Walter de Silva on future mobility

12 June 2018 | by Michael Gooderham

As Walter De Silva pointed out in his first of a forthcoming series of conferences inside SPD Milan – Italy’s oldest design school, in a city that leads Europe in car sharing – now is the time to be discussing mobility, more than ever. As the car design goalposts continue to move in essentially unpredictable directions, the former Alfa Romeo and VW Group design chief wants new students to take a serious approach to city mobility, taking in human and social sciences as well as usual design considerations to create a human-centric system.

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De Silva’s  from 2010

Here are some of his own considerations from the talk:

It’s not all about Level 5 autonomous BEVs

A lot of current concept cars for future cities are battery-powered ‘room on wheels’ autonomous vehicles, but De Silva doesn’t believe this is all we have to look forward to, or all we need. As well as believing that the car industry should avoid tunnel vision towards its powertrains and continue looking for other energy sources, he believes that different levels of autonomy will suit different circumstances.

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A graph showing a possible balance between autonomous and semi-manual driving

Sure, in cities fully autonomous vehicles can help to steeply reduce the number of accidents – crucial, as that’s increasingly where most severe accidents are happening – but cars made for travelling in between cities, out in the countryside, ought to be semi-autonomous. This is because it’s considered more “psychologically relaxing”; the driver gets control of their own journey and some of the “emotional freedom” that cars are unique in industry for being able to provide, without the risks or mental workload of fully manual driving.

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There will still be a place for cars like this in the future

Finally, pure driving as we know it today will take place on closed circuits, for those of us not willing to forfeit our souls to a driving robot and who still get something from engaging with these machines on a visceral level.

City cars must put needs before wants

While there is a lot of subjectivity in car design, inner-city vehicles should be designed ‘objectively’. Aerodynamics is not a necessary consideration, as the average speed can be as low as 3km/h in city centres (or a heady 12km/h further out from the centre).

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Safety should be prioritised above infotainment – although ‘apps’ will provide some personalisation. While electric ‘skateboard’ platforms have brought the industry back towards body-on-frame construction, a fully integrated monocoque should be the way forwards again.

De Silva showed a package with a track width of 1500mm, a turning circle radius of 1500mm (less than half that of a Toyota iQ), a raised floor and a single interior volume. Students were told that, from an aesthetic standpoint, they must not merely shrink a traditional car design onto this shape. Instead, the appearance should be tailored from day one to suit it.

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Sustainability must also be prioritised. Suggestions in this area included more considered choice of materials, construction methods that avoid welding, and coloured wraps instead of paint (other ideas are for the students to generate).

Plus, since a privately owned car becomes a part of one’s life, why not have it integrate your gadgets as well? The dashboard could carry a pop-out speaker for your tunes and a removable tablet for your everything-else, while the seat could pull out, in true 2CV style, and double as your office chair.

Brands must adapt

During the Q&A afterwards, someone asked how these inner-city pods would affect brands; if they become effectively interchangeable by being designed to the same set of needs, how do they keep their identity? De Silva’s answer was that the established names would continue, but in the semi-autonomous inter-city spectrum instead, while creating a new brand for the city cars (think of Mercedes and Smart).

These new brands, he says, should have a more product-derived aesthetic, perhaps having phone cover-style customisation options with clip-on panels (which we think could easily be CAD-modelled to spec and 3D printed in the near future, to cut time and cost while expanding possibilities).

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An electric quadricycle for hire - but it must be improved

This separation can allow them to build what is currently considered a lesser form of vehicle: a quadricycle. This, not full-size cars, is what De Silva believes inner-city vehicles must be – but they must be safer and more attractive to people as an idea than they are now, before the wider Milanese public will let go of their weather-beaten Pandas and cheerful old Mk.1 Twingos in exchange for the new generation of mobility – made to the target package mentioned above.

The rest is up to the students of SPD to figure out.