Reid Evans, Director of Strategy Design and Lead on Autonomics, NewDealDesign
In our latest interview, we hear from Reid Evans from design firm NewDealDesign about the concept of ‘Autonomics’ – the company’s innovative approach to how autonomous objects might evolve, giving consumers access to anything, anywhere, at any time.
From Leechbots and ZoomRooms to mega-commuting and trip-chaining errands, Evans shares the company’s thoughts on the value of an autonomous vehicle experience, and talks about the ways in which autonomous objects will influence not just transportation, but also businesses, services and brands.
What is Autonomics and what might it mean for the development of driverless vehicles?
Autonomics is an investigation into what happens when products and services come to you in an autonomous vehicle, says Evans.
“The whole idea is predicated on the idea that your address is your cell phone,” he says – allowing consumers to “get anything, anytime, anywhere”.
“Our hope is that this inquiry will inspire autonomous vehicle and object manufacturers to consider universal docking systems,” says Evans. The firm also hopes that its thinking can inspire companies like Uber to “build new dispatch systems for these vehicles and objects”.
Tell us about the autonomous objects included in the Autonomics concept – Leechbots, ZoomRooms and DetourCities?
“The crux of our system really relies on the Leechbot,” says Evans. Inspired by motorcycles, these autonomous objects are small, nimble and fast, are between three and five feet tall and can carry packages of a ‘significant’ size. They could be owned by a person or business, or even rented – “like we see with the sharing economy”, he says.
Leechbots are designed to move goods around, saving time and extending the reach of any business, says Evans, who notes that “no longer is real estate essential.”
At the moment, he points out, many quick service retailers have to be located next to a highway stop. But in the future, he predicts, “a Leechbot could enable one of these retailers to be miles away”, and send a Leechbot directly to the customer with their order.
This model would allow retailers to extend the range over which their products or services are available.
“We imagine that Leechbots might even give hope to things like three star Michelin restaurants in rural areas, where the meal is delivered to people passing by within a reasonable range of the restaurant,” says Evans.
The objects will also move goods between cars and ‘ZoomRooms’ – the company’s name for another autonomous object that it sees as “somewhere between the size of a semi-truck and delivery van”.
"Leechbots might even give hope to things like three star Michelin restaurants in rural areas"
Depending on the business, says Evans, a ZoomRoom might serve as anything from a restaurant, coffee shop or office space to a gym, spa or even a comedy club. ZoomRooms would “provide people a place to escape the narrower confines of a personal vehicle or crowded bus, and enjoy an immersive environment that is still headed where they’re going,” he says.
Evans points to the increased productivity such an object could offer. “We hope to see people augmenting time they might have spent doing something in a stationary environment within these ZoomRooms, which would save enormous amounts of time everyday.”
Finally, the company envisions another autonomous object – ‘DetourCities’ – that Evans describes as being “like food truck gatherings on steroids”.
“We see them as loosely themed or highly niche mini-towns that pop-up spontaneously, offering seasonal travelers or everyday commuters a fresh experience,” he says.
Unlike their nimbler counterparts, DetourCities would not move around, but allow people “to be in a natural environment and enjoy the surrounding beauty.”
But whether it’s a Leechbot, ZoomRoom or DetourCity, each autonomous object “will ignite entrepreneurial exploration” believes Evans. “That’s something we couldn’t be more excited about seeing come to fruition.”
How did you reach this vision of a driverless future, and how do you see it fitting in with the autonomous vehicles already being developed by carmakers and technology firms?
“The value exchange between people and autonomous vehicles is at the core of why we sought to explore an alternative future for autonomous experiences,” says Evans.
“As designers, I think it’s only natural to want to solve for the physical construct and architecture of what those autonomous vehicles look and feel like, outside and inside,” he says.
But the design firm felt the industry was thinking only about the object, and not the system around it.
“We were absolutely curious about what the real value of an autonomous vehicle experience is,” he says. “What would businesses do to evolve their touch points with people on-the-go, especially considering the potential of much longer commutes and travel?”
NewDealDesign’s roadmap sees autonomous vehicles affecting suburban and rural areas more than cities. Why is that?
Living in the heart of San Francisco, says Evans, means living in a bubble of technological experimentation. “What works here ends up rolling out elsewhere”, he says – primarily to other dense cities.
