Course inspires architecture student to work on making autonomous vehicles a reality

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In Keller Easterling’s course on architecture and entrepreneurialism, students developed three-minute videos on the topic of autonomous vehicles which they presented to industry professionals as their final projects. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The academic year may be but a fading memory for some, but for School of Architecture graduate student Miguel Sanchez-Enkerlin, a course he took this spring made an impact on him that will last for a long time to come.

Sanchez-Enkerlin was enrolled in “Launch: Architecture and Entrepreneurialism,” a course led by Keller Easterling, professor of architecture.

Easterling included the aspect of entrepreneurialism in her architecture course to complement the creativity and imagination that the field of architecture is already known for. “I want to teach the students to learn to create a business model and to have a different presence as a designer and as an advocate of space,” she says.

Sanchez-Enkerlin took the course to explore what an architect could do beyond designing and making buildings. “An architect’s skill set is applicable in many other fields, and with problems that may be more urgent,” he says. “I wanted to test that out in school.”

Easterling designed this year’s “Launch” course to look specifically at the issue of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), also known as self-driving cars, a topic that Sanchez-Enkerlin found “fascinating.”

“Seeing what is clearly on the horizon with automated vehicles is one of the reasons that I decided to focus the class on this topic,” says Easterling, who admits that she had a healthy degree of skepticism about the redemptive qualities of the automated vehicles when she first started researching them.

While AVs are the wave of the future when it comes to the automobile industry and have the potential to provide a new way of commuting, they are not without their drawbacks, notes Easterling. AVs may increase sprawl, she says. “Commuters will not care how long their commute is and will no longer base where they live on the distance to work because they don’t have to have their hands on the wheel and can conduct business in the car on the way.

“Research on AVs started to show that there were boomerang effects in the development of this technology, and that when it gets to be as convenient and as cheap as the commuter rail for example, then it has the potential to create more congestion,” she says.

“You will have this incredibly smart vehicle and a very dumb situation,” she adds.

Easterling believes that in order to make AVs a reality, the development of a spatial component for AVs is instrumental. “That is where architects can play a role,” she says.

The students in her class researched the concept of a switch, or fleet-owned and -operated autonomous vehicles based at a particular location. According to Easterling, a fleet of vehicles that is circulating and not individually owned would solve a multitude of problems, including eliminating the need for multiple cars in a household. “Today’s families have complex itineraries, and the switch is a hub where someone can upshift or downshift into transportation of different capacities, be it a train to a different destination, or a bicycle to take you that last mile home,” Easterling says.

“With an inevitable shift in what an automobile is and how it behaves with the creation of AVs, the ripple effects on the built environment will be vast and frankly quite exciting,” notes Sanchez-Enkerlin. “At this critical moment, architects especially have to seek a seat at the table. There’s this amazing opportunity to redefine and redesign how our cities are shaped by and influenced by automobiles, and to look at that relationship more holistically this time around.”

Easterling designed the course to be cross-disciplinary, so the architecture students had the opportunity to collaborate with students areas around the university.

This was a highlight of the course for Sanchez-Enkerlin. “It gave our team a particular perspective which may have strengthened our project, and I will seek to collaborate with students from outside of architecture more often,” he says.

For their final projects, the teams developed three-minute videos that they presented to engineers, traffic experts, and other industry professionals, all of whom have been researching the topic of AVs for years. These experts critiqued the viability of the students’ projects.

“What we heard from several guest critics and experts throughout the course were reactions of surprise and delight at our ideas. Many of them confirmed that architects definitely had a role to play. This was very encouraging,” Sanchez-Enkerlin says.

One of the biggest takeaways from the course for the graduate student was learning how to present ideas in a non-traditional way, outside of those more common in an architectural school setting. “I think this kind of course enhances our education by taking us outside our comfort zone, and allowing us to collaborate not only with many other students, but with experts from outside the school,” he says.

Sanchez-Enkerlin and his team, which also included Yale graduate students Brian Cash, Nathan Portlock, and Dan Glick-Unterman, tackled the problem of traffic congestion in Los Angeles and proposed a switch located in San Bernardino.

“The videos that the students presented make a convincing argument about this concept,” says Easterling. “The students in the class were incredibly graphically talented and skilled, and have terrific ideas.”

Easterling believes that her students are in a position to be advocates for a shift in innovations in the transportation system, and the lessons they learned in this course should make them well equipped for that: — “We have done a massive amount of work surveying all of the current literature on AVs, as well as following the news that’s crestingin the press every day.”

“This course expanded the latitude within which I see architects and architecture operating,” says Sanchez-Enkerlin, adding “This experience has made me look at the world around me quite differently and exposed me to a novel way of thinking about our profession.” 

One of the goals for the class was to see to it that this promising new technology gets implemented, and to address any consequences of this new technology through architecture and design — a goal that Sanchez-Enkerlin is eager to continue to pursue.

“What’s really exciting about all of this is that it doesn’t feel like it’s over at all. Our group is still interested in the subject and in our project, and we hope to continue working on it,” he says.

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