Image of concept car Audi e-fit

Concept car Audi e-fit. Design: Robert Schäfer, Umeå Institute of Design.

All Roads Lead North

At the Umeå Institute of Design, students are busy sketching the smart cars of the future. And Skellefteå will soon see the opening of the battery factory set to power them. "The car has always been a symbol of freedom and independence", says Demian Horst, professor at the Institute of Design.

Imagine a self-driving car arriving when you need it, charged with solar power. The interior looks like a lush living room and can serve as a venue for family outings, business meetings or a pre-dinner drink en route to your favourite restaurant. The car is mainly made of recycled materials and feels almost alive, all technology neatly embedded under the surface. Sound futuristic? At the Umeå Institute of Design, designers are not only studying design. They are also taught how to make you trust the utopian vehicles that may soon be rolling down your street.

– If you can imagine it, then it's not so distant. As designers, we can make people trust these new solutions by designing them in a way that we accept them, says Demian Horst, who heads the university’s master's programme in transport design.

The future is being designed by students in Umeå

The programme is top-ranked internationally, every year drawing students from all over the world. The design assignments include everything from driverless electric cars and gentle forestry machines to sculpting aerodynamic clay model cars and radical visions on urban mobility. One thing that is clear is that the car's role, function and design in our future society will likely be determined as much by new technology as by new ways of thinking.

Image of student project Docking,

Student project Docking by Wenting Wu, Umeå Institute of Design. A part of the project Audi och Umeå 2050, City that influences mobility. Mobility that can influence the city.

– The car has always been a symbol of freedom and independence. Today we see the car as a translation of ourselves. We're having cars as our avatars, they are part of our identity. I think in the future we will see more of another relation to the car, says Demian Horst.

He grew up in Brazil and after graduating in industrial design, he worked at a local bus manufacturer in a family business founded by Swedish immigrants. In the early 2000s, he received his master's degree in transport design from Umeå Institute of Design where, after some years at General Motors, he has lectured since 2009. The school runs close collaborations with local as well as international companies and organisations, where the projects often revolve around the transformation of the transport field. The transformation in which self-driving cars are likely to play an increasingly key role. Demian Horst has no doubts about the benefits, especially from a sustainability perspective.

– The car today runs five per cent of its life. The other ninety-five it's parked somewhere. If you have autonomous robot vehicles you can optimise the use of the vehicles, their material, resources and energy. At the same time you'll have more freedom to utilise the space and the volume of the vehicle when you don't need to divide it into a front and back seat. Especially with electrical motors that take up significantly smaller space, you can even place it in the wheel, says Demian Horst.

He envisions a variety of ways to own and use, as well as have access to different types and sizes of cars based on the needs of each traveller and journey. The car is a flexible, mobile third space next to the home and place of work. There is also a democratic dimension.

Inclusive design

– We can talk about class perspective. If you don't want to or have the possibility to take a big loan to buy, you can still have access to the same kind of products and experiences as those who traditionally have been in an economic position to own expensive cars. But we can also talk about a functional perspective. This is the most beautiful aspect of the development. That you can design so that disabled people that don't have a driving license can have access to the same freedom and independence as everyone else, says Demian Horst.

One part of this future scenario is that more and more cars will be powered by electricity, either through hydrogen or battery, the latter being the focus of Swedish company Northvolt. Inspired by American electric car producer Tesla, they will soon be opening a gigantic vehicle battery factory in Skellefteå. Their ambition is to make Europe's greenest batteries that are charged with locally produced renewable energy.

– Tesla has revolutionised the experience of the car, and given you the feeling that you can update it like your phone. They've influenced a lot of brands to bringing in all these flat and digital screens into the cars. But I think soon all these screens will disappear. In the next step the vehicle feels alive, like a second nature to us. All the technology is hidden under the surface and skin. And then the challenge is to design ethical digital solutions that passengers will trust to use, says Demian Horst.

Image of student project Heed.

Student project Heed by Heidi Yli Suvanto and Martin Westfält, Umeå Institute of Design. The project is part of The aesthetics of trust – Volvo interior concepts 2020.

