An autonomous school bus that delivers packages, and other predictions for the future of mobility

Purely a concept for now, this autonomous vehicle called Hannah, conceived by transportation design firm Teague, would serve as a hybrid school bus and delivery vehicle. (Teague Photo)

When Devin Liddell rushes to catch the King County water taxi, gazes out his office window at 1st and Union in downtown Seattle, or waits in a long line at Sea-Tac Airport to catch a flight, he starts imagining the future. Such idle thinking may be common, but for Liddell, it’s his job. As chief futurist at Seattle-based firm Teague, which specializes in design for transportation, Liddell has radical ideas on how design will change mobility, from urban cores to intercity travel, many of which he believes will transform infrastructure in and around the company’s home base.

Speaking at the Seattle Interactive Conference this week, Liddell outlined five major trends affecting the future of mobility and later sat down with GeekWire to talk further about how those trends apply to Seattle.

The street curb will get a revamp

Curbs were once a formal distinction, a way to separate the street from the sidewalk. In 19th century cities, they helpfully kept walkers outside the right of way, where they were liable to step in manure from horse-drawn carriages.

But in the 21st century, Liddell says, “The curb as a fixed, rigid piece of infrastructure isn’t going to work.” The chief culprit, he argues, is ride hailing services. Their influx has transformed busy downtown intersections into something like airport arrivals and departure zones.

Devin Liddell, chief futurist at Seattle-based transportation firm Teague, speaks at Seattle Interactive Conference. (Greg Scruggs Photo)

While Seattle has experimented with designated pick-up/drop-off zones, Liddell didn’t have any comment on those. However, he does believe there is a role for design in creating a more dynamic understanding of curbs. With signage that can change their type of use from no parking to emergency-only to pay-by-the-hour parking all in the span of a single city block, curbs may be among the most nuanced pieces of urban infrastructure.

To that end, Liddell lauds Coord, the urban planning subsidiary of Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, for its Open Curb Data that maps the use of city curbs.

Artificial intelligence will improve airport quality

Flying in the U.S. is far from its glamorous heyday, with endless TSA lines made worse by this year’s government shutdown and the inflight experience that hit a nadir in 2017 when United Airlines dragged a passenger off a flight.

Liddell, with his inside experience working with airlines, has heard slang terms like “gate lice” and “gate potatoes” to describe passengers who mill about by the boarding doors or take over three seats in a terminal to sleep on a layover.

Calling the boarding process a “design disaster,” Liddell believes AI will help airlines speed up boarding and ultimately eliminate lines. That utopian vision, however, requires other innovations like biometric screening or pre-airport clearance in order to reduce the friction between “landside” and “airside” on either side of a security checkpoint. Liddell imagines scenarios in which TSA agents can pre-screen passengers on an airport shuttle, not unlike the U.S.-Canada customs process on the Amtrak Cascades train.

In the near term, Liddell credits Sea-Tac with using cameras to improve real-time information for security line mitigation while recognizing a fundamental challenge facing one of the fastest-growing U.S. airports. “The physical footprint just wasn’t designed for that number of passengers,” he said.

Drones will become part of public life

While package delivery by drone remains a long unfulfilled promise from Amazon, Liddell believes airborne delivery is not the future of unmanned aerial vehicles. “I am not as bullish on delivery as I am on civic drones with roles in street cleaning, dynamic street lights, lifeguards, and crossing guards,” Liddell says.

The problem, Liddell says, “There’s no cute drone like there are cute robots.” Instead, drones have a militaristic connotation from their role in the U.S. war in Afghanistan. “Our conception of drones is too narrow as a flying, wasp-like thing,” Liddell said, showing an aluminium drone surveying critical remote infrastructure like a pipeline and yet still having a menacing appearance.

Those human responses are part of what make lawmakers gun shy about approving commercial or even civic applications. As a result, Liddell says, “It is incumbent on designers to prototype and take them to Olympia,” referring to the Washington state legislature.

A new modality between walking and bicycling

Liddell, a West Seattle resident, occasionally runs late to catch the water taxi to downtown. He’s contemplated an electric scooter, but his wife is skeptical he can “pull it off.” As micro-mobility options proliferate in dense urban centers, Liddell does not yet think the right technology has arrived, from the Segway flop to the uneasy scooter scenario playing out in cities across the U.S.

“If you want to get rich, here is the design brief for you: Design a modality that is faster than walking but lighter and smaller than bicycling and — here’s the rub — makes me look like cool while I use it, or at least not uncool,” Liddell said.

The need for such an in between mode becomes all the more apparent when Liddell looks out the window at his office at 1st and Union: a vibrant downtown still choked with cars. Liddell predicts a future in which “very very quickly large swaths of downtown cores will become car-free entirely.”

Examples abound from near and far. Car-free downtowns are gems in Ghent, Belgium; Oslo, Norway; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Pontevedra, Spain. New York City’s recent ban on cars along 14th Street in Manhattan has drastically improved bus speeds. Closest to home, San Francisco just announced that private cars will be kicked off Market Street in the near future.

While such a future may seem like a pipe dream in auto-centric Seattle — Capitol Hill’s possible Barcelona-style superblock notwithstanding — Liddell said, “It’s not good enough to come up with a good idea. Design should be viewed as a leadership challenge.”

Delivery robots will teach us to trust autonomous vehicles

Amazon’s Scout delivery robot. (Amazon Photo)

Liddell thinks legacy carmakers have it all wrong in their renderings of the autonomous vehicle future, which inevitably feature people facing each other and having what appears to be a business meeting inside a self-driving car. The reality, he believes, will be a much wider range of human activities.

This divergence between the naive vision predicted by carmakers and the reality of human behavior creates the distinction that Liddell offers between “futures” and “preferred futures.” Teague is hoping to create a preferred future for autonomous vehicles with a concept for a bidirectional six-seater school bus called Hannah (pictured at top) that in its off hours between ferrying schoolkids can become a mobile Amazon locker or a delivery vehicle for anything from Uber Eats to Meals on Wheels.

Convincing parents to let autonomous vehicles whisk away their most precious cargo — their children — may be the ultimate test of human trustworthiness of AVs. So far, Liddell said, self-driving vehicles are still very much failing that test. “When we show these concepts to members of the public they always say the same thing: ‘Oh my god, no, I will never put my kid on board that thing.’”

Liddell remains confident, however, that delivery robots — recently legalized in Washington — will pave the way to mollify those concerns. “If we can start trusting our delivery robots to deliver our eggs unbroken, that’s going to help us trust getting on board them,” he said.

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