Since October 2016, a couple of minibuses have been travelling between two points on a 1.4km route in the eco-friendly business district of Confluence, in Lyon, a city of half a million inhabitants, in the southeast of France. What is most unusual about these 15-passenger minibuses is that there is no driver or conductor on board; moreover, you cannot make out whether it is coming or going.
Symmetrical in design, the 'front' and the 'rear' of the vehicle are identical.
As the vehicle has been configured to proceed in either direction, both ends needed to feature headlamps and rear lamps, as well as the panel at the top displaying the bus number and destination.
Thus, the designer of this driverless, autonomous minibus (the very first in commercial production), the Navya Shuttle, designed a vehicle with identical front/rear, one which incorporated all the functional requirements for the front, as well as the rear, of a bus.
On first encounter, it can be a bit confusing, as one may be wondering whether one had just missed the bus, or whether the bus was approaching the stop where one was waiting.
As people got used to the design, as well as the concept – of a driverless vehicle – these buses have proved to be very popular. Navya, since deploying the first buses in Lyon (the city where these autonomous vehicles are manufactured), have sold these autonomous minibuses across the globe. From Perth to Los Angeles today there a couple of hundreds of Navya autonomous buses ferrying thousands of people in electric quietness.
Not unlike the Navya Shuttle, Navya’s latest vehicle, the Cab, is another strange device. It is a six-seater taxicab, one which has been designed to transport six people, sitting facing each other, in a vehicle that is driverless and autonomous.
Unlike the bus, the front and rear are not mirror images; yet the car is rather confusing: which is the front end and which is the rear may have bystanders very perturbed. The vehicle also has just one sliding door on one side, the kerbside of the vehicle (which is on the right side, as the vehicle is currently designed to be used in countries where people drive on the right, such as Continental Europe, and the US.).
In designing vehicles like the Navya Shutttle and the Cab, the designers have had to rethink the way an automobile needs to be designed, as the use and ownership considerations change considerably, as we all move into a new world of autonomous driverless vehicles, to be shared by all and sundry.
The automobile industry is at an inflexion point in terms of technology, as well as what automobiles are going to look like. With emissions issues overriding economic factors, cars powered by fossil fuels are expected to disappear over the next couple of decades. As electric motors and batteries or fuel cells come in, the placement of the powertrain and the packaging that goes with them will change drastically.
Most of the cars today have their engines at the front, and for almost all the smaller cars, these engines drive the front pair of wheels. With electric motors, the driven wheels, if they are going to be a pair only, will be the rear in more cases than before. Which may mean that the locations of the motors may move either to the rear axle, or to the rear pair of wheels, freeing up space at the front, or compacting the vehicles into shorter front ends.
At the same time, the ownership patterns of vehicles is changing rapidly too. Until recently, about 97% of the vehicles on the road have been in private ownership; the remaining three percent or so were for public transport, such as, taxis, buses and three-wheelers. This ratio is going to change with the percentage for the latter increasing exponentially. More and more people are expected to give up owning a car and even if they do own one, they may not use it as much as before.
Concepts like vehicle share programmes, car or scooter pools and so on will change the way vehicles serving these needs, will need to be conceived, and designed. Thus, the design and aesthetics of these publicly owned vehicles could be very different from the ones owned by individuals. The latter will be able to personalise their vehicles, whereas the one for public use will be of the more homogenous, almost characterless, but very functional, robust, matter-of-fact 'boxes' on wheels.
The trend has already been set in Europe, as more and more people are giving up cars and have started using public transport, or shared vehicles. This trend may take time to reach countries like India and China, but will surely happen.
Thus, manufacturers have begun to design and develop vehicles to address these differing needs. As much as giants like General Motors, Toyota or Renault design characterful cars for automotive enthusiasts, they are also working on designs like the Segway Puma pod 'car', the three-wheeled oddity i-ROAD (for the city of Grenoble in France), and the Twizy tandem-seater quadri-cycle respectively, to provide vehicles that could transport an individual or two to work or play.
(Gautam Sen is acknowledged globally as a leading automotive journalist, writer, automotive design consultant and expert from India. He founded the country’s first newsstand car magazine Indian Auto in 1986, followed by Auto India, Auto Motor & Sports and BBC’s TopGear. Mr Sen has also been directly involved with the automobile industry in India and Europe, and has worked with eminent designers such as Gerard Godfroy, Tom Tjaarda and Marcello Gandini.