tired, or happy and upbeat and content, I think the vehicle will be able to inherently pick that up and change its patterns accordingly. 

 

IN: That entails a completely different kind of relationship with the vehicles we use…

DV: I am exploring the idea that you truly inhabit a vehicle, rather than simply ‘operating’  it.

With autonomy vehicles can be tools used to travel very efficiently.What that does mean is that the joy of driving and getting behind a wheel might start to dwindle. It doesn’t mean that it will completely go, there will definitely be a time and a place for driving, or I hope there will be, at least. But it will mean those mundane times when you are behind a wheel on a long journey, and all those times when you are getting picked up from a party and you are half drunk and shouldn’t be driving, those times when human error becomes a big issue, these can be eradicated. This technology will save lives. But autonomous tech not only has potential for saving lives: it can also give your vehicle true character, It can be designed so that your vehicle truly reflects the personality of its users. We already attach personality to our cars. Brands spend a lot of energy defining the character of their products. This potentially makes this very malleable to every user’s requirements..

 

IN: These vehicles still have to be desirable though, don’t they?

DV: Aesthetic form of the vehicle wasn’t really a focus of this  project –  it was much more about the interaction. But what is apparent is that you can’t present an idea or grip people in the same way unless you wrap it in a package that is desirable. Even if you have something which is a good idea and makes complete sense, if it doesn’t look good, it doesn’t draw people in. If it doesn’t create this space that people want to be in, then it may as well be a bad idea. 

Vidyut Naidal: ACCESS

Designer Vidyut Naidal poses a question for the future of the auto industry: is it possible to make a vehicle that inspires passion and which everyone can drive – regardless of ability?

IN: Tell me about the inspiration for the Silverback

Vidyut Naidal: When I was a kid in India my Grandparents would tell me different stories about Indian philosophy. Many of the concepts in Indian philosophy deal with the unity of mind and body. I began to think of mind, body and the potential to unite these in a machine. When Audi  released their ‘A- Trail’ autonomous off road vehicle, I was fascinated. Looking at this new form of vehicle, and also this idea of bringing together body and mind,  I began to explore the possibility of designing an outdoor adventure vehicle, for people who can’t usually access this sort of environment, or vehicles that are simply for pure fun. In a way, paraplegics suffer from the disunity of mind and body. I thought that it would be interesting and valuable to design a vehicle that might help to alleviate that suffering and at the same time, be desirable and aspirational at an aesthetic level.

IN:The Silverback looks like something all of us would want to have a go on – whether or not you are paraplegic. Was that your intention?

 VN: I am not paraplegic, and I am not trying to say that I understand what people with disabilities are going through. But at the same time it was clear to me that the majority of products designed for paraplegics are not attractive to anybody, whether or not one suffers from a disability. You look at the kinds of vehicles on the market and you ask yourself ‘is it really going to work?’…or  ‘Is that thing going to be able to take a bump?’ You think to yourself, ‘what if I want to get some excitement or thrill out of it, where is the enjoyment in this vehicle?’ That immediately connected back to the idea that mental exhilaration aids bodily recovery. At first I didn’t have a strong idea of what this vehicle was going to look like. I didn’t know if it was going to be an All Terrain Vehicle; I didn’t know if it was going to be a bike, I didn’t know if it was going to be a car. In fact, I don’t think the Silverback is any of those things! I think it sits in its own unique space; an amalgamation of all these different types of vehicles. In the process of design I was looking at all sorts of things, from cyborg-ish concept art to animal forms and figures in dynamic poses and stances. So that’s where the journey of this vehicle started. The way I see it, the silverback can be a starting point for a discussion within the industry as to whether they should consider building inclusive vehicles. 

IN: The idea of accessibility is one of the new frontiers in design, isn’t it?

VN: Absolutely. If you look at the past couple of years, you will see various different examples of people with disabilities informing design, or giving TED Talks about design. This was really inspiring to me.  But it is really weird to see the industry not really taking those things on, or at least not mass producing things like that. That’s why I wanted to explore whether it would be possible to design a vehicle that could facilitate automotive adventure and passion from both disabled and non -disabled people. There is after all no difference in the aesthetic sensibility, of the desires, of disabled and non-disabled people. There is just a lack of physical mobility. The lack of physical mobility affects non-disabled peoples’  perception of who these people are. And that is wrong…

IN: So the Silverback looks beautiful and desirable, but it can also help  solve a tangible problem.

