Arrival designs human-centered solutions for public transport, including electric vehicles that cost the same as fossil fuel equivalents. Everything in the Arrival "ecosystem" is built in the company's micro-factories using a modular system, making production more efficient and fueling local economies at the same time.
But what first draws you to Arrival (at least, as a designer) is the beautiful, futuristic vehicle design. In most cities, mass transportation is not exactly a pleasant or preferred experience. With Arrival's bus designs, they've re-thought every detail of this dinosaur system, from the driver's space to seat design to touchless interactions.
Here I talk to Jeremy Offer, chief design officer at Arrival, about Arrival's design approach and the company's vision for the future of public transport.
Allowing the function of a product to inform the aesthetics is a big part of our design philosophy. We strip away all adornments and unnecessary detail to allow the function of the product to clearly speak to the user through the language of its form.
Creating a sense of calm through the use of space, color, materials and light was at the heart of the brief we set ourselves when starting the project. Using sound and smell is also important to create a sense of wellbeing. These are all techniques used in the hospitality industry for a while now (think of the welcoming feel of a well-designed hotel lobby, or your favorite coffee shop), but unheard of in public transport.
The modular nature of the design means we can adapt quickly – for example, to create alternative seating layouts, providing more personal space for passengers.
Touch-free interactions were also part of the challenge we set ourselves; capacitive proximity sensors on our bell-push, for example, means no one needs to physically touch it.
"The beauty of starting with a blank sheet of paper means we have no legacy."
Having a connected digital product to allow remote activation of certain features also helps us avoid unnecessary touch-points.
The simple, unobstructed nature of the interior means it’s easier to keep clean. All of our seating cantilevers from the wall, which not only gives the interior a visual lightness, but makes it easier for cleaning crews to operate quickly and efficiently.
The things that will help our passengers feel motivated to travel on public transport again, are the very same things we were striving for from the outset.
The beauty of starting with a blank sheet of paper means we have no legacy. Vehicles have been produced on linear production lines that are only ever set up to make one thing – cars run on fossil fuels – since Henry Ford’s era. Using a micro-factory model that requires less space and capital investment means we can build vehicles local to each market, and to the volumes required for any specific model. We have the flexibility to manufacture many different variants of body on the same platform. The same micro-factory cell can produce a van one day and a different vehicle the next. By using our proprietary components, materials and manufacturing methods, we can raise the quality of our products, while reducing costs.
We sat down at the formation of Arrival and asked ourselves fundamental questions: How should a vehicle be manufactured in the 21st century? What should the body be made from? How can we become more vertically integrated and less reliant on tier-one suppliers? How can we design for rapidly changing technology? All of these have led us to create a complete paradigm shift for the industry in the way a vehicle is conceived, designed and manufactured.
"Most of the roadblocks until now have been these long-held beliefs that there is only one way to design, engineer and build a vehicle."
Pretty much all of the companies and transport authorities we speak to are super excited about what we are doing and are willing us to succeed. I think everyone is now on the same page, especially in the wake of Covid… things need to change. Whether it's the air pollution in the cities we live in or the broken service and infrastructure of the public transport systems we currently use, there has to be a better way.
Public transport and buses in particular, sometimes feel like they are only one step removed from the horse and cart: noisy, smelly and dirty. A beautifully designed, clean, electric future is what we are offering. I may be naive, but why would anyone object to that? We are having some promising conversations with cities and see real potential in building infrastructure solutions and seamless mobility services for local communities across the world.
We are already working with a number of partners, including UPS, which are headquartered in the U.S. It’s an important market for us, and we’re currently looking at a few sites for our first micro-factories.
America sure does love its cars, but we’re excited about the huge potential market in the U.S. for commercial vehicles – for example, the U.S. electric bus market is projected to reach $71.9 billion by 2024. More and more states are also committing to sustainable transport options; California recently mandated that all EV trucks sold must be zero-emission by 2045. Last year, we welcomed long-time GM exec Mike Abelson to lead our U.S. team and he’s doing a fantastic job at scoping out our potential growth there.
