Every minute added to a daily commute makes us unhappier, and most of us aren’t yet lucky enough to work at home. But what if our offices could commute to us?
In a project that looked at the future of “automobility,” design firm IDEO outlines how office space could become mobile in the not-so-distant future, as self-driving vehicles begin to hit roads.
“When you think about autonomous vehicles, one of the things you start thinking about is the kind that may not be occupied,” says Danny Stillion, a partner at IDEO, who led the project. “A logical extension of that is you’re essentially empowered to start moving spaces around.”
The designers envision that “Work on Wheels” pods, running on electric power, would charge at night in warehouses, and then travel to underused spaces during the day — anywhere with vacant land, access to basic facilities, and reasonably close proximity to employees’ homes.
“We were thinking about how we might be able to put a more flexible lens over the city, and to help determine how you might be able to use infrastructure again that might be more multi-purpose,” Stillion explains.
When professional sports leagues aren’t in season, the pods could land in a stadium’s parking lot. The units could also pull up in any other areas that don’t get much use during the day, including scenic locations such as parks.
“In one of our sketches at a pier, you’re using that space throughout the workday for productivity purposes,” says Stillion. “Then 6 o’clock rolls around, and the pods can leave as people start trickling in for an evening walk.”
In cities crunched for office space — such as San Francisco, where increased demand raised commercial rents by 81 percent in the last four years — this creative use of space could help accommodate growing numbers of businesses.
Cities could also gain new tax revenue on land that couldn’t otherwise be developed. U.S. cities today are filled with 600 million parking spaces, for example, which will be increasingly vacant as driving rates decline.
The mobile office concept also responds to changes in the way we work. As more work happens digitally, face-to-face meetings are less common; the pods could be ordered on demand only on days that co-workers need to be in the same room.
For start-ups that find it difficult to predict space requirements, the modular pods can respond to changing needs each day. A booking system would allow companies to request reconfiguration of the space each night.
For employees, having a pod nearby could make it possible to walk or bike to work instead of spending painful hours stuck in traffic. Because the mobile office would drive itself to work each day during off-peak hours, the system would also help ease traffic for other commuters who still have to drive.
Of course, the Work on Wheels pod is just a concept now. Though IDEO envisions it 15 years in the future, it isn’t clear how quickly state and local governments will begin to allow autonomous vehicles on city streets — especially vehicles without occupants. The technological pieces of the design, however, are likely feasible.
The designers hope the concept helps spark new conversations about what’s possible, both for the workplace and mobility in general.
“We actually wanted to visualize in pretty high fidelity what it would be like to live in a world empowered by automobility,” says Stillion. “We feel like there’s been a lot of debate and a lot of technical whitepapers looking into the pragmatics of some of today’s evolving technologies. But until you actually see how people might be kind of doing teamwork in unconventional locations, or picking up distributed goods in a new in dynamic way, sometimes it’s kind of hard to push the conversation along.”
“We’re really passionate about the aesthetics of the future,” he adds. “I grew up really admiring the work of Syd Mead, a visual futurist, and the power of his work is that he can get you excited about a particular future. I think there’s something really powerful there. You can put something out there into the world and if it resonates, people rally around it, from a design and engineering perspective, to help that vision come true.”