We’ve been told that the self-driving car will lead to better cities, that it could dock with your apartment to add more space, or be an office on the way to work. With companies like Uber investing heavily in the technology, it’s easy to see the future of these vehicles as a shared urban resource, as readily available as cabs once were. But for the most part, none of this would fundamentally change life in cities–other than never needing to find a parking spot again.
San Francisco design firm NewDealDesign–known for commercial projects like the Fitbit and unabashed provocations like Scrip–has a different view of the future. In a concept it calls Autonomics, the studio considers how autonomous, electric vehicles might change suburban and even rural life. It paints a picture of tiny delivery bots that pull up to your car in motion to deliver food, bus-sized vehicles that you can dock with to party or shop from the road, and dozens or even hundreds of vehicles could assemble into cities on wheels.
“We see a lot of possibilities here that are currently not explored,” says Gadi Amit, founder of NewDealDesign. He points to research by Trulia that suggests suburban growth could be on the rise–and the fact that urban sprawl that means that people in big cities, like Houston, actually do a lot of daily driving. “The urban/suburb effect of these cars is not being covered. And one of the key points we’re trying to make here is [with autonomous vehicles] you’re moving more because it’s easier to drive more. Maybe you’ll drive around the countryside while getting the best services.”
So instead of getting delivery to your home, you’d get it to your car. NewDealDesign suggests that a drone it calls a “Leechbot” could drive up to your vehicle on the way to your kid’s soccer practice, drop off McDonald’s, and scurry away–saving you that few extra minutes that could be spent in a drive-thru window. Or a ZoomRoom–essentially an automated bus–could do anything from park in your driveway to fit you with a suit, to dock with your car on a road trip to offer refreshment, to camp out with several other ZoomRooms to create ad hoc villages.
Is it really so hard to imagine? Combine a social network like Twitter, which has enabled nearly instant promotional strategies that drive users to food trucks or flash sneaker sales, with large cargo trucks that could be followed by self-driving cars as easily as the latest trending hashtag. Grocery-vehicles could bring fresh produce to food deserts and medical wagons could bring highly specialized healthcare services into rural areas, cycling through small towns in a way no single centralized hospital could.
In this sense, NewDealDesign isn’t imagining the autonomous vehicle as a vehicle, but as a network of people and businesses laid out across 4 million miles of U.S. roads. It’s what Amit suggests would bring about a “complete restructuring of the real estate market” in which no plot of land was much more special than the next one.
“One other possibility, if I wanted to go more, sci-fi, is that along the highways you’ll have moving, crawling communities,” says Amit. “Because a few of these zoom rooms could pick up a lane, slowly move, and you’d have a crawling party happening.” It could be anything from a strip mall on wheels to Coachella at 65 mph–depending how you look at it.
The only cost seems to be energy. Autonomics really only makes sense if these electric machines are powered by unlimited free solar. Otherwise, NewDealDesign is recreating Mad Max.
As radical as this city-on-wheels may sound, Autonomics actually echoes a 50-year-old idea by British architect Ron Herron. In 1964, he presented a concept for a Walking City, essentially what we’d consider a modern day cruise ship with legs, traversing across the countryside with complete self-sufficiency.
“I’m familiar with Herron’s work, but the core of my inspiration came from the time where travel was intended to be glorious, almost magical, from railroad cars outfitted with parlors for eating, drinking, sleeping and entertainment to the Concord jet with all its well-fashioned details at every level,” says Reid Evans, lead designer of Autonomics and Strategy Design Director at NewDealDesign, when we ask. “The goal with Autonomics was to imagine a world where getting from point A to point B wasn’t just about the journey’s end, rather everything that happened in between.“
Indeed, there is no future in which Manhattan will suddenly sprout wheels and drive off into the sunset. But could the Brooklyn of 2100 be an arts community taking tours of North America’s natural wonders? It would certainly be a trip.
[All Images: via NewDealDesign]