What will the vehicles plying 2030’s streets look like? One design contest is asking students to imagine them – resulting in robot cabs and a twisting delivery truck.

When you imagine the ideas that have radically changed what’s possible in transport you imagine them coming from big names, with big resources to back them up. Think Elon Musk and his revolutionary electric car, the Tesla Model S, or Richard Branson, and his plans to send tourists into space.

But this isn’t always the way. Sometimes, big ideas can come from more humble, though no less ambitious origins (such as the Sky Whale we featured recently). With this in mind, a design challenge looking for the “next big thing” in transport is asking students to come up with revolutionary ideas.

“In the year 2030, at a time in which city driving is done autonomously due to high urban density, ‘driving for pleasure’ adventures will be found outside the cities,” states the entry form for the Michelin Challenge Design 2015 competition.

The contest is “looking to recognise simple and sustainable vehicle designs best suited for your chosen adventure on an iconic road that would exhibit pure driving pleasure”.

But why seek ideas from students, when established engineers and designers could come up with something new?

“Students don’t know what they don’t know,” says Ben Ebel of Michelin, leader on the Michelin Challenge Design Steering Team. His enthusiasm for the project is obvious. He says that students don’t have the same jaded eye that they might after spending time in the industry. “Time after time we see that [students] are exceptional futurists,” he says. “They are exceptionally good at predicting trends.”

In some ways transport design could be compared with human evolution. We’ve gone down one particular path, which we continue to refine. There’s no particular reason things could not have evolved in a different way though, we could have six limbs instead of four, and cars could have six wheels. But unlike humans, cars can go back to the drawing board.

Winners of the previous competition in 2014 illustrate this flexibility in thinking. The challenge was to explore developments in vehicle autonomy., the winner being a vehicle named BOT, designed by Chris Luchowiec from Poland. He graduated from the Lahti Institute of Design in Finland with a degree in industrial design, and the autonomous transport device he came up with is perfectly suited to areas like Finland with relatively low population numbers. BOT is supposed to give people the functionality of a car, but without having to own one. It is basically a self-driving taxi, which can be used alone, or the ride can be shared.

The vehicle looks futuristic; it may still have four wheels but they have been pushed to the far corners, and the cabin is a square-shaped box. But what really impressed the jury, according to Ebel, is the way the BOT vehicle externally communicated what it was doing, with simple headlight graphics which display the ‘mood’ of the car and driver

They are circular, so look almost like eyes, that can blink or wink. The designer says the plan was to make the vehicle look friendly. He does not believe that cars that automatically cruise city streets should look aggressive, but should be ‘humble helpers’.  The lighting colour of the vehicle is changeable too, so for example the whole thing can glow gently yellow at night, which the designer says would help people chill out after a long day at work.

It is public transport that can be personalised.

“I think that is something that we are always going to see a need for,” says Ebel. “Technology partnered with a way that the car (or transportation device) can still say something about the person driving it. There is a system there so that you can still present a message to the world.”

Another favourite of Ebel’s is GelenK, which came in third. This vehicle is designed for freight, not people, and was created by South Korean designer Takbeom

“I think that subset of transportation is really going to be a place where autonomy is really going to be very successful,” he says.

Freight deliveries often include repeated routes, with well-planned stops, and so would be an easier application of autonomy than a demanding, unpredictable, human passenger.

GelenK looks like a small white double-decker bus, or a slightly streamlined RV, but much narrower. Its small size means it can zip around city streets where conventional lorries would struggle to fit – showing the student’s ability to think outside the box, even when moving boxes.

How likely is it that these ambitious designs will leap from the drawing board to our roads? Ebel believes the ideas will eventually filter through, adding that there’s good reason for taking these ideas seriously.

“It’s vital for us to anticipate and understand the market,” he says. “We have found that these participants are incredibly good at giving us an insight into what consumers are going to be looking for in the next 5, 10, or 15 years.”

For budding designers with a desire for shaping the transport of the future, the competition is open now for entries, until June 2014.

If you would like to comment on this, or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook or Google+ page, or message us on Twitter.