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Driven to concern

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After a series of conferences at the Royal College of Art, it became apparent that there was a gap in conventional understanding within the motor design industry. While the college prides itself on having the best automotive department in the country (if not the world), students are often wracked with guilt about the impact that their career choice will have on the environment. What, they ask, is the sense of designing state- of-the-art cars if the perception is that they will result in devastating, rather than beneficial consequences, for society?

Whereas the automotive trade has become rather defensive in the face of the current anti-car sentiment, the Royal College of Art is planning to address the issues head on. It is in the preliminary stages of a fascinating merger of disciplines. Refusing to become introspective, the course leaders intend to branch out, with a course, which will be designed to address current shortfalls, by tying in the architecture course and vehicle design.

In a novel move, the Royal College is responding to, and challenging some of, the current views about transport and mobility. This year's programme is already under way and so, for the time being, the speculative ideas about course mergers are just that - speculation. However, there is a dynamic process towards providing more integration amongst designers and also towards critiquing some of the political shifts in society. Architects may be invited to design concept cars and vehicle designers may prepare urban landscapes. In this way, the issues, problems and opportunities may become more apparent.

As John Bound, course tutor says, 'This is not a gimmick. After completing the course at the Royal College of Art, post-graduate students tend to be snapped up and go straight into industry at a high level. They can no longer afford to ignore the public mood, which questions the use of the car. By being aware of the issues, we can address some of the solutions'.

Given that current opinion about the car is often so emotionally charged, the essential thing, as far as the college is concerned, is to clarify the debate and tackle some of the perceptions in a level-headed manner. Outside speakers are already invited into the college, from a variety of professions and interest groups, to present ideas for and against the car. Issues such as the reality of global warming are debated and challenged. This type of informed debate will increase if the proposed course integration goes ahead. There will be a better basis for partnership of ideas. Students will then be able to experiment and to accept or reject the prevailing mood based on an understanding of all sides of the mobility debate.

By the very nature of an automotive design course, the social implications of the car will tend to be given a predominantly positive reception; countering the general perception that the car is a problem. However, the project work ofstudents is already geared towards future visions of small city-cars, intelligent taxis and public transport vehicles. Given the need for mobility, the form of transport may alter from the traditional 'car', and future design implications will be given a more enlightened brief if co-ordinated with the urban policy debate.

The recent 'Moving On' conference, organised by John Bound, provided a launch pad for this change in direction. With an impressive line-up of speakers, designers, architects, and planners were able to brainstorm the future societal trends and see how their actions could influence matters to the good - or detriment. The next step is to tease out some of the political arguments surrounding the issue.

Dale Harrow, acting course director of the rca vehicle design programme, said: 'What we are trying to do is to break down the boundaries between different disciplines. Rather than watering down our drive to excellence within vehicle design, we will be looking for ideas outside the course'.

The college is progressing tentatively at the moment, but the potential and importance of cross-disciplinary debate is becoming clearer. Harrow makes clear that demands to breakdown the established introspection of car designers are coming from the students themselves: 'Since cars are such an integral part of the built environment, we need to be ahead of the game - especially in terms of the political shifts that are happening in our relationship with that built environment. This refocus will enable us to be at the cutting edge of the next generation of innovative transport and at the same time have an input into the debate on urban integration.'

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