How design is accelerating the transition to our mobility future

Strategy Director

Inefficient distribution of resources is an age-old human problem. Food, land, energy are all abundant and yet, despite unprecedented connectivity and expertise, scarcity and waste still happen. The same applies to transportation, where we have seen a significant upsurge in the use of individuals using convenient online cab services like Lyft and Uber, coupled with increasing congestion and air pollution. Meanwhile, in rural areas in the UK, for example, where the digital cab companies are less prevalent, people are losing their bus services in record numbers. Our current transport systems are neither efficient, nor sustainable in the long term.

The good news is there are technological solutions to both these issues on the horizon. The work is already being done to bring self-driving electric vehicles up to a standard – and up to the numbers to revolutionize how we think about car and multi-passenger vehicle sharing. Fully autonomous ride sharing cars could be the norm by 2021, according to Ford. The wheels are in motion, and so the next, crucial step for manufacturers, vehicle hire/ride companies and town planners is to encourage the necessary changes in consumer behavior to encourage adoption.



Will car share become AirBnB on wheels?

A key issue that cities are struggling to solve is vehicle utilization. Simply said, most privately owned cars are only used 4% (UK) or 5% (US) of the time of the time, leaving the remaining time to sit parked, taking up valuable space, and not returning any return on investment to the owner. This is an issue both citizens and cities can get behind solving.

From London to New York, car sharing – hiring an entire vehicle for a set amount of time – is becoming an increasingly viable alternative to the cost of owning your own vehicle, with local authorities also warming to the idea as a way of cutting down on residential parking and related space requirements. From a behavior perspective, this concept has different traction based on whether it’s in a dense city center where personal car ownership is a hinderance, or if it’s in an outer suburb where ownership is an expected and beloved icon of independence.

Car share providers like ZipCar or BMW DriveNow enjoy an easier behavior shift, as it leverages the existing mental model of car rental, just for a shorter time frame (by hour or minute). This can be further motivated in denser city centers, when positioned as alleviating the difficulty of owning/parking a car. Looking ahead, many service providers anticipate the ability to further encourage this behavior by the convenience of having the empty car drive to you, appearing on-demand at your doorstep.

However, in other proposals, we see alternative models where privately-owned vehicles “moonlight” as community shared vehicles in their down time. This is arguably a larger behavior jump for car owners, yet the potential benefits – offsetting the cost of ownership, reducing the need for households to own multiple vehicles, and the reduction of parking demand – lead us to wonder how we can make it more palatable. The existing behavior model of lending your car to a neighbor or friend exists but letting a stranger drive ‘your’ car is not something many of us have much cultural experience with beyond the occasional car park attendant.

There are likely to be learnings here from how home share companies like AirBnB designs trust into its model for lending your home to strangers. A similar car share service model would most likely benefit from similarly significant insurance guarantees and mutual rating systems. In addition to the promise of providing an additional source of income for the owner, acknowledgement for the quality of service could also be built into the car share company’s UX for both owners and borrowers. What’s the car/mobility equivalent to being a five-star AirBnB host?

Shifting ride share beyond less awkward = more dynamic

Ride sharing – sharing a vehicle with others while you ride along – has different challenges to adoption. Research has shown us here at Smart Design that the physical space inside the vehicle has a significant impact on people’s expectation (or willingness) to share. Solutions for short-of-money Millennials such as Bla Bla Car aside, asking two strangers to share the back seat of a taxi is an inherently odd social experiment. Most vehicles are designed for the social dynamic of people who know each other – usually friends or family. The amount of personal space in a sedan (low ceiling height, bench seating) is designed for friends, whereas the amount of space in a minibus (high ceiling height, individual seating, easily accessible rows) is designed for strangers. Proper vehicle selection enables the opportunity to flip the experience from being perceived as a compromised (shared) taxi, to seeming like an upgraded shuttle with on-demand service. The shuttles enabled by Bestmile as well as our own work with Ford, are a good example of this amiable public space.

Trust must become the next building block

New mobility services struggle with adoption. Markets are competitive and the introduction of new technologies like autonomous vehicles can challenge the public’s trust. What we’ve found in London is that, despite the everyday headaches, while the TFL Transit Authority is the brand everybody loves to hate, it does hold the public’s trust. When working with local communities in anticipation of a new autonomous mobility service pilot in London, we discovered that simply mentioning the endorsement of the TFL or including the logo can significantly increase passenger appeal and trust in new services or technology. Despite all the grumbling about TFL’s delays or interruptions, in the end, it is a trusted brand and stands for safety. In this age of startups vying for public trust, transport authorities are recognizing their brand power, and will need to defend it by making smart partnerships with services that minimize risk. It’s also worth bearing in mind that city endorsement will significantly raise public expectations, and so services must be ready to deliver to that level of quality and reliability.

Changing direction, to be a breath of fresh air

The other aspect of this topic is avoiding the unintended negative consequences of new mobility services on cities. Ironically, new mobility services don’t always improve congestion – sometimes they make things worse.

Take New York for example – when we worked with Nissan to design the first purpose-built taxi a decade ago, the city had just 13,000 yellow cabs. Fast forward to today, and that number hasn’t changed, yet the introduction of Uber, Lyft, Via, and others has introduced 50,000 new vehicles on the streets of New York in the past three years alone. Road trip volumes in New York have tripled in the past year and a half, and many of these trips took passengers OUT of public transport and INTO street-clogging personal vehicles. If we look at vehicle miles traveled, app-based rides contributed an extra 600 million miles of travel in New York in the last three years. This issue doesn’t just relate to personal mobility, but it relates to parcel mobility as well. The increased adoption of Amazon Prime, meal kits, and other delivery services has resulted in a significant spike in trucks and vans on city streets not built to cope with this number of larger vehicles. Consider the increase in air pollution generated by these private cars and delivery vans, let alone the congestion, and the consequence of convenience is evident.

Luckily, the answer lies squarely in the design of these services. They were all originally conceived to maximize value and convenience for the individual, but “cheap and easy” options aren’t always healthy. The next generation of mobility services for urban centers must take into consideration the needs of the individual, corporation and the urban fabric as well. This is a topic we’ve been thinking about for some time. We have explored several approaches to solve for this through service design, in particular relation to MaaS (Mobility as a Service).

The MaaS buck stops… where exactly?

MaaS involves complex nesting of services-within-services, like a Russian doll of mobility. Imagine a city, with a MaaS provider, which includes a Ride Hail service, which uses a particular OEM’s vehicle, which connects to Spotify. Who will people blame when something goes wrong? I don’t have the answer, but the question underscores the need for clarity from the consumer’s perspective. One hypothesis might suppose that he who takes the money from the user, will receive the phone calls when things go wrong. Could this be an opportunity for players like VISA, who are otherwise struggling with disintermediation, to step up and provide the guarantees that are necessary across this complex network of players?

For many people going about their daily business, shivering at bus stops or fuming in traffic jams, this may all still seem like ‘Futuristic First World Problems’ – but it’s worth thinking about now – because how we design and integrate the systems for this roadmap will have Real World consequences for a huge number of people. It took less than 30 years to transition from horse-drawn carriages to motor cars. Silicon Valley think tank Rethink X estimate that 95% of journeys will be in driverless cars by 2030. Whether it’s increasing vehicle utilization or managing the mix of public and private transport options, efficient and sustainable solutions make sense from a personal – and global – resource perspective. How to conceive of these solutions and encourage the necessary shift in behavior is where design can help.