Imagine a car with an exterior of 3D-printed copper, gleaming raw and reddish brown, streaked with a sanding pattern. Its interior is woven of wool, cotton and hemp, naturally dyed using avocado, black beans and logwood. Knotted fabric covers its seats. No paint, no finish, no glue. Ready to be recycled.
These ideas were the focus of Ultimate Sustainability, a 2035 concept electric vehicle project by Ahyoung Roh (BS 23), a recent graduate of ArtCenter’s Transportation Design program and a recipient of the 2021 Denhart Family Sustainability Scholarship Prize. Roh exhibited the project at the Pasadena Convention Center this past April for Grad Show, the College’s showcase of graduating students’ work, which takes place multiple times a year.
Cars will destroy the environment, so the industry needs to change now.Ahyoung RohRecent Transportation Design alum
“Cars will destroy the environment, so the industry needs to change now,” said Roh, whose project was inspired by the natural dyes that she saw her mother, a paper craftswoman, use while Roh was growing up in South Korea. “Future cars should be decomposable.”
Roh is not alone in her concern over the environmental damage being inflicted on the planet by our vehicles. In 2022, California regulators passed legislation to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035. And this past April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed sweeping emissions cuts for new cars and trucks through 2032, which the agency projects will slash more than 9 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions through 2055.
Those are great starts. But what else could the future of sustainable personal transportation look like? There are as many answers to that question as there are cars on the freeway during rush hour. And, like Roh’s project, many of these answers are filled with creativity, criticality, blue sky ambitions and, importantly, hope.
According to the California Energy Commission, more than 1.5 million zero-emission electric vehicles—including battery electric and plug-in hybrids—have been bought in the state since 2011, surpassing a goal set for 2025 and making up 40% of all EV sales in the U.S. In the push for sustainable transportation, California leads the pack, with regulations, rebates and improved vehicle batteries paving a solid path.
“We’ve been a site for innovation and leadership for the country and the world,” says Los Angeles County Acting Chief Sustainability Officer Rita Kampalath. “California has driven the industry, because we’re such a large state and economy. We have the opportunity to make shifts happen.”
Kampalath points to OurCounty, a regional sustainability plan whose goals include a fossil fuel–free L.A. County and a convenient and affordable transportation system that will enhance mobility and quality of life while reducing car dependency. One example target: By 2045, 50% of all trips in the county will be by foot, bike, micromobility (e.g., scooters) or public transit.
That’s easier said than done. Kampalath acknowledges the longtime draw of identifying with one’s personal vehicle as a space of privacy, expression and freedom. She points out that Ford’s F-150 Lightning electric truck was intentionally made to look like the original gas-powered Ford F-150 to appeal to customers who still want a traditional-looking vehicle.
But equity, she adds, is what should truly underlie everything having to do with sustainability. Affordable housing, for example, could allow people to actually live near where they work. “A lot of our focus with the sustainability plan is really about how to reduce the amount of vehicle miles traveled,” she says.
Also critical is creating a circular economy, closing the gap between the production of vehicle materials and the managing and recycling of those materials after their design life is over.
Kampalath believes the work she and her colleagues have started will carry on as more students who are committed to sustainability enter the workforce. “There’s a huge need for new ideas and for people to stay engaged,” she says.
Thoughtful and sustainable designs will become a baseline expectation for young designers.Laura Arias
GM Lead Exterior Designer
Of course, industry will need to commit to a more sustainable future. And thanks to policy pushes and consumer demand for greener options, major car companies in the past few years have been catching up with the EV startups.
In 2021—13 years after Tesla debuted its first vehicle powered by a lithium-ion battery, and 12 years after Rivian was founded—Volvo announced plans to become a fully electric car company by 2030. That same year, General Motors (GM)—whose brands include Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC—pledged to stop making gas-powered passenger cars, SUVs and vans by 2035. Honda’s goals for 2050 include carbon neutrality for all its products. And Hyundai broke ground in late 2022 on its first U.S.-based EV and battery manufacturing plant.
“Thoughtful and sustainable designs will become a baseline expectation for young designers—that’s where the world is moving,” says GM Lead Exterior Designer Laura Arias (BS 14), who joined GM’s Southern California–based Advanced Design team in early 2023 after working at Fiat Chrysler. The team’s new studio is scheduled to open in Pasadena in 2024.
