Wolfgang Müller-Pietralla, Head of Future Affairs, Volkswagen Research, is tasked with analysing future trends and developments, and directing future mobility and vehicle concepts. In conversation with CDN, he discusses the challenges of introducing new technologies, a new mindset for consumers, and why cars can no longer sell only on their design…
CDN: Can you explain about the department in which you work, and your role within Volkswagen?
WM-P: I’m the head of future intelligence. We do 360-degree research, we monitor and analyse all the fields of daily life, finding indicators for change. Based on these indicators, we try to understand the bigger picture by linking these to major themes we see in the future. We call this ‘future links’; we try to understand why these things happen, and why, for example, designers, creative people, engineers, believe in things which are not ready yet but will affect the future. If we understand the motive, then we translate these findings and values, and we link these to the automotive values, to the product features of a car, or mobility.
[We look at] the link between the future values and consumer behaviour which we can see reflected in music, lifestyle, fashion. If something happens in Shanghai or Las Vegas, one hour later I have it, and two hours later my designers start working with this new information. This is what we do based on information. Technology intelligence is really strong, too; for example, we analyse patterns worldwide, patents, all the scientific publications, and all the news data every 15 minutes. My guys, data engineers and analysts, wrote the algorithm for that – we have a very, very powerful search engine. A finding engine, because searching is different to finding. This information is valuable for a decision process, for a team, for the board.
Future Volkswagen: I.D. concept
We created a data intelligence system and we create [data] landscapes. Then we have a view about what’s happening at a distinctive time. You can see how topics decrease, increase, what’s come in, what’s gone out: you can really detect the trend, the rate of change. I’m a scientist; when I entered this business, people said to me, ‘you’re a trend researcher, what’s trend research?’ Trend and future is not about topics, it’s about time. By synchronising the desires of our consumers, the ability of society and the technology status, bringing the two together, you have something which is really unique.
This is the data we collect, especially topics for connected life and artificial intelligence. Connected lifestyle means that in the future, moving objects, not only cars, are connected to other cars, to the infrastructure, being agile, adaptive, situative. This is about context incentive information. We will see development of a lot of collaboration tools, it’s about managing all these interactions between the car, the consumer and the environment. It’s about machine learning, data mining, predictive analytics; deep driving personalisation, HMI, mobile online services, predictive maintenance.
Interior of the highly-connected Budd-e concept
[Then] the focus is on how we can create a design which really gives people the feeling that a new era arises, they are comfortable with this new design, which is desirable, and they are willing to pay for it. This is the first question. Then the second question is the direction the automotive industry will go. Will we continue our processes and development? Are these processes much more efficient, so we can adapt to future needs based on the conventional platforms and modules? Or will we switch, and we must redesign the architecture of the car completely?
Finally, the consumer will adore and desire the car if it delivers status, but in a different expression, by innovation. The car must express that it is the future, or that this design is the future design – I call it the future genome, you will find it in the interior, in the engine, in the design. We must convince that this new design, the new technology, is the best we can do for the market and the consumer: if it is an authentic statement, then the consumer will have the trust to really enter this new era.
I.D. concept, autonomous mode
For a car company, especially a big car company, this is a really different mindset...
We have to learn that now the consumer is strongly experience-oriented, and we cannot only sell cars by design. The customer must understand the new car with all senses, and we must really understand the benefit not only for the individual but also for society. Because Generations Y and Z especially are looking beyond: they do not focus only on their personalities, they ask questions about how this car will affect their surroundings, the environment, and is this kind of mobility sustainable?For me also, the Generation Alpha [born 2010-] are very interesting. They are not able to separate physical and virtual mobility. We call this ‘vigital expression’, it’s a hybrid between physical and virtual lifestyle.
I also believe that we must focus on newer values. One which really engages people is seamless access: we believe that companies will create mobility IDs and if you are in this mobility ecosystem, you can switch very seamlessly and easily going through different services, and you will have access to different products. For the Volkswagen Group, it is a new perspective because you can switch between a Škoda and a Lamborghini – we have a tremendous offering for all needs, from the multivan to sports cars and, sooner or later, some bikes or micro-mobility services and micro-mobility products. This can be a big opportunity. For this reason, we need new access points, physical access points in cities. At the same time, we need, for electromobility, somewhere the cars can regenerate for some hours: we must integrate some places.
We have started a project in Barcelona with the university and the city [authorities], all the mobility digital layers and levels. If you want to change the traffic flow, you need to take these levels and see why people drive, where they come from and what their intention is, so we study the mobility rhythm of the city. How can we reach the same mobility level from the outskirts to downtown, but have really less cars downtown? Now we know that if we build an infrastructure where the cars come in, and the people have easy access, they can change their mobility, load their car, or pick up their goods when they go home based on some apps. You have a fluid system.
I believe we must discuss cities in a different way. Every city has a different reason and different needs and different structure. And we must not forget the rural areas, because many people live in rural areas where we cannot see public transportation from an economical point of view. For mega-cities, the car is probably not the right solution: cities need to create more liveable spaces downtown bringing in a green factor, speeding down mobility to 5mph, moving with your feet. In the centre the subway is probably one of the best public rapid transports, but coming back to more suburban and outskirt areas, you will find more cars.
For me, the Google car is an innovation, a marketing tool for the idea of autonomous driving, but I can’t imagine that with a two- or three-seater moving at 30km/h, you are really able to solve capacity problems, mobility in the city. I’m not convinced, but if we talk about robo-taxis, robo-cabs, with six, eight or 10 people in a car, this could be very interesting. We know clearly this will have a very different design, a box design. These robo-taxis are about transport capacity, immediately accessing the car, it’s about convenience, it’s about integration with your phones and finding the right route so everybody is comfortable.
Budd-e concept: a statement of intent earlier this year
Is Volkswagen making a real statement that it’s moved on [after the emissions scandal]?
I believe we have changed a lot. We do not actually yet have the final solution for all these new questions which arise, but it is a very innovative phase in the history of the VW Group, where everything is possible and we do not have any limits in the thinking. So we are really free to think and to design. Now we spend a lot of energy and competencies on diversity. We have a really open climate for everybody, a lot of workshops coming up, and every week, twice-daily workshops with designs, with the development department, with the brand’s strategy, so it is really amazing.
I hope that this crisis at the VW Group gives the opportunity to reset the company again. This comes in a timeframe where not only we but the automotive industry must reset due to environmental challenges, due to Generations Y and Z, demands due to demographic change. There are remarkable changes in the parameters which affect how we research, develop, produce and sell cars.