Safe at Any Speed

Responsible vehicular design is taken to task at the Art Center College of Design.

In March 2005, Stewart Reed had a homecoming to southern California. The 1969 transportation-design graduate of Art Center College of Design returned to Pasadena to take on the chairmanship of the department. Although Reed had collaborated with his alma mater in the interim—he taught a class while heading Toyota’s advanced design studio in nearby Newport Beach, and served as an advisory board member—Reed’s work as a full-time educator is only just starting.

Reed may be new to the academic world, but he’s not being cautious about his responsibilities. In February 2008, in the midst of the transportation design department’s 60th anniversary, Reed will be the ringleader of the school’s second annual mobility summit—Systems, Cities & Sustainable Mobility. Other than the obvious engineering innovations in alternative-fuel technologies and lightweight materials, what could possibly make driving more sustainable? Here Reed discusses the build-up to the conference and how sustainability is more than achieving decent mileage.

Now that you’re in your third year as chair of transportation design, do you feel your learning curve as a pedagogue has leveled off?
I’m still on it. I hope to always be on it. In fact, while there’s going to be a focus on automobiles, we are broadening the department’s scope to include anything land, air, or sea. We have alumni working at all the major commercial truck manufacturers, with the major motorcycle companies, and doing yacht design. We want to make a bigger deal out of that, and show younger designers that there are very interesting career paths in many areas of transportation design.

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How do you push that kind of evolution—change syllabi?
It has been happening rather spontaneously. We’ve had students who’ve moved through the transportation design curriculum and then requested an independent study in a particular area. Recently a student created a spectacular catamaran sailboat with rigid airfoil, and we’ve had some students do some really amazing motorcycle projects. To formalize it more, we have access to a lot of professionals. We’ll have Burt Rutan come out to talk about super-lightweight structures, for example. There’s quite a buzz of activity in southern California that we can use as additional power in our instructor group.

Would you say you have a mission statement concerning what more you want to accomplish?
If you look at the great classics, there is a passion in sports cars, race cars, and luxury cars that seem to transcend time. One of the things I really want to do is maintain that passion for personal mobility and really celebrate the best of design, but balance it with responsibility for a lot of compelling social issues.

Which brings us to Systems, Cities & Sustainable Mobility, the upcoming summit. What inspired you to organize this event?
We have a lot of people in our faculty and leadership with a growing enthusiasm for this topic. It’s all about educating designers to think differently about the impact of their work, whether it’s selecting a manufacturing process for a product or thinking about the impact of a product over its lifecycle of use. It’s all about being responsible. It doesn’t have to be dull. Last year, the first conference (Designing Sustainable Mobility) brought a lot of ideas people together, we didn’t pretend to have the answers, but we stimulated the dialogue and I think that everybody left with fresh insight. And more importantly, they were asking the right questions to move ahead.

Since it seems to be early in the conversation, how would you define sustainable mobility?
Another 12 months from now, the word “sustainable” is going to be so beat up that we’ll be seeking a new language. But the whole idea is that products, or the kind of energy and resources they use, have the least negative impact not only on the planet but also on people. A word like “sustainable” has to be defined very holistically: Unless you have a sustainable business model, for example, you’re not really sustainable—a company has to do really well to be able to do good. It means raw material extraction, it means recycling, the least possible carbon footprint, there are lots of different ways to define it.

Can you offer an example in which this holistic sustainability has been realized?
I haven’t seen a project that demonstrates every aspect. I’m not even sure we know every aspect. Still, there are some bright spots that various manufacturers have showcased in the last few years. General Motors’ Skateboard suggests a way in which all of a car’s mechanicals can be contained in a structure close to the ground, which would then basically unburden the human part of the vehicle. You could think about an advanced chassis that could serve three or four different cycles of coachwork or allow the vehicle to be dressed regionally.

In principle, sustainability innovations can translate to any vehicle type, not just cars.
There are some fundamental things that we teach, about going from concept to research to realization that can be equally applied to the whole field of industrial design and the broader field of transportation design.

I also want to emphasize the complexity of the contemporary automobile, which is really the sum total of hundreds of individual industrial-design projects. Designing an auto is very much a team sport. I’m endeavoring to train young designers to also converse with the engineering and manufacturing communities so they really understand sustainability in manufacturing processes, tooling, and materials, and to design accordingly.

This very cross-disciplinary perspective makes me wonder: Why, then, stop at vehicles?
One of our summer-term projects was a venture with the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, in which architecture and transportation design students grappled with new urban centers and how to coordinate architecture and transportation better.

Also, USC’s Dean Qingyun Ma has been doing a lot of work in China, focused on the city of Shenzhen, which we’re examining again this fall. It’s a good case study on how you think about policy and transportation that goes vertical, horizontal, and diagonal—holistic solutions for the mobility of people and of goods and services. The answer is not singular. It’s not that we need a little vehicle that is safer and more efficient, but we need to coordinate all these elements better. It’s not just a matter of policy, or just of architecture, urban planning, or transportation design. It’s all of them working creatively together.

This kind of exercise seems well-suited to China, where you can establish a city from scratch.
Some ideas you can clearly see as feasible for the current urban landscape. Some require rather massive change. We’re going to present the final project at the biennale in Hong Kong coming up at the end of the year. So that’s when we’ll see what’s worth carrying forward.

Considering all the ways one can define sustainability, could one designer’s emphasis on recyclability cancel out another’s focus on energy efficiency? In other words, without metrics—a vehicle equivalent of LEED, if you will—do we go back to square one?
[Former chair] Geoff Wardle and I were just discussing the whole issue of lightweight, high-mile-per-gallon vehicles. The topic was aluminum. You can make a lightweight aluminum-intensive vehicle with very high miles per gallon. That’s great, because aluminum has some really nice properties for energy absorption and crash resistance. The issue, though, is that the raw material extraction cost of aluminum is really high. That’s a big red flag. Then again, once you have done it, you have one of the most elegantly recyclable materials. That industrial nutrient can be used again and again.

So how big of a time bracket do you have to use to determine whether it’s really sustainable? Do you use the first product, the extraction, or 10 lifecycles? This is the kind of topic the summit is really great for. It stirs up that important dialogue. The key is getting honest metrics, asking the right questions, and raising public awareness. And already we are learning the impact of our decisions, and unwrapping a product in terms of its design ethics.

What are other big topics on transportation designers’ minds?
On the heels of the Frankfurt Motor Show, everybody is focused on the theme of responsibility. But they’re also saying, “You know what? Our products will delight you, they’re enjoyable to drive, and they’re lovely.” To me it’s a good thing if our work engages people and has a spirit and emotion about it. That’s something we left behind—

—like during the energy crisis of the ’70s?
Yes. I think a lot of those things were not given the right creative challenge. They were sort of imposed from the outside, and it was not a creative, playful, expressive time. We want to show young designers that they can make compelling, beautiful solutions to important problems. These aren’t mutually exclusive.

Is it possible that designers and consumers can ditch sustainability as quickly as they’ve embraced it?
That question is it for me. If you go back over the last 25 years, the auto industry is famous for the theme of the month. Quality is the focus, and then it’s safety, and then the next campaign is about fuel and energy, and on and on. But it’s really all of those things.

It seems that nobody’s looking at the total carbon footprint. Someone may be driving a tidy hybrid to the airfield to take their Gulfstream to Tahoe, or perhaps that person’s just commuting from Long Beach to Ventura when they really should be thinking about how far they drive and how they tie up the freeway system. That’s what I’m hoping to get people to understand, though we should still enjoy ourselves and have a quality of life. Design is part of that.

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