Perhaps it was a quirk of geography and history coming together or perhaps it was carefully stage managed to be so, but it was apposite that, in Berlin, a mere minute's walk from the Brandenburg Gate, the head of an avowedly premium, plutocratic marque should express a distinctly Communist thought on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The man in question was Rupert Stadler, Audi's chairman of the board. This is a man who has repeatedly expressed his and his company's ambition to be the biggest selling premium brand in the world by 2020. A man who runs a company which returns profit margin to its parent VW Group out of all proportion with its numerical sales. And yet a man who stood before us and said, "Our individual freedom will be enhanced if we share a lot more". From JP Morgan to VI Lenin in one easy move . . .
The event in question was the prize-giving ceremony for Audi's Urban Futures Initiative. Running since 2010, the prize has been awarded to the group of researchers who have come up with the best, most exciting and most far-sighted concepts for integrating the car of the future into the city of the future.
Grouped by city, this year's finalists were Berlin, Mexico City, Boston and Seoul. Mexico took the prize in the end, with its project to harvest "big data" from as many road users of the city's 22 million inhabitants as possible to better understand their physical movements and internal desires. The team even came up with the concept of "MobCoin" – a mobility version of BitCoin which could allow users to earn and trade credits that would allow them, essentially, to give and receive lifts and commutes.
If you’re a touch puzzled as to why a car maker, and a premium one at that, should be trying to get involved in urban
planning, so were we initially. But as the day wound on, it became clearer and clearer. It’s because if it doesn’t,
(along with every other major car brand) risks being excluded from urban environments altogether.
With more than few cities around the world planning, or at least talking about planning, entire vehicle bans, and with two-thirds of the world’s population predicted to be city-slickers within the next couple of decades, Audi is playing a smart and long game – by flexing its technology muscles now, and insinuating itself within the urban planning process, it can make itself indispensable to city life.
As Stadler himself put it to The Irish Times: "We must decode the DNA of urban mobility. Without that mobility our economy would quickly grind to a halt. There will always be a market for private cars in cities, no matter how good the public transport system gets, and part of being premium in the future means more space in cities and more time for citizens."
Audi is really hammering home its vision of partially autonomous cars in this urban futurism. It brought along the robotic RS7 prototype that recently circulated the Hockenheimring at racing speed all by itself, but the points being made were not about using robots to replace racing drivers, but using self-driving cars to make city life easier.
At the base of this totem pole lies the Audi A3 hatchback we were given to drive around the streets of an entirely contemporary Berlin.
Although outwardly an unremarkable A3 TDI, inside it was equipped with an early-development system that talks to traffic lights. In the middle of the dash display is a readout that, thanks to being able to communicate with a central server, knows when the next traffic light is about to turn green or red. Knowing that, it can then give you a target speed to drive at in order to catch the green. If it can't get you a green, it can at least make life easier for you on the red – the stop-start system is designed to fire up the engine with five seconds to go to green, alerting you to be ready to move again.
Audi claims that, if every car and every light could use this system, it could get two or even three cars more through on a green light per traffic light cycle – creating a significant reduction in congestion. To be honest, driving the system “cold” gave us a bad dose of
overload, and with only around half of Berlin’s traffic lights wired into the system, there are patches where no information comes your way at all. You could easily imagine getting used to it quickly though, and it did eventually become easier and more relaxing – looking into the future, if you like.
While this and the constant mention of ready-to-go technology such as cars that can autonomously go and find a parking place by themselves (something that Audi claims can reduce the size of parking garages by as much as 50 per cent) was certainly encouraging, the broader issue of using cars in city centres remains.
The Berlin-based team of researchers even went so far as to suggest that the car in the city would eventually become an individual self-driving “pod” that could link with other such devices to form road trains of mutual destination. While the presentation showed these Star Trek-like machines bearing Audi logos and design features, who’s to say what company would make such things?
By getting in on the ground floor of future city planning – as Stadler puts it, trying to help individual mobility find solutions to the problems caused by individual mobility – Audi could be playing a long and clever game. The presence at the event of senior German and international political figures suggests the idea is working, but equally Audi could still eventually find itself frozen out of future cities along with every other car.