Reimagining Mobility

Self-driving cars that pick your kids up from school. An app that smoothes your public transit experience, from starting point to final destination. A network of autonomous, modular pods that allow you to travel the world, bringing your life along with you.

These futuristic-sounding ideas may not be so far away: they’re all concepts that students developed and prototyped in Reimagining Mobility, a course launched this fall at the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation. Supported by the Ford Motor Company and its Bay Area-based Research & Innovation Center, the new course attracted advanced undergraduates and master’s students from diverse fields, ranging from mechanical engineering to anthropology. Collectively, these students came to the class with internship and research experience in areas like public health, robotics, vehicle design, and business planning, creating what instructor Rob Hennigar called “an amazing mix of students.”

Over the course of the semester, Hennigar led these students in envisioning meaningful interactions between people and new transit modes. Together, the students explored emerging trends and technologies, identified needs and opportunities, and turned their insights into prototypes of novel transportation systems. In the process, they forged connections between their fields of expertise and a toolkit of design skills — bringing this integrated perspective to the frontier of a rapidly shifting mobility landscape.

As the semester began in late August, students familiarized themselves with the mobility innovations that have been filling headlines and reshaping industries in recent years: autonomous vehicles, alternative energy, ride-sharing, new public transportation infrastructure, and more. From the start, they approached these advances with a design lens, considering how communities might interact with a new technology, or how global trends might affect a given person. “There’s so much potential when you think about the human aspect, how people accept and relate to these big technological changes,” says Patrick Hartmann, a master of engineering student who brought a background in automotive engineering to the course. To design effectively, he adds, “You need to actually go out and talk to people.”

Images from early stages of the design process, by the SmartBART team (Jose Calderon, Vy Ly, Sonali Verma).

With this in mind, student teams — each composed of students from various disciplines — set out to conduct interviews and observation sessions on campus and throughout the Bay Area, investigating student biking patterns, BART and bus ridership, interactions between Uber drivers and customers, and much more. They charted their findings using tools like empathy maps, noting what the people they talked to said and did, and what they might be thinking and feeling. From these conversations and observations, it quickly became clear that exploring mobility involved mapping complex networks.

“When we think about mobility, we also think about systems,” noted Hennigar during one early class session. Students’ reports on their research highlighted this, touching on systems from employment patterns to family structures. Their findings also pointed to nuanced feelings surrounding mobility innovations. One group, who had seen a gap between the state of autonomous vehicle technology and the discomfort many of their interviewees expressed around the idea of self-driving cars, commented, “We’re not just investigating technology — we’re investigating emotions.”

Grounded in these human-centered insights, the teams began to start brainstorming potential innovations that would reflect users’ contexts and needs. Each group came up with 50 ideas, using this rapid exercise to surface thoughts that could be remixed or refined. From there, the teams converged on more targeted concepts, sketching out their ideas and creating lo-fi prototypes. As the semester advanced, they immersed themselves in an often cyclical design process, toggling between research, prototype development, and user testing as they moved through iterations. With the students encouraged to explore wide-ranging ideas, a diverse mix of prototypes — encompassing videos, app mockups, CAD models, 3D prints, and more—began to take shape.

Early sketches from the Carpt team (Lexian Guo, Patrick Hartmann, Advaita Patel, Anosh Sethna), left, and an image from a rendered CAD model of their autonomous platform, right.

In early December, the course’s six student teams gathered to present their prototypes to Hennigar and to guests from Ford. Leveraging their members’ varied skill sets and an array of rapid-prototyping tools, each team had prepared a prototype that interwove physical and digital components, as well as some business planning. Several groups imagined how self-driving cars could reshape daily routines, prototyping ideas from an automated ride-sharing system for kids to an augmented commuting experience. One team, connecting the emerging technology around autonomous vehicles with social trends in employment and travel, proposed a system of modular pods (and an accompanying social network) that would empower people to roam the world freely, bringing their homes with them. Other groups conceptualized 21st-century approaches to infrastructure, such as an autonomous platform that could transport traditional cars, cargo, and more, and an app that would facilitate better experiences on BART.

Mockups from the Nomad team (Leland Lee, Cody Little, Adam Mansour, Brandon Van Ryswyk), which envisioned a system of modular pods, and an accompanying app, that could enable new travel and living styles.

These wide-ranging projects reflected a freedom — both to explore various angles of the issue of mobility and to develop concepts that might not be immediately feasible—that students found liberating. “This isn’t a class you see every day,” said one student. “It didn’t limit us.” One common thread, however, ran through all of the projects: a focus on linking sophisticated technology with a thoughtful, holistic approach to how a user would experience this technology. The teams approached their prototypes as ecosystems: a team that proposed a system for customizable, on-demand self-driving cars, for example, outlined not just what the cars would be like, but how a user would interact with the system’s mobile app, the emotional comforts a car’s interior might offer, the behind-the-scenes implementation modes that would make the system possible, and the multi-tiered business model that would help the service gain traction and sustain itself. “Doing things like making a business plan really helped us bind our ideas together, with context,” notes team member Kylon Chiang. “We were thinking, ‘How would this really go into the world?’”

A lo-fi model of one of the Vroom team’s proposed implementation modes.

The Ford team, which is on the front lines of efforts to bring emerging mobility technology into the world, was impressed by the students’ ideas. “Ford gave carte blanche to the Jacobs Institute to visualize the vehicle as the solution to problems of energy, environment, economy, and wellbeing,” says Nico Thetard, design manager for advanced interior experience at Ford. “The students exceeded our expectations with revolutionary, ingenious solutions.” This fruitful semester has proved to be the opening of an ongoing collaboration: Reimagining Mobility participants have been invited to present work at the Ford Research & Innovation Center, and the course will run again in the spring semester. For students at the Jacobs Institute, this engagement with the cutting edge of mobility is a unique opportunity, allowing them to apply design approaches to systems that powerfully shape local and global experiences. As Berkeley students continue to imagine new directions for mobility, they will be adding their voices, and their ideas, to a conversation that is transforming our world and the ways we move through it.

By Laura Mitchell