“As creative people, we are empathetic by nature and want to take care of each other and the planet, and that’s the center of design,” says Arias, also an assistant professor in ArtCenter’s Transportation Design program. “GM’s viewpoint on sustainability and reaching net zero is part of why I joined the company. I liked the open-armed acceptance of a future with autonomy and electrification, and I wanted to be part of this era of innovation.”
Arias reflects on how far car design innovation and sustainability efforts have come, from her first vehicle, a large 1982 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera “boat of a car”—"with a velvet blue interior!” she laughs—to the impact of electrification on exterior design five to 10 years from now. “Some of the fundamental rules are changing,” she says. “You no longer have an engine. There are tangible effects on the chassis and on how you physically make a car.”
Honda R&D Americas Creative Lead Michael Tsay (BS 92), who has designed interiors at Honda since the mid-’90s, is part of the team in Southern California working on Honda’s human-machine interface (HMI) concept, which revolves around semi-autonomous technology.
A longtime professor in the Transportation Design program, Tsay grew up in the Midwest, where he drove his father’s hulking Mercury Cougar. Today, his students design sleek cars that convert into offices and sleeping berths. But even with such future-facing concepts, he says, the use of natural materials holds a strong appeal for students—like Roh. “One of the bad habits we’ve gotten into in automotive design is decorating with synthetic materials, like fake wood,” Tsay says. “Having materials be genuine and natural is a key point.”
Currently, for a soft door panel, a hard plastic substrate is made and then topped with a soft foam layer. “That’s not necessarily recyclable, because it has to be glued to a piece of leather,” Tsay says. “Instead, in the future, couldn’t we just make it out of something that’s naturally soft? We believe customers would really value that and pay extra.”
Experimenting with the rules of car design will be the norm at ArtCenter’s Mullin Transportation Design Center, set to open for the Spring 2024 term on the College’s South Campus. Designed as a destination for future-thinking transportation designers and a creative hub where a variety of art and design projects can be realized, the center will feature 31,000 square feet of specialized labs, classrooms, exhibition spaces, offices and studios—including a fabrication studio, a vehicle architecture lab and an art and process lab.
“This space truly symbolizes who we are and our vision for the future of art and design,” says ArtCenter President Karen Hofmann of the new center, which is housed in a renovated supersonic wind tunnel and will also be the new home of the College’s Hyundai and Kia Innovation Lab, a space dedicated to research and design that explores the user experience. “The center will boost explorations not only in transportation design, but also in industrial design in general—really capturing the collaborative spirit of our students, faculty and staff. It’s going to take creatives of all types to make our future one that’s sustainable for generations to come."
What do futurists see as the future of sustainable personal transportation?
“There’s a constellation of options emerging,” says Nick Bartlett, a director at the Future Today Institute, who leads the organization’s transportation and manufacturing team. He says one of these will be the continued electrification of passenger vehicles. There’s automation, including drones, which could offset the use of certain vehicles. The trend of electric bikes is expected to continue, says Bartlett. There are also “auto rickshaws”—electric, three-wheeled, open taxis, such as tuk-tuks—popular in cities across India, Thailand and Bangladesh.
“Then there’s 4D printing, which could be a game changer,” says Mark Bryan, a senior foresight manager at Future Today. 4D printing includes standard-layer 3D printing, but adds the ability to pack the product—a car—light and flat, like a chair, and then have it “self-inflate” when unpacked. An entire car could be printed in only a few days, with only the tires and the battery needing to be added. “It could become so cost-effective that people could print their own car and be able to retrofit it if they have a disability,” he says.
Sustainable vehicles also go together with sustainable city infrastructure. Smart city technology, which uses sensors to direct traffic, could be used to push vehicles in specific patterns, and the roadways themselves could harvest the kinetic energy generated by the traffic, says Bryan.
Israeli company Electreon has created wireless charging and electric road technology to enable EVs to charge while parked, idling or driving. In 2022, the company partnered with Ford, the state of Michigan and Detroit energy company DTE to work on building the first wireless charging road for electric vehicles in the U.S. China, which has set a goal of 40% of vehicles sold by 2030 being electric, is also building charging roadways.
