We all have associations with places we know; where we are from, where we spent an important part of our lives, where we live now. As animals we are instinctively bound to place. But as we travel more and interact with things from a wider range of places, our personal sense-of-place is less singular and less fixed than for it used to be even a short while ago.
Places themselves are becoming less distinct too, as international businesses deliver singular design solutions across the world: a streetscape in Germany, China, or the US will much share shop branding, fashions being worn, food being consumed — and the cars being driven.
Partly as a reaction to this reducing personal sense-of-place and eroding regional distinction, there is now a resurgence for actively asserting place. From the popularist movements that centre on national identity and have come to the fore in the current political landscape, to the rise of the music festival where ‘digital natives’ go to share their space with each other, to the conscious promotion of cultural tourism and civic pride— even to the increasing use of national iconography by car brands.
Part of this resurgence in asserting place will also be why the future of car design will become less about the customer and more about where the car is from, where it will be used and what it shall represent.
Today there are very few vehicles that are primarily associated with place. In the triangulate of factors that drive car design of the producing brand, the individual customer, and the usage location, it is the usage location that is normally least evident in design, not least as almost all cars are used almost everywhere. Two strong exceptions to the rule include the classic Routemaster bus of London (as well as its new namesake), and the ‘London taxi’. These iconic vehicles both deliver functional design that address challenges unique to London, and also serve as powerful iconic symbols of the city.
In the future though, as well as continuing the trend for asserting place, there will likely be more vehicle constraints from local infrastructure that necessarily demand some form of vehicle design unique to place. Already, around the world there are a growing number of regionally specific congestion zones, emission zones, and pockets where autonomous vehicles operate in prototype form, as well as dedicated closed loop public transport systems in many cities.
Even more significantly will be the growth of the shared car, for which the usage location will come to be more important to the design of the car, because the individual customer will become one of many customers and the vehicle provider will be offering a service with specificity to location (or at least has the opportunity to).
As cities reinvent themselves and as new cities are built with ambitions to side-step the legacies of old cities, so new designs of car that are uniquely centric to place will emerge. And whilst, like the hackney cab of London, these new designs will be the product of local requirements, they also have the opportunity to be part of a celebration of where they are from and be designs that valuably assert a sense of place to locals and to visitors alike - something that in today’s world of eroding personal sense-of-place and reducing regional distinction may be a highly valued quality. If the shared car is the car of the future, then the car of the future will be more about place than about customer.
by Sam Livingstone
References: Cresswell, T. (2004) Place: A short Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell.