Mini Vision Urbanaut concept sketch.jpg

Car as place

When people meet, one of the first things shared after name introductions, is where they are from — which country or town they grew up in, live in, work in. Place has always been key to who we are. Our identity is both shaped by, and perceived as part of, the culture of the country that issued our passport, the specific region we live in, even the street we live on. Yet this is now fast fading. 

Today people come from lots of places. Nomadic lifestyles where people frequently move where they live and work, is normalising. Most people now come from, and are shaped by, a far wider variety of places than their parents, and a massively greater number of places than our recent ancestors.

The concept of place is also fast diminishing in other ways. Increasingly for over a decade, and then exponentially accelerated by COVID over the last 18 months, we now frequently connect with others socially and professionally in non-geo-specific virtual places. We have unbound ourselves from singular important places not just as we constantly change where we live and work, but also as we are in less real places for the experience of being with other people.

So the equity of place as a context of who we are, and the experiences we have, is diminishing. Place is increasingly less part of who we are and what we do. Maybe soon people will stop asking “where are you from?” (or “where shall we meet?”).

Interestingly, right behind this decoupling of person from place, is a parallel development. 

VW ID.Life concept
Volkswagen ID.Life concept.jpg
Until very recently, travelling on foot, horse, bike, or in a carriage, car, or craft of some form, meant being temporality cut-off from what was happening in the place we were before, and from what was going to happen after in the place we were heading to. To travel was to disconnect from what we did in places (if often a valuable experience in itself because of this).  

Now we travel whilst being still connected to activities that used to be exclusively experienced in fixed places. We are messaging as we walk, relaxing to a box-set on a train, chatting with several friends as we ride a scooter, being part of a meeting as we drive, emailing from planes. And as cars electrify and become silent in operation, and as they marry lounge and office for a new type of ‘3rd Space’ to be used both moving and stationary to do things once only done in dedicated fixed places, so the car transforms to have many of the ingredients of place. As well as electric power and a gamut of technologically enabled personal communication products enabling this, we see the baby steps of car design responding to this too.

GAC Hycan Aion Y advert
GAC Hycan Aion Y advert.jpg
In China over the last 12 months there has been a plethora of new electric cars designed much to fulfil a role as a stationary place to be, with a marked emphasis on in-car user-experience (UX) design centred on entertainment and ‘chilling out’ whilst parked up. Behind the Chinese curve, but already evident in concept designs, European car design is also fast embracing the idea of the car as a place to socialise in when stationary too, and to better realise a more connected experience whilst travelling from place-to-place too. 

Currently the way vehicle design is realising new in-car experiences is centred on common activities we do in other places: watching a film; joining a meeting; having a nap; reading a tablet. Designs are also accommodating these activities minimally, mostly by importing into the cabin more and larger screens and existing interface types — car design has yet to curate and shape in-car experiences in a nuanced and meaningful way with wholistic solutions that realise experiences beyond the places we travel to and from. But this will come, and it will be central to their competitive offer in the near future.  

Heatherwick Studio IM Aero Motors concept
Heatherwick Studio IM Airo Motors concept.jpg
In time the interiors of cars and other vehicles will define much of the subtly distinct offer of a mobility brand, and perhaps the place-like experience of travel will come to have a level of richness that previously was the domain only of fixed places like our homes, offices, hotels, restaurants, and clubs. Maybe this place-like experience of a car will one day attain such a distinct and consistent quality that people will be shaped by, and associated with, brands’ mobile places in a way akin to that of a dedicated place. Perhaps instead of asking where we come from to get some sense of who we are, people in the future will ask what we travel in…