Autonomous Vehicle Design

Self-driving cars are all over the news these days. They had a big showing at CES in Las Vegas this year, as this article from Forbes describes. As with any emerging technology, the utility for it changes as advancements are made and we begin to see new uses that would not have been available were it not for some recent insight, modification, or iteration to make the technology better, faster or more efficient. The research and development on autonomous vehicles began with a focus on personal cars, and has moved on to ride sharing experiences with no need to own a vehicle, delivery services that occur without a driver, and even self-piloting taxi services in the sky. And while some of this may sound like science fiction, the science and engineering needed to arrive at the “Jetsons family” lifestyle is closer than ever in our history.

It is with this background that I introduced our 6th graders here at Westside Neighborhood School to the Autonomous Vehicle Design project. We began with a simple discussion about this looming technology, and its potential impact on their future. After all, in a few years time, these young children will be the engineers, artists, designers and ultimately the consumers of autonomous vehicle technology, in whatever form it takes.

It is refreshing to hear how thoughtful our younger generation is about what lies ahead for them in the self-driving future. While many are eager to take part in this new world, others expressed concern over liabilities when accidents occur, how machines would make a decision between hitting a pedestrian and injuring passengers, and how autonomous vehicles would respond in emergency situations. Many unanswered questions remain, and these young minds will grow up to be the very ones that help address the problems we may face.

With discussions underway, we entered our initial ideation phase to explore as many ideas as possible. What happens when there is no longer a need for a steering wheel? What do you use your time for while stuck in traffic? If you don’t own the car, how does that change issues around storage? My classroom provides a variety of places to draw out ideas. The walls are writable surfaces, and so are the tables. Students use chromebooks, iPads, graph paper and whatever else helps them to get their ideas out in the open.

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After an initial design exploration, students decide upon a model that they would each like to take to the next level. It is here that they must complete a more detail drawing, using top, front, right-side, and bird’s eye views to illustrate their proposed vehicle.

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It is at this point, after detailed drawings are complete, that students begin to work in Tinkercad. I provide students with the car base, axles and wheels. This process enforces a design constraint for them, as they need to design within consistent size parameters to a certain degree. I also provide “passengers” that must fit in their vehicle. Using these accessories also results in student prints that are fairly small and flat-bottomed, which helps to make the 3D print workflow manageable.


The designs are currently in progress, but the first ones are hot off the press. Here are a few photos of student projects. Please note that I print everything in white. This allows students to follow up with paint pens to complete their work.

If you’d like to learn more about this project, here are resources I created for educators at a recent conference here in Los Angeles. I get excited to see each new model come off the printer. And while some need remodeling and reprinting, this process of design, improve and test again is all an essential part of the learning.

How have you integrated 3D design into your work with students? Please share!

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