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ArtCenter transportation design students envision future mobility

A concept car from ArtCenter College of Design's Transportation program.
A concept car from ArtCenter College of Design's Transportation program.

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If you can dream it, the students at ArtCenter College of Design are already working on it. They’re designing ride-share vehicles, self-driving cars — even race cars that can slip the surly bonds of Earth and literally … fly.

Want to see the future? It’s just up the road, high in the hills of Pasadena, where an international student base is letting their minds roam free in the pursuit of developing tomorrow’s transportation solutions today.

“It’s getting to the point where you really can do anything. The only limitation really is, is there a marketplace for it and your imagination,” said Stewart Reed, chair of ArtCenter’s transportation design department.

“You can build anything. Everybody’s already talking about flying cars or fully automated cars. It’s here. We can do these things."

Esteemed as one of the most important automotive design schools in the world, ArtCenter’s elite graduates are responsible for most of the cars we see on the road today — and the different types of vehicles we’re likely to see on the road tomorrow.

“We have students who are working on very unique specialized transportation solutions, single person vehicles, autonomous two- and four- and six-passenger city vehicles,” Reed said. “We’re seeing solutions that look more broadly at the infrastructure of the city and how it has to adjust and change to accommodate new modes of transportation design solutions, not only for moving people but goods around and services."

Many of those solutions were being showcased on a Thursday night in late April, when ArtCenter was graduating its most recent crop of future transportation tastemakers at a lively, beer-infused event.

Eight-term transportation designer Mike Margiotta was showing a concept he called Uber City.

“In 2025, I’m predicting that millennial couples that live in the city, they won’t need a car, but they still want to get dressed up and go out … and they don’t want to have to take a taxi or a bus,” Margiotta said. “This vehicle is a little bit more of a premium Uber experience inside the city.”

Step inside Margiotta’s Uber, and there are four roomy captain’s chairs facing each other, living room style. Each chair has its own dedicated screen to display in large format whatever might be playing on the travelers' phones. And there’s another screen — for in-car advertisements.

“That allows you to offset your ride fare by allowing them to advertise to you,” he said.

In Margiotta’s vision of the future, on-demand transport will be autonomous, electric, comfortable — and potentially free.

For another student, the future is also electric — powered with giant solar panels that jut from a car like giant insect wings. When the vehicle is parked, the solar panels quickly detach from the car and re-attach to a building, so the power they generate doesn’t go to waste. It contributes to the grid.

While the cars are idle, they are also underground — far away from traffic — helping to solve another even more major urban mobility problem: roadway congestion.

“People are looking for parking spaces. That’s what’s actually creating the traffic in the urban cities, so if we can park our cars fast, there should be no traffic. Or a lot less,” said the concept’s creator, Alan Chao. Originally from Taiwan, Chao said his concept was inspired by collapsible Chinese lanterns.

At ArtCenter, students are given free reign to concoct urban mobility solutions in a future that could otherwise be gridlocked as cities like New York and L.A. add millions of new residents.

In that way, ArtCenter is a lot like the auto makers for which its students have traditionally designed individually owned personal vehicles. It’s thinking beyond cars to a future when personal car ownership may not be the norm — to a future when cars might not even be cars.

Graduating student Mark Hoang’s future involves two big ideas — an airplane-sized drone that could perform emergency operations, including reconnaissance and rescues. And a new twist on an old idea — the flying car.

Hoang started out as a mechanical engineering major at a different school, but he’s put that knowledge to work at ArtCenter with an ambitious project that, if he could get it to work, would really free up the streets.

“What I wanted to do for this was to create a land to air project, so it would be a land race with an air race too,” Hoang said of his concept vehicle, which transforms from an earthbound race car to a flying car.

“Everybody’s talked about a flying car for a long time. People have always imagined that to be a possibility. In theory, it’s hard to make it believable. How you could actually get a car to fly? There’s so much physics behind it … Hopefully one day, keep trying, keep believing in it, and hopefully it will come true.”

That’s the rub about the future. No one ever gets its right. But someone has to think about it and start to design for it. And there’s no better time than now.