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  • Matthew Chang

“The architecture has to humanize the technology”: in conversation with Roland Udenze

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

We had the opportunity to sit down with Roland Udenze, world renowned technology architect, and talk about the role of architecture in the integration of autonomous vehicles. Roland graduated with a bachelors of Architecture from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and has been designing brilliant projects ever since. Over the last almost three decades Roland has compiled quite the list of award winning designs, including the PepsiCo Worldwide Flavors Factory in Singapore.

We asked Roland for his expert opinion on how architecture can help create a seamless integration for autonomous vehicles. Roland talks about the goal of any technology breakthrough, especially in transportation, is to make living more enjoyable. This breakthrough in transportation, autonomous vehicles, will make the lives of many people more enjoyable, but the obstacle is integrating it into society.

What could this actually look like in practice? Roland explains that the architecture cannot be cold or isolate the technology. It must welcome people and make the technology more humane. Having architecture that is interactive for an older, less techy generation but also techy enough to keep the attention of the Gen Z’s is key. Whether that is through an app you can use on your personal cell or big screens at each stop that give you up to the minute visuals of when the next car will arrive, there has to be an in between. There must be adaptability with what sticks and what doesn’t. After lots of brainstorming and 4 to 5 test stops are set up, then seamless integration is on its way.

There is more to technological advancements in transportation than just easier travel, though. Roland asks the question, “What if 30% of our city wasn’t concrete and asphalt?” The city would be much cooler, better for the environment, easily much more livable, but ultimately much more enjoyable. That is where technology is taking us and driver-less cars are only the beginning.

But where have we come from? Roland reflects on the past and the progress of transportation. Cars are not much different from over two centuries ago when the first self-propelled vehicle was designed using steam. The general model is the same. Every car has seats, wheels, a steering wheel, and something to make it go (whether that be steam or a gasoline engine). Why haven’t we changed this? We wouldn’t need the impervious road surfaces if cars could hover, which goes back to the point that ultimately the elimination of so much asphalt will make living that much better. With an ability to hover added with autonomous capabilities you now have a completely different machine; no more wheels, different seating, no steering wheel, and much more efficient transportation.

But if these technology advancements are so beneficial to living, how do we get society to accept them? Roland understands the challenge that comes with integrating the autonomous vehicle into society: people can be apprehensive about a car that isn’t being driven by a human. Is there valid reason behind their fear? Roland and I discussed that human error would be about equal to the hypothetical situations that could happen with a driver-less car. What if the car doesn’t stop in time? There are drunk drivers that don’t stop in time. What if someone hacks it? A vehicle driven by a person could just as easily be hacked. What if something goes wrong? Something could go wrong with any car. This is the social challenge that faces integration, but is there more?

Roland compares the integration of iPhone or Uber and how when that technology was new there was some hesitation. What did these companies do to overcome the resistance to change? Uber had an extremely simple yet clear app that allowed all mystery to be taken away. The driver knew where the client was and the client knew where the driver was. The client has a photo, car type, and license plate number all to insure safety and accountability. The accountability from the third party is key, though. Uber itself tracked where the car should be. The app wasn’t specific for each driver; a third party to track, keep data, and ensure safety made people trust Uber. The same goes for the iPhone. The more the people are informed about the technology, the more comfortable they will be, and the more comfortable they will be, the more the product or service will be used.

Roland continues to explain how integration of driver-less cars can be done in Jacksonville. He says the idea is to package the technology, the service, in a way that persuades people to use it and accept it. How is this new technology a solution for each person? Once you sell the individual on how this driver-less car solves their anxiety about morning traffic, eliminates stress about commute time, and overall makes their travel easier, then you have your integration. But how do we do this?

Roland shared a lot of insight of how the architecture surrounding this new technology must stand out. It has to be different than anything that has come before it. Driver-less cars are new; their architecture must be new too. The designs must be inspired by the technology itself and how it will best serve the human race. If anything else other than the autonomous vehicle serves as inspiration for the architecture, then it just won’t be at its full potential. We as creative designers must think outside the box; “What does it look like? What does it sound like? How does it make me feel?”

“The architecture has to humanize the technology and create a new language for the people.”

Roland doesn’t just think driver-less cars are our solution either. He is already thinking ahead. He explains that step one with integration has to be to get the people on board here and now, but what about in 10 years? The iPhone didn’t just plan for their first model. They made a model that supported an iPhone X and gave room to innovate in the future. “We have to adapt for what we don’t know,” he explains. A 50-70% buy in just isn’t enough; it is time to revolutionize the city and leave a footprint on the world that will bring lasting change.

Once Uber was socially accepted it changed millions of lives. Once autonomous travel is socially accepted, millions of lives will be changed. What we are doing now will help us with solutions in the future. We must always be looking forward. Roland has high hopes for where autonomous travel is headed and is excited about what Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) is doing to make it happen.

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