Most of the services that have popped up in cities like San Francisco are “grounded in convenience”, he says – having cookies delivered if you don’t like walking to the bakery; having lunch come to you on food trucks; hiring someone to go to the post office for you. “The funny conundrum about this is people in dense cities can walk to coffee, buy flowers and grab a snack,” he says. “Walkability is insanely high, but these technologies encourage us to be lazier.”
In contrast, the people who need autonomous vehicles the most are those who spend half of their driving time ‘trip-chaining’ errands, says Evans. “Who are these people? Suburbians.”
Although US Census Bureau statistics show that more people are moving to cities, he says, “the fact is most people feel like they’re actually living in suburban or rural areas”.
If you add in the potential for mega-commuting, says Evans, the obvious underserved demographic is made up of people who live in areas with few products or services available nearby. “We believe introducing Autonomics to these people will forever change their lifestyle and save serious time.”
The people who need autonomous vehicles the most are those who spend half of their driving time 'trip-chaining' errands, says Evans.
From a design perspective, what issues should government and regulators keep in mind as they work on the transition to driverless vehicles?
To support the move to autonomous vehicles, infrastructure development and maintenance will be particularly important, says Evans. “If autonomous vehicles are impeded by lack of a safe road system, we won’t evolve at the rate we could have otherwise.”
The firm believes autonomous transport will offer completely new travel experiences. “Imagine leaving work on a Friday evening, wining, dining and sleeping your way to a breaking dawn sun in a place ten hours away,” he says. “For San Francisco, that’s equivalent of waking up in Portland or being just outside the Grand Canyon.”
"Imagine leaving work on a Friday evening, wining, dining and sleeping your way to a breaking dawn sun in a place ten hours away."
It’s also important for the government to consider new highway additions, similar to passing zones, says Evans. “We imagine there could be dedicated sections of roadways for docking to ZoomRooms, or even specialized mini-lanes for Leechbots.”
New driving rules may also be needed, so that the relationship between slower-moving and faster-moving autonomous objects are carefully balanced. Giving the example of a car meeting up with a ZoomRoom on a two-lane highway, “one lane of traffic must move consistently faster than the other”, he says. “Rather than one speed limit in general, each lane might be bound to individual limits.”
Do you see Autonomics as specific to the US, or would a similar concept apply in other countries planning for autonomous vehicles?
Americans’ love of road trips and sightseeing will continue, predicts Evans. “The US population will absolutely continue to love the journey, and in many respects might connect us all more regularly (think mega-commuting and mega-weekend tripping), working towards a more united America,” he says.
The Autonomics concept is universal, he believes. “So much of the world is disconnected from each other, yet our infrastructures inspire economic productivity and transfer of culture.”
He sees the autonomous future as flexible, according to where it operates.
“The beauty is that the experience will reflect the people, and the people can choose what it feels like, how it works and even when it works. It’s really just like Lego, the creator imagines the possibility and then builds it,” says Evans.
How long do you think it will be before we see Leechbots and ZoomRooms navigating our streets?
“We already have driving assisted cars and many companies are working to level 5 autonomy, but a true Autonomic future is a bit away from today,” says Evans. “We’ve seen some blips of some Leechbot like objects, but nothing that brings the promise of speed, nimbleness and in-transit docking.”
However, he notes, “ZoomRooms are a whole other monster”, and both autonomous objects will require universal docking portals and processes.
“We started the project seeing this as a future beginning in 2030, but we’re crossing our fingers for sooner, and potentially things like Leechbots will come into the picture more quickly,” he says.
Finally, what are you personally looking forward to most about the arrival of driverless cars?
“Not driving”, says Evans, “but enjoying the world beneath our mechanically galloping feet!”
About the expert
Reid Evans, Director of Strategy Design and Lead on Autonomics, NewDealDesign
For over twelve years, Reid Evans has passionately dedicated himself to reveal the best brand experiences for physical and digital products, and has a proven track record in doing so, with several IDEA and FastCompany awards under his belt.
NewDealDesign is an award-winning technology design firm located in the heart of San Francisco. Fast Company’s #1 Most Innovative Design Company in 2016, the company matches people, culture and technology to build joyful digital and physical experiences.
Find out more about Autonomics at NewDealDesign
In the second part of our interview with HNTB Corporation's Jim Barbaresso, we find out about the challenges and opportunities driverless vehicles might create for urban planners.