VN: Absolutely. Design  has to be more than about drawing pictures. Ultimately, you have the ability to affect something, so the true question is ‘why don’t you go out and affect something’? That’s what I really want to answer.  I think there could be real value in a vehicle like this out there in the market. There have been a lot of different pieces of work that affect people with disabilities  in a positive way, but we haven’t really had something that gives them a sense of thrill or suggests that they can go out there, drive like a mad people and risk your life a little bit, go and enjoy that thrill, you don’t have to be better able than you actually are. The Silverback  gains our curiosity, it’s something that asks a question, and suggests adventure and fun for everyone. And it’s a point of discussion that can hopefully begin to solve a really important problem.

 

Sonic Youth: Johannes Recla

The future might be electric. But that doesn’t mean the future is silent. In looking to solve the problem of safety versus passionate driving engagement, Johannes Recla, an Italian designer from South Tyrol, looked to the sky for inspiration.

IN: Tell us about the project.

JOHNNES RECLA: Electrification is obviously a big part of the future of mobility. But one of the problems with electrification is that the sounds of the vehicles are not audible for humans. This causes a problem around safety, as well as the emotional connection we feel with our vehicles. At high speed in an electric car, you can hear road noises much more intensively than in a fuel-driven car, because the foreground of constant sound is missing. The beautiful roar of an engine at full tilt is simply missing. On the other hand of course, at low speeds in the city, the lack of engine noise means that pedestrians and cyclists cannot hear the sound of the car, and so they become much more vulnerable. Pioneering companies like Tesla have attempted to use ‘fake’ noises to counter the problem. But I wanted to try an organic approach.

 

IN: How did you address the problem?

JR: I am a big fan of biomimicry – the way that we as humans can design things based on what we see out there in the natural environment around us. I began particularly to look at the behaviour of birds and how that behaviour is activated by their morphology. It turns out that the feathers of certain bird species are specifically designed to emit sound whilst just flapping them and moving them in the wind. That is a way for birds to communicate with a flock or other individuals – if there is danger, or if in a flock they are just going in another direction etc. That inspired me to actually use the surfaces and the airstream of the car, which is created when it is moving, to try and figure out what material and shapes produce the best sounds and feedback outputs. I thought that this would be  a good way to produce a new piece of design for the automotive industry. And this could just be a starting point in biomimicry in the industry. It really could bring a new wave of innovation.

IN: Has anyone done this before, or is this a new approach within automotive?

JR: I have seen a few very small attempts. There was once a small project in Germany, where a student tried to use harp strings and produce sounds with those whilst running. But, in fact, my emphasis was really on creating a new signature, not only a sound signature, but also a visual signature for cars, and in fact celebrate this function. There are quite a few art pieces, which use air flow to create sound. There is a singing Willow Tree in England, for example, which uses pipes in different directions to emit sound when wind is going through. I think my project is genuinely new..

 

IN: Is it easier to produce sounds through airflow at high speeds?

JR: I wanted to prove my concept and show that this idea could work.  The first problem for me as a student was to test these technologies at high speed. This is very difficult, especially when like me you are in London and you don’t have your own car! But I did manage to test the airflow in a number of ways. I borrowed cars. I even used a Boris Bike a couple of times! Airflow starts to trigger a sound with most of the materials from about 15 km per hour. Below that, it is really difficult and there are not many ways you can create sound from only the airflow, so that’s why I implemented another way of triggering sound with motion, with a rattling system that is inspired by the peacock. Male peacocks display their feathers and rattle them as an attraction for the female.  I implemented a visual front pattern that starts rattling from 1-15 km per hour.  This attracts people’s attention and shows physically, but also sonically, that this car is moving and coming their way.

IN: Did you want to create a more intense sound for a higher speed, or was it the opposite?

JR: My project is all about flexibility. You can go from high sounds to low sounds, from high speed to low speed, in any way. It really only depends on the measurements and the shapes and the application – where on the car these parts would be. I really wanted to look further into the idea and see what could be a good application for which solution. I put a higher sound with higher tones at the front of the vehicle for low speed. Higher tones  are more ‘alarming’ for people, and people notice them immediately and turn around. For high speed, I actually implemented something with a lower frequency, just as a background sound for the inside passengers, so they would not have to hear all the road noises and wind noises going around the car. My application doesn’t attempt to replicate engine noise. In fact, my solution  is kind of the opposite to how sound works in ‘normal’ cars. At low speed, the sound is quite loud. At high speed, it’s a low toned, gentle sound. But in the real world, references would be decided by the respective brands.

 

IN: Do you think the system that you devised could be easily implemented into the industry in the next 5 to 10 years?

JR :Everything in my project is implemented by hardware. It doesn’t require technological tricks, or something other than movement,  to trigger the airflow and the sounds. The project really is about coming up with the right measurements and right shapes.  Therefore,  I think this really is a project that can be implemented in the next few years, if not today. This project addresses  a problem that is very current and very pressing….

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