Design for change

Daniela Bohlinger was recently appointed associate professor at Umeå Institute of Design. She started her own career with studies in goldsmithing, and highlights knowledge of the craft as a valuable tool in the design process, as well as the ability to predict and visualise our needs for the future. As head of sustainable design at BMW, she has been involved in the development of several generations of electric cars and leads the company's adaptation to circular economy, recycling, reduced emissions and fossil free energy.

– Design has the ability to visualise the invisible and talk about things that you can't see. Can we design a language for this issue? That's what we tried to do in the best way possible with the highest goal in sustainability, she says referring to working with BMW's electric models, the family car i3 and the sports car i8, both which were highly acclaimed when they were launched in 2012.

The development team not only carried the new technology to its frontier but also presented an aesthetic that pushed the limits for prevailing conceptions of how a car should look. Without compromising on safety, they developed lightweight carbon constructions that reduced the car's consumption of energy, and made maximum use of the space, which was freed when electrical power replaced the combustion engine and fuel tank.

– We had a holistic approach to sustainability and built a whole new platform for these cars, where each part of the production chain, from suppliers to logistics, was within close range, says Daniela Bohlinger, who during the pandemic is working from her home Munich, where BMW's headquarters are based.

She underlines that an electric car also has a climate footprint where ethical and ecological aspects of how the energy and materials are produced and handled have to be considered. At the same time, society needs to be prepared for the development that design drives forward. That applies both to the architecture and infrastructure of the city, for example charging stations, as well as the readiness of people to adapt to new alternatives.

Image of student project Fikaroom,

Student project Fikaroom by Miguel Rodrigues, Umeå Institute of Design. A part of the project Audi och Umeå 2050, City that influences mobility. Mobility that can influence the city.

– These cars were our vision out in the street. Instead they were received as if it was a question of style and taste. Are they too high-tech? Are they sexy enough to compete? It was forgotten that this was a revolution in the car industry. The radical design of the i3 was the perfect lecture for us how far we can go, says Daniela Bohlinger.

She adds that even though the brand's later electric cars are more advanced when it comes to performance and ecological aspects, they are more conventional in their design. It is the designer's job to communicate the sustainability embedded in the car - recycled metals, plastics and textiles, the certified wood and the electrical power - and at the same time meet the customer's expectations on the familiarity of safety, comfort and luxury.

Our master plan as education is to create students who are conscious about ethical aspects, who choose this field for the right reasons, and who have a good heart. Then we want to bring them into the industry like a Trojan horse so they can change it from within, says Demian Horst.

Cars designed for the cities of the future

– There's a fine vocabulary on sustainability. But the best solution is to take stuff out, and still make cars where you feel that nothing is missing. Take out the decorative panels, the flat screens, the leather upholstery. Instead we can use textiles made of discarded fishnets or find new organic materials such as cactus and pineapple fibres, and utilise the space of the car in better ways. We have to collaborate with a lot of different actors and work innovatively together with smart ideas. We will still need cars and mobility in the future. The challenge is how do you design and integrate the car so it will be a plus and not a burden for the people and the city, says Daniela Bohlinger.

Demian Horst is on the same track.

– We will still be fascinated by these huge sculptures rolling by, the way the car looks dynamic, like it has a direction, the complexity of functions. But we now know that this wow-sensation can be very dangerous if it encourages people to thoughtless consumption. As designers we still need to be creative, to innovate new experiences and sensations, but it has to be grounded in a responsibility and an awareness of the problems and the impact of transport industry. It's a wow combined with reason, that communicates a car that is clean and eco-friendly.

Achieving this requires both expanded recruitment and a classic strategy.

– The design of cars has been associated with power, speed and aggression and has traditionally attracted a lot of men. But we will need a lot of different aspects to create the services and solutions that the future needs. For that we need a greater diversity (in the industry/field). Our master plan as education is to create students who are conscious about ethical aspects, who choose this field for the right reasons, and who have a good heart. Then we want to bring them into the industry like a Trojan horse so they can change it from within, says Demian Horst.

Text by: Carolina Söderholm

The article was originally published in Form Magazine, 3, 2021.

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