You’re right, we were often faced with the same responses to what we are doing: “It can’t be done” or “That’s not how you design a vehicle” etc etc. It may surprise you, but a lot of the dissent came from some of our own engineers in the first year or so. These were people so entrenched in the industry that they couldn’t think laterally about new ways of creating vehicles and systems. Most of the roadblocks until now have been these long-held beliefs that there is only one way to design, engineer and build a vehicle.
The people that stayed around and have thrived at Arrival are the people who were frustrated by the red-tape and politics of traditional automotive.
We are a technology company at our heart, not an automotive company. We employ talent with a very wide set of differing skills, both from within the automotive sector and beyond – for example, we have over 400 software engineers working on our proprietary end-to-end technology solutions. This enables a cross-fertilization of ideas and allows different patterns for creating products, services and systems to emerge.
We have given our employees the space to think differently and to not feel afraid of failure. I’m proud to say that there are a lot of designers working throughout the company, not just in design. There is something of the questioning nature of a design-trained mind that is particularly suited to our culture.
As you say, we’re currently focused on commercial vehicles – and that’s because we see the most opportunity in this market, particularly with the recent growth of ecommerce. Traditionally, this has been an underserved market that’s dominated by legacy manufacturers. We’re lucky enough to have already signed significant supply agreements with UPS and other partners, so are confident in the unique appeal of our products.
We currently see more consistent demand in the commercial segment than the overall consumer EV market, but our model means we can scale quickly and flexibly to reach new markets. We have a fairly unique blend of industrial designers from some of the world's best consultancies, coupled with automotive designers from more traditional OEM backgrounds, so the design team is well versed in designing technology with the consumer’s end experience in mind. We are well-positioned to design and manufacture personal vehicles in the future.
"Until the industry adopts a ground-up design philosophy to represent the new technology, we will always have one foot in the past."
Charging infrastructure has been part of the discussions we’re having with national and regional authorities, as well as organizations and customers. One of the reasons that public transport and the logistics industry have been a focus for us, is that they operate in a closed circle. By that, I mean vehicles generally operate the same routes and return to base, to a controlled environment, where the vehicles can be charged, cleaned and maintained before going out the next day. Their mileage is generally known, so doesn't tax the current range limitations, and new legislation adopted by many cities now means that fleets are required to become electric if they want to continue operating.
Costs to operate EV-powered transportation networks will become dramatically cheaper, cleaner and more efficient than their fossil fuel alternatives. Think of the time lost to servicing a fleet of diesel buses!
We need to re-evaluate the manufacturing systems, design and user experience. Most EVs you can buy today still share the same design and manufacturing methods as their diesel and petrol counterparts, I suspect mainly because they are essentially the same vehicles with the engines removed and electric drive-trains shoehorned in. Until the industry adopts a ground-up design philosophy to represent the new technology, we will always have one foot in the past and will never achieve cost parity with existing ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles.
How soon depends on the speed with which companies – used to producing what are fast-becoming obsolete products – can pivot to a new way of thinking and creating.
A big part of what we do is software. This is the enabler of fully connected, joined up eco-systems. The hardware we produce is the gateway to these software-enabled services. This is particularly relevant in an end-to-end service like ride-sharing where the user experience is paramount. Connecting hardware platforms with software-enabled services seamlessly is at the heart of a successful ridesharing service.
Over the last two years, we’ve been working with the likes of Royal Mail, UPS and DHL to validate our technologies. We are truly vertically integrated having developed all of the layers – from software to production platforms – in house, which is no small feat!
We are now in a position where the pieces are in place, we’ve built up manufacturing capabilities, we have a product that everyone is incredibly excited about, and a strong order book from established companies. We’re confident that we can meet our current production targets over the next five years, and are also in conversations around some public transit opportunities. I don’t have many more details to share on upcoming product announcements at the moment, but stay tuned!