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RCA Vehicle Design Produces Sustained Vision for Future Urban Mobility

Home to the world’s oldest vehicle design programme, the Royal College of Art has built a track record of successful, evidence-based vehicle design research innovating in response to changing technologies, improving inclusivity and accessibility, and shaping a vision for future urban mobility through transport service systems. Such industrial innovation – in vehicles and transport, both nationally and internationally – has shown, and continues to produce commercial, societal and environmental benefits.

Royal College of Art researchers Dean of the School of Design Professor Dale Harrow, Deputy Director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design Rama Gheerawo and their colleagues have developed a unique approach to vehicle design research, proposing design as a method of enquiry, and focusing strongly on systems thinking, user research and co-creation with a wide range of groups.

Working collaboratively with industry and peers from complementary disciplines such as engineering and software, RCA vehicle design research has addressed how vehicles can be both developed as components of a working system and respond to the needs of multiple stakeholders.

Professor Dale Harrow’s work on the London Taxi TX1, the model for the current London taxi, awarded Millennium Product status by the Design Council in 1999, was a first for the mobility-impaired. The ‘world famous, fully accessible and instantly recognisable vehicle synonymous with London’, as referred to by London’s Mayor, set the bar for taxi design globally.

Current research into the future London taxi with vehicle manufacturer Karsan builds on Harrow’s taxi mobility legacy. The quest now is to create a highly accessible and iconic new London taxi that will vastly improve the energy efficiency and environmental footprint of the traditional London cab. The project has been exploring the development of a ‘soft platform’ approach that will allow prompt and efficient adoption of the most sustainable power pack – natural gas, hybrid, full electric – that can be rapidly adapted to changing technologies. 

RCA Vehicle Design research has also paved the way for future public service vehicles and systems. This month, the College secured the principal research role in stakeholder engagement activities as part of a £8m investigation into the viability of driverless vehicles in urban environments, commissioned by InnovateUK.

The London project will create a world-leading test-bed for driverless cars, enabling automotive and other industries, planners, policy makers and others to evaluate both new vehicles and innovative technologies applied to existing vehicles, and to understand the human behaviours and attitudes emerging around these new forms of transport.

Underpinning this is a body of research that has confronted the tension between the private demands for transport and public systems on sustainable bus systems, and explored the relationship between mobility and digital systems. The RCA’s research with city transport specialist, Capoco, helped foreground user research as an integral part of the process of design for transport and vehicles. Dealing with issues beyond the normal remit of its in-house team, the College helped Capoco shape a 25-year vision focused on systemic approaches, enabling it to demonstrate the future potential of existing technologies.

One of the key outputs – Mobilicity: Scenarios for Sustainable Public Transport 2025 – won the Michelin Challenge award at the Detroit Motor Show in 2006, and was later exhibited at the Science Museum, London. The team also contributed to a highly praised handbook on innovating with people using inclusive design adopted by the Norwegian Design Council as part of its training courses for business.

Another early practice-based research project for UK bus and coach manufacturer Optare explored how a 16-seater low-floor vehicle could be adapted to address the problems of rural and inner city social exclusion. The idea arose through analysing vehicle capabilities across leisure, corporate, health and local authority markets, considering existing mobile services and future community needs.

The resulting Community Service Vehicle (CSV) was a versatile, mixed-use vehicle, featuring roof-mounted awnings to host events, as well as options to increase workspace or storage capacity. It enabled Optare to enhance its share of the community service vehicle market and successfully produce several other community vehicles such as the full wheelchair accessible Bonito minibus for local communities.

RCA Vehicle Design research has also led the design of vehicles in response to changing technologies. Such innovation has combined advanced technical expertise with design thinking to integrate aesthetic considerations with functional innovation. Focusing solely on engineering solutions would risk losing sight of the users’ needs and desires. This integrated approach has helped manufacturers create products that are commercially successful, as well as safe, accessible and efficient.

Among the fruits of research in this vein has been a radical modernisation of vehicle control surface for Visteon, a leading global automotive supplier of interior climate, electronic and lighting solutions. This work reconceived the vehicle dashboard as software-based and customisable, and set the dial for developing a hierarchical system of in-car information, displayed through back-projection from the interior of the dashboard. This has had long-term benefits for Visteon, providing a basis for the driver information reorganisation in subsequent concepts including X-Wave, C-Beyond, e-Bee.

Looking ahead, as the global population swells and ages, and as the need to mitigate environmental damage becomes ever more urgent, the Royal College of Art’s vehicle design research, focusing on user needs, changing technologies, inclusivity and accessibility, offers a roadmap for future mobility, balancing commercial, societal and environmental demands.