More driverless cars. More networked roads. More naps. UC is helping change how we drive.

By Michael Miller
Photography by Andrew Higley

 

A

lejandro Lozano grew up amid the crushing traffic of Bogota, Colombia, one of the world’s most congested cities.

 

Some days it took two hours to drive the 10 miles to school in the morning. Traffic congestion costs the biggest cities billions of dollars each year in lost productivity. A long daily commute can consume the equivalent of an entire workweek over a year.

But Lozano and his classmates at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning want to change that.

Today, we commute the same way our great-grandparents did — in a gas-guzzling car we own and drive. But students in UC’s Future Mobility Center and Next Mobility Lab say our great-grandchildren will commute in completely new ways. And UC will help us decide what that looks like.

“You might never see another red light,” Lozano says. “That would be pretty amazing.”

At the Future Mobility Center in DAAP’s Myron E. Ullman Jr. School of Design, students are incorporating driverless systems and smart infrastructure to come up with new transportation systems to lift drivers out of gridlock; in Lozano’s case, literally. The graduate student is brainstorming a self-driving podcar that can operate on roads as well as a high-speed elevated rail system like a rollercoaster.

Driverless technology could revolutionize the interior space of vehicles in ways we won’t recognize, says assistant professor of practice Juan Antonio Islas Muñoz, who heads transportation design at DAAP.

“I think everyone is really excited about what you can do with a vehicle if suddenly you don’t have to keep your eyes on the road,” he says. 

Student operates a virtual-reality motorcycle

Industrial design student Grace Weber operates a flying virtual reality passenger drone in the Future Mobility Center.

Part classroom, part industrial lab, the Future Mobility Center is a car lover’s dream. The walls are plastered with student designs of sleek sports cars of the future. Advanced scale models of these stylized prototypes sit on display under glass like fine art. Inspiration is reflected in every corner.

Using virtual reality and state-of-the-art design tools, students in Islas Muñoz’s class are building novel new car interiors that spark the imagination. Instead of forward-facing rows of seats in a cockpit, why not face each other at a conference table or watch a movie or even take a nap? One design features traditional seats on one side and a full-size futon on the other.

With amenities like that, you might look forward to road construction.

“Just because we adopt driverless technology doesn’t mean we’re going to be riding in little generic pods that say nothing to us,” Islas Muñoz says. “We’re talking about a new, highly personalized and highly customizable industry.”

He worked for years in Mexico City, another traffic nightmare for daily commuters, where he faced five hours of daily creeping gridlock.

“What if I could take my eyes off the road and enjoy the space I’m in or be productive or just eat breakfast?” he says. “That’s the revolution in mobility we’re going to see.”

Each car design begins with a rough vehicle frame, a rectangle of elevated plywood on casters that can be rolled into a virtual 3D working space. Students can mount real bucket seats to the frame and scan this blank canvas using virtual reality goggles and a nifty drawing tool called Gravity Sketch that combines computer-aided design with the ergonomic freedom of video game controllers.

“Once you start using it, it’s just muscle memory,” DAAP industrial design student Grace Weber says. “It’s helpful to see your design rendered in full-scale 3D. You can position yourself inside the space you just sketched to see how far your arms or legs reach in the vehicle.” 

Student works on a computer

Graphic design student Allen Hillier creates novel vehicle designs using traditional drawing programs along with new 3D tools in UC’s Future Mobility Center.

Students came up with unique vehicle designs. But this isn’t science fiction. Each project uses existing technology, albeit in novel ways.

“There was a ton of ideation throughout the semester. We all came up with different themes for what the pod experi- ence might be and the platform to suit it,” Weber says. 

Industrial design student Tanner Van De Veer drew 100 rough versions of an electric Harley-Davidson motorcycle for his capstone project. He used Gravity Sketch to combine features he liked most from his sketches into a 3D version he could actually ride in virtual reality.

“The colors are all Harley-Davidson. This long line on the frame to the rear wheel is very Harley- Davidson,” Van De Veer says. “The proportions are all taken from Harley-Davidson’s most popular bike. The headlight design, too, incorporates a version of its logo.”

Coming up with the transportation of tomorrow is a big responsibility, he says.

“It’s cool, but it’s also very challenging. How much change are people willing to accept?” he asked. “Being part of that change and deciding what it will look like is a great opportunity.”

Professional car designer Yuki Fukunaga, a visiting scholar from Japan, is helping students with their projects. He specializes in car interiors. The coming autonomous revolution will give designers like him more latitude to explore possibilities undreamed of since the Model T, he says.

“Interiors are changing with new functions and new technologies. We’re seeing car interiors laid out far differently than conventional designs,” he says. 

I think everyone is really excited about what you can do with a vehicle if suddenly you don’t have to keep your eyes on the road.
— Juan Antonio Islas Muñoz, assistant professor

Engineering the future of mobility

Cars aren’t the only things that are changing quickly. UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science is helping to create smart roads, too.

At UC’s 1819 Innovation Hub, engineering professor Jiaqi Ma is getting a driverless Lexus ready for the road. The vehicle is outfitted with video cameras along with radar, a global-positioning satellite receiver and lidar (light detection and ranging), which uses pulses of light to measure objects and distances.

The power of driverless cars is not just in the indi- vidual vehicle but the ability to network that vehicle with others around it and the road itself — traffic lights, highway on-ramps and construction zones — to get everyone to their destination more quickly and safely.

“A vehicle is not isolated on the road. It needs to work with other vehicles and infrastructure,” Ma says. “So we have this thing called connected automation. Cars will talk to each other and perceive the environment upstream and downstream to make good decisions.”

Everyone is familiar with stop-and-go traffic on a busy highway at rush hour. But just a few networked vehicles could smooth that pattern and suddenly everyone is on the gas pedal again, Ma says.

These new transportation networks will have to be safe from hacking or sabotage, he says. His Next Mobility Lab is studying that, too. 

Professor speaks in front of a car seat model

Assistant professor Juan Antonio Islas Muñoz explains how the X-Rite/Pantone virtual light booth replicates custom colors and textures in 3D renderings of designs such as this bucket seat.

“Hacking is a legitimate threat. So we want to design robust and secure automated driving systems,” he says.

Computer science student Xin Li is working with Ma on the algorithms that make autonomous driving possible. The multiple sensor packages are designed to provide redundancy, but they also collect real-time information for other autonomous cars on the road, he says.

“The systems provide more validation of the data, and that leads to a higher level of confidence,” he says.

Personally, Li can’t wait to let artificial intelligence do the driving for him.

“I would use the time to talk to my friends, play Zelda or watch movies,” he says. “If AI could drive for me, that would be perfect. I would love it.”

Driverless technology is still in its infancy. But UC researchers are excited about where the technology is going.

“Ten years from now, you can only imagine how much bigger a leap we’ll see,” Lozano says. 

Video link: https://player.vimeo.com/video/396776028

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