Let’s move on
Shared mobility in a post-COVID world
“What is the future of personal transport?” If somebody had asked me this question at the beginning of 2020, I would have given a simple two-word answer — shared mobility.
Shared mobility describes transport in which travellers share a vehicle, either simultaneously as a co-passengers (e.g. ride-sharing like Uber) or as personal rental over a set time period (e.g. car-sharing like Zipcar). In the process, these travellers also share the cost of the journey, creating a hybrid between private vehicle use and mass public transport. The benefit for the consumer is that they have easy and convenient access to a wide variety of vehicles, without the commitment and costs associated with private vehicle ownership. The benefit for society is that we get more out of the vehicles we make and use, reducing the environmental impact of travel.
In recent years, the technological advances in connectivity means car-sharing and ride-sharing has played an increasing role in our everyday. And by taking steps towards L5 autonomous travel, the future holds new and exciting opportunities for shared mobility.
However, the outbreak of the pandemic in the last year hit the wider transport sector hard. Cruise ships became headline news as virus hotspots. Airlines were pushed to the brink of collapse within weeks. Commuting to work via public transport was rendered unnecessary, if not unthinkable. And the very idea of sharing a ride with another passenger — let alone hundreds of virus-breathing strangers — suddenly turned sour. Put simply: despite its obvious benefits, shared mobility presented too much of a risk during a pandemic.
The big question we must ask ourselves now is, “how will transport emerge from the pandemic?” The experiences of the past year will likely leave a prominent mark on people’s behaviour with a greater focus on our personal health and wellbeing. While jumping into an Uber pool or picking up a Zipcar felt like a simple choice, we may become a lot more cautious in the future. This could push people away from shared mobility back to private vehicle use, reversing our progress towards a more sustainable future by several years.
But as designers, it’s our job to find solutions. Here, I propose three ideas for a post-COVID world. Thinking about how we can design for shared mobility experiences by creating innovative interior solutions that positively respond to some of the challenges the pandemic has posed.
1. Clean mobility, inside and out
If you have ever taken a ride in an Uber, chances are that you have found yourself in the back of a Toyota Prius. You may also recognise some other recurring tropes: the heavy scent of cheap pine air freshener covering the smell of cigarettes or some crumbs tucked into the seam of a backseat from a previous passenger. These things may feel small and insignificant, but they should also be a thing of the past as visible cleanliness becomes a literal hygiene factor in shared mobility.
To promote cleanliness, the future of interiors should see seamless surfaces without unnecessary parting lines, designed to avoid trapped dirt and enable effective cleaning. This means waving goodbye to impractical and unnecessary layering of traditional materials which we currently see in car interiors. Instead antimicrobial materials like copper fabrics will offer germ protection. While gestures and voice recognition will replace touchscreens, controls and even door handles — increasing hygiene by decreasing physical touch. Finally, advanced filtration systems will eradicate the need for the aforementioned cheap pine air freshener, offering an unrivalled purified freshness.
2. Personal comfort zones
London black cabs have experienced a long-awaited boom during the pandemic. The interior of these vehicles is perfect for social distancing, physically dividing the driver and the passenger. As we move beyond the pandemic, it is likely that some form of social distancing will continue. And just like the black cab, passengers will look for more physical separation and protection during journeys, especially in ride-sharing scenarios.
Rather than the family back bench design we see in car interiors today, seating could be tailored to a more individual experience. Armrests and headrests could provide physical separation and barriers that facilitate social distancing. This opens up the opportunity to create a ‘personal zone’ for each passenger with controllable comfort-levels, environmental settings or media content. Social distancing may feel like a burden or limitation. But ideas like this show we can treat these challenges as an opportunity to rethink the vehicle’s interior and create elevated experiences for every passenger.
3. Driven by wellness
Stagnant air, close proximity and high touch surfaces — shared transport has always been the perfect place to catch a cold. To fight against this, travelling together in the pandemic has meant implementing solutions like mandatory face masks, temperature checks and ‘fit to fly’ certificates. Beyond protection and prevention, how can we design for journeys that actively promote better health and positive wellness?
With a rise in autonomous driving, we will increasingly rely on sensors to guide and control our journeys. This same sensory technology can also be used in the car’s interior, monitoring the health and wellbeing of the passenger’s posture, vital functions, mood levels and so on. The interior could actively respond to this information, creating an environment that improves to the passenger’s wellbeing needs through adaptive light, sound and scents. The seat can offer a relaxed seating position which also regulates your body temperature through individually heated seams that are woven into the fabric. Travelling should not just be about getting from A to B, but about arriving healthier and calmer.
The post-COVID world remains difficult to predict and the past year has shown how quickly our behaviour can change, both on a local and global scale. Despite the ability to work remotely from more rural locations, populations will still be centred around densely populated urban areas and we need to find innovative solutions that help us live and travel together. Rather than falling back into old habits of private vehicle ownership, we should embrace change and redefine how we can move forward together through shared mobility.