San Jose-based startup Next is taking a highly original approach to designing a future road transport system. The idea is to use flexible, multi-usage modules which meet the needs of the 21st century.
The personal automobile must certainly be regarded as the iconic means of transport of the 20th century, but what will take its place in the 21st? Much ink has been spilled on the subject and today the most promising avenue would seem to be the shared electric, self-driving vehicle concept, at least for urban environments. Rather than driving your private car to work, you will in future be able to use a smartphone app to order up a vehicle, in which you will travel with other passengers.
Nevertheless, amid all the various ideas and arguments thrown up on this subject, there is one aspect that tends to get forgotten: the shape of the vehicle is almost always subordinated to its technical features. So designers generally seem perfectly content to retain the vehicle shape that we are familiar with and provide it with new functionality. However, the private car, as we know it, with a space comprising two seats front and back plus a boot, was designed to meet the needs of people in the 20th century. In designing the vehicle of the future there is no cogent reason for sticking to this formula.
A shared electric self-driving vehicle does not have the same requirements as a traditional petrol-powered road vehicle for the way the space is organised and how it interacts with other road users. This argument is what prompted Next, a startup launched by two Italians working in Silicon Valley, to think differently. Their vehicle design has the three key characteristics – electric, self-driving and shared – but has taken an innovative shape intended to respond to modern needs. Why, for example, limit vehicles of the future to four or five seats? The ‘cars’ designed by Next are rectangular, ‟as long as a ‘Smart’ car, but as high and wide as a bus”, says Next CEO Emmanuele Spera. The result is a spacious passenger compartment with seats for six people plus standing room for four.
Designing travel in the city of the future means planning for constant flows of services and people
Marrying form and substance
The Next Future Transportation Inc. project is not however just about developing a more spacious vehicle. The company intends to provide a modular system which both meets the requirements for future road passenger transport and offers added facilities in line with people’s new expectations. One of the most innovative ideas is without doubt the potential for the vehicles to link together into a sort of train compartment which can be reconfigured en route. Passengers would be able to move from one car to another, switching from congested modules to areas with more space, without the ‘road train’ having to stop.
Given that one of the advantages of self-driving vehicles is that the ‘driver’ can concentrate on other tasks during the journey, Next’s idea is to make compartment areas as spacious and pleasant as possible so that people can work, read, or just relax. The modules have nevertheless been designed to fit into the existing environment: they run on wheels and can use the same roads as traditional vehicles. The Next Future Transportation concept also avoids the need to install car battery charging stations throughout the city. ‟The vehicles can be charged up as they are moving, either by another car transporting only a large battery, which comes and hooks up to a vehicle train, or directly by induction, as the sides of the vehicle sit very low, at road level”, explains Emmanuele Spera.
In fact the rectangular shape of the vehicles requires slightly different self-driving technology from the standard approach being followed by most autonomous vehicle designers. Rather than relying on LIDAR technology, Next uses an optical system based on high-definition cameras. The company says it is currently in discussion with the authorities of a number of German and north-eastern European cities with a view to running pilot projects.
The on-demand economy could really benefit from innovative vehicles
Developing on-demand mobile services
The Next project is not only of interest to local authorities and city residents; commercial firms and service providers may also find there is something in it for them. Spera regards his product as a piece of hardware that can be transformed according to need. There are many possible options, especially with the current boom in the on-demand economy. Next vehicles could be used by foodtech companies to make quick deliveries and one might also imagine more ambitious – even rather far-fetched – applications. Why not for instance fresh coffee supplied to the compartments by expresso machines installed in cars wending their way through the city? Or another company might tender to provide mobile work spaces, installing a fully equipped office in each vehicle so that people with crowded schedules can remain productive during the journey? A third firm might provide mobile bathrooms, with showers, bath products and towels ready to use. The modules could also be used to display advertising, with screens installed in the cars showing 30-second ads, and even keeping a stock of advertised products for on-the-spot sale. Passengers might be given the choice of whether to have this kind of commercial module attached to their car or to opt for a quieter journey.
If all this seems rather surreal, the thinking is nevertheless consistent with the notion of the road vehicle of the future: a flexible, modular system that can be used by everyone, which also provides a platform for offering added mobile services. The city of the future might thus be built on a sort of transport grid on which a range of units designed to meet residents’ needs move around smoothly. Quoting the example of Tesla, Emmanuele Spera stresses that no project is unrealistic. You just have to believe in it, he argues.