Cars should be more like smartphones: socially engaging, highly customizable and simple to use, yet technologically sophisticated.

At least that's how David Day Lee sees it.

Lee in April became the first student to receive an advanced degree from Art Center College of Design's graduate transportation design program. He was one of 12 students, the rest of whom are still enrolled in the nascent course of study encouraging critical thinking about how people and products move around.

"There's a shift happening in how cars are understood," said Lee, a Korean American who was raised in Japan and is now applying the paper-manipulation principles of origami to auto design. "In the past, cars were seen as a packaged product you were supposed to receive in full. There was no room for your involvement. We're in an age where customer values are shifting from 'give me a finished product' to 'give me something that I can co-create.' "

During the April 17 graduate show, Lee displayed various concepts to demonstrate his idea of "innovation in the hands of many," or collaboration between vehicle manufacturers and their end users. Unlike students graduating from the bachelor's transportation design program, who showcased their ideas with clay models and sketches, Lee had crafted a full-size wooden replica of his E Flat platform, which orients a vehicle's chassis vertically, rather than horizontally, to enable a greater variety of vehicles using the same basic platform – from cars to motorcycles to trucks.

He had also built a small-scale plastic model of a highly customizable vehicle called the Maker Series that could allow car buyers to design the exterior and interior shapes of their vehicles and to locally manufacture them with 3-D printers and other rapid prototyping technologies.

"We like to say we design journeys rather than products or vehicles," said Geoffrey Wardle, director of advanced mobility research at Art Center in Pasadena, Calif.

Three years ago, the school's president charged Wardle with crafting the curriculum for a graduate transportation design program that would "think beyond cars" to address the future of mobility, including trains, planes, public transit, cargo transit – even space travel.

Already, Art Center's 250-student undergraduate transportation design program is esteemed as one of the most important automotive design schools in the world. Its graduates are routinely snatched up by major automakers worldwide.

The new graduate level program moves students beyond the fanciful sketches and car styling of the undergrad program to generate real-world mobility solutions, including the New York City Taxi of 2030 designed by current graduate students Cody Casale, Tejesh Goregaonkar and Ali Kaldirim.

The students from three countries – the U.S., India and Turkey – collaborated on a taxi concept designed to reduce the carbon footprint of the city's 12,000 cabs. Each year, the city's taxi fleet drives 772 million miles, spewing 54 million tons of greenhouse gases in the process, the students said.

"We wanted to address all the problems the existing vehicles had and try to find solutions and create a better overall experience for the passenger and driver," said Casale, 27.

Inspired by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's real-world competition to create a cleaner taxi fleet – a competition that was awarded to the Nissan NV200 last year – the 2030 taxi is a 25-mph electric vehicle that seats the driver in an elevated position at the vehicle's rear and its passengers in front of a plate glass window that enables sightseeing. The front window telescopes up and over the taxi body to enable wheelchair access with a retractable ramp. The side doors slide on rails, instead of hinging out into traffic.

Another team of graduate design students, including the one woman enrolled in the program, are leveraging the same taxi design but making it autonomous.

Both groups of students are likely to graduate next year.

"The focus is not just on the automotive industry," Wardle said. "Rather than think about it in terms of products, how are we as consumers of personal mobility going to relate to our automobiles? We don't think it's just going to be the current ownership model. It's going to be more about car share and accessing the automobile on what I call a total mobility package option where we are buying journey miles rather than buying a car. These are the sorts of scenarios we're interested in with the future of the auto industry.

"It's going to be a fuzzy boundary between the static built street and moving transportation as we get new forms of personal mobility," Wardle added.

With the new graduate program, he said, "We're interested in the whole of transportation and how it fits into the built environment."


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