WH, May 2015

[re]framing the object

The key lies not in the bare object, nor in its bare environment; but in the impact of both on human interrelations and experiences – a value far more superior to its individual initiators.

It is exactly in the overlap between mode and environment that things happen for people.

It is exactly in the overlap between mode and environment that things happen for people.


These days, driverless technology makes important progress in the field of R&D. Almost daily, publications are made to communicate about progress, ideas, concerns, and evolutions. But the more this technology is promoted and popularized, the more the gap between the technology and its functionality becomes noticeable. It seems as if an answer is being produced to a question that was never clearly posed. The technology is coming, but what the hell are we going to do with it? A comparison towards Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy in which a supercomputer generated an answer to a question nobody could remember is not even too far-fetched. In the novel, a bigger, far more powerful computer needed to be constructed in order to reverse the answer back into a question: an operation that required much more energy than the generating of the initial void solution. It suddenly seems very likely that, analogous to Adam’s story, the clearly stating of the problems to which this technology could form an answer to will be much more demanding than the development of the technology itself. To seize all opportunities and achieve the best possible outcome, a focus-shift towards the future framework in which this technology will operate is urgently needed.

Engineers are developing driverless technology because its implementation is feasible and could be useful for their own business in a variety of manners. But they only consider the technical level or in the best case a very preliminary micro-frame for it to be useful. The evolution towards this approach is quite logical, since it is mainly the IT sector and the car industry that are the big driving forces behind this development. These businesses are generally only interested in creating the technology to implement in their vehicles. Google, for example, mentions safer and more efficient driving as the main goal of their project: a noble intention, but it will not solve the problems human mobility is facing in the 21st century. It is without any doubt an enormous missed opportunity: the fact that one does not have to drive himself anymore is far more inferior to the fact that the object can drive autonomously and the implications this generates.

In some cases, these same IT and car companies create self-declared visionary publications about future mobility. But they seem to fail in pointing out the real opportunities and to think about mobility in a more holistic way. The traditional perception and use of the car remains merely untouched. A basic example that comes to mind is the need for a personal car that is able to track down a near parking spot and park itself. Would this feature not be entirely useless in an environment where personal vehicles do not exist as private property, but are shared in a service system? There would be no need for a car to park itself since there is no need to leave it somewhere. After having arrived at a destination, the vehicle simply moves on for a next fare. In these same publications, the city is usually pictured in an unchanged condition: moulded to cope with an overflow of car-based traffic, but yet failing to do so. The street sections are defined by a paradigmatic broad and ubiquitous driveway, flanked by an elevated pavement. Downtown parking lots are as present as they ever were. The only noticeable change is not even the vehicle itself, but simply the fact that it does not need a driver anymore. Could we not try to deflect the focus from a city of mobility into a city of accessibility?

Of course, we cannot blame the technical engineers for a lack of urban vision. So what happens on the side of the urbanists, the theorists and sociologists? Silence. It seems as if there is no reaction yet from an urbanistic point of view; certainly not in concrete design proposals. Some rare projects excepted, it is doubtful whether there are any significant visions of the organisation of urban mobility since the introduction of shared space in 1991. This does not mean that the work of urbanists in the last decade is irrelevant – quite the contrary: wonderful projects have been designed and realized over the past years. But it has only been a reworking of existing concepts, trapped in the traditional subdivision of mobility in the conventional groups of pedestrians, cyclists and motorized traffic. The development of new technology provides an excellent opportunity to reconsider urban shapes and concepts, and with this even define some welcome guidelines for the technology itself. The Audi Urban Future initiative has been a first large scale cross-over platform, but there is a clear need for more initiatives and interdisciplinary partnership throughout all possible scales.

This is no plea for new sci-fi scenarios or tabula rasa masterplanning, nor for abandoning the development of driverless technology, but a demand for a sensible and thoughtful collaboration between urbanists, car designers and engineers. The key lies not in the bare object, nor in its bare environment; but in the impact of both on human interrelations and experiences – a value far more superior to its individual initiators. It is the only way in which these new forms of mobility could become profoundly meaningful to us.