Earlier this year, the car manufacturer Renault partnered with the MA Industrial Design course at Central Saint Martins (CSM) on a speculative design project. Built around the premise that the growth of the sharing economy, environmental pressures and a shortage of urban space might eventually lead to a situation in which owning a car outright becomes a rarity, Renault invited the students to imagine how car manufacturers might employ modularity to design a vehicle that could easily adapt to a range of different drivers.
Students developed their proposals in conjunction with Renault and tutors at CSM, before each entry was judged by a panel led by Anthony Lo, Renault’s vice president of exterior design. The winner of the competition, announced during the London Design Festival, was designer Yuchen Cai.
Cai employed ideas of modularity to design The Float, a pod-like glass vehicle that floats using Maglev technology, rather than rolling on conventional wheels. “I wanted to provide a new way of connecting people,” says Cai, “a new form of mobility and portray an idea of how drivers can be more open and social to the outside world.”
While The Float employs high technology such as Maglev, as well as a smartphone app that would allow drivers to rent a Float like an Uber, Cai yoked this technical complexity to a clear social purpose. “Modularity for me is something that can be developed and applied to different scenarios which help to fulfil different people’s requirements,” says Cai, whose project was based around ideas of flexible movement. The car’s form allows it to orient in any direction at any time, while the glass exterior opens driving up from a private experience to offer more holistic engagement with the surrounding world.
“People will put more emphasis on the experience of the journey and enjoy the view, the environment around them and interact with the person you share the journey with,” says Cai, who completed her BA work at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. “This vehicle is a vision of the future for me.”
In keeping with this ethos, Cai proposed a magnetic band system that would allow Floats to tesselate, such that multiple units would be able to travel together. “I think the future trend will be to create modular vehicles because all people have different needs and requirements,” she says. “There will be less emphasis on ownership as with less ownership come lower costs to users. Sharing will be the future of mobility and this idea helps tackle the challenges we face as the general movement of people is becoming increasingly prominent as we increasingly see people moving across continents, such as myself.”
As part of her prize for winning the competition, Cai was invited to spend two weeks at Renault’s Research and Design facility in Paris. Here, she worked with Renault’s designers to hone specific aspects of the vehicle’s design. Entry and exit to the vehicle would be achieved by sliding doors, while the seats would rotate to allow for non-directional travel. Meanwhile, the opacity of the pod’s glass would be adjustable so as to afford passenger’s varying degrees of privacy.
The result of Cai’s two-week stay in Paris was a model of her design, exhibited at Renault’s stand at the Design Junction show during the London Design Festival. The collaboration between Renault and CSM, now in its second year, is an example of the value that early exposure to industry can have on a young designer’s development, as well as the value that young designers can bring to industry. “I know little about automotive but I think this helped me because I wasn’t restricted with my thinking,” says Cai.
It was in this spirit of freedom that she proposed working with Maglev, a technology used until now has been reserved for use in rail travel. “I can see magnetic levitation in automotive being a reality in a couple of decades. Technology develops so quickly so we have to be open-minded about these concepts,” she says. “There will be greater demand for this type of experience and as demand grows, technology companies will have little choice but to make this technology readily available, helping to make it increasingly affordable.”