One critical issue with EVs is the environmental and societal impact of the mining of cobalt and lithium for lithium-ion batteries in countries like Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Lithium extraction impacts soil and contaminates the air, affecting the health of people in communities near the mines. Researchers have been looking into iron and silicon as possible alternate elements to mine.
Nevada-based company Redwood Materials is building a global battery supply chain—the first in the U.S.—and producing anode and cathode components from recycled batteries. A swath of the country that extends from Alabama to Michigan is becoming known as “the battery belt,” says Bartlett, for its production of electric batteries and components.
And then there’s the question of what to do with those lithium-ion batteries when they need to be replaced. “EV batteries offer a second-life opportunity when hooked into wind turbines to absorb excess charge and store energy,” says Bryan.
And while the nostalgia of one person owning one car as a symbol of independence is strong, that may change in the future. “I can see fractional ownership of multiple different autonomous vehicles that all perform different services—one autonomous vehicle could provide you mental health and wellness spaces on the way to meetings,” Bryan says.
For Geoff Wardle, former executive director of ArtCenter’s Graduate Transportation Systems and Design program, the future of sustainable personal and public transportation is intertwined, starting with the idea of a “15-minute city”—one in which people could walk or travel within just a 15-minute radius of home for work, school, health needs, food and entertainment.
Wardle, who grew up in England, says that “we need to imagine the future as communities.” Picture large areas of Los Angeles County becoming 15-minute cities over the next 50 years, with people walking, hopping on a scooter or riding a bike— all of it "better for our health and the environment,” says Wardle.
“I do think the majority of people in the future will persist in preferring to ride in their personal capsule from A to B,” Wardle adds. “Public transportation operators will need to reimagine their services if they are to persuade people not to use their personal cars as default mobility.”
Earlier this year, on a bright April afternoon at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Wardle met up with a team consisting of ArtCenter Professor Lucian Rosca (BS 89) and graduate students Enea Sernesi, Lakshmy Narayanan, Luke Pezzimenti (now an alum) and Aravind Aanand (Assistant Professor Giulia Amoresano was not in attendance). The team had gathered for the finale of Pando Days, an annual program that brings together colleges and universities of the greater L.A. region to help advance Los Angeles County’s sustainability goals.
Sernesi, from Italy, previously studied transportation design and plans to work with both public and private institutions. Narayanan, from India, studied architecture and wants to work within the intersection of policy and design. Pezzimenti, from the U.S., has a career in industrial design and wants to go into systems innovation. Aanand, from India, previously studied engineering and recently snagged a UI/UX internship at Audi.
The students’ Pando Days project, Mobilizing L.A.’s Transportation Future, proposes a holistic vision for the L.A. metro area by 2050, with the goal of making transportation universally affordable and sustainable for the area’s diverse residents and economy. And it uses the upcoming 2028 Summer Olympics in L.A. as the impetus to begin addressing these issues now.
In a video visualizing the project’s 2050 future, an animated character, Daisy, leaves her apartment in L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood to travel first to a work meeting at the nearby L.A. River Corridor, then on to a business trip to San Diego. She has a choice of several mobility options: bike, e-bike, scooter or a slow mobility vehicle. She decides on the last option, an autonomous, electric open-air module with a swoop of glass that allows her to see people along the way, as well as to chat with a friend who’s sitting in his wheelchair in a similar vehicle.
When Daisy exits at the River Corridor, nature is everywhere, along with food vendors, and people having work meetings at various stations along the river. She meets up with coworkers, and together they take a large, extra-capacity autonomous Connect L.A. vehicle—also transparent and clear—to share the trip and cost.
“Right now, we are encouraged to enclose ourselves in boxes of steel and move around the city in our own isolated space,” said Sernesi. “We wanted to think about mobility in a different way. Mobility can also be a social environment, where people can see each other and communicate.” Repurposing freeways and buildings and implementing adaptive reuse—especially with the 2028 Olympics on the horizon—were also top of mind, said Pezzimenti.
“Our blue sky for the future is: How do we reimagine how we move around?” said Narayanan. “That’s why our project has five different systems that work as a whole, together. Sustainable personal transit is more about how you approach the word ‘mobility’ itself.”