At the Group Future Center Potsdam: An Interview about Mobility of the Future
White walls, high windows, a light-flooded hall. Three children are having the time of their lives as they jump around the inside of a car. A boy in overalls plops down on the seat. A young woman dressed in black looks down at him: “What do you want to do? Hear a story?” she asks. The boy responds, “I love the spaciousness,” and continues to jump up and down, trampoline-like. The boy and two friends are spending the day at the Group Future Center in Potsdam, where about 80 creative and digitalization experts from the Volkswagen Group design vehicles of the future. They regularly ask guests to drop by so that they can get a feel for people’s expectations about the next generation of cars.
Two floors higher. From this elevated position, the dock of a nearby lake comes into view. Michael Mauer, the Chief Designer of the Volkswagen Group, has settled into a red leather chair. Peter Wouda, Design Director Vehicle in the Future Center, is sitting next to him. An interview about mobility of the future.
Most companies treat new products like top secrets. Why do you ask visitors to size up your prototypes?
Mauer: We certainly don't show our hand to everybody (laughs.) But we do think it is important to share a secret or two with people during the development phase and talk to individuals who will use our cars. Right now, we are experiencing a revolution in vehicle design because the trends involving electric mobility and autonomous driving are creating a new world of possibilities. We can completely rethink the car – and this is something that we intend to do from the customer's perspective. This is why we want to know, to the greatest degree possible, what they would like to have.
Wouda: The people whom we invite here represent a cross-section of society: families, single parents and singles. Children, business people and seniors. Each has different needs. We can gain a better understanding of these needs when we talk with people and see how they act in our prototypes.
How does this openness change a designer's job?
Wouda: This is not just something for designers. Experts from all sorts of disciplines work closely together in the Future Center: designers for vehicle interiors and exteriors as well as specialists in user experience and from Group research. They form teams and toss around ideas to ensure that all issues are taken into consideration from the very beginning – particularly those of the customer.
Mauer: We start every development job with a user story. We ask things like: How do the people for which we build cars lead their lives? What sort of mobility needs do they have, and how can we optimally fulfill them? Our user stories include things like the feedback we get from our visitors.
We can completely rethink the car – and this is something that we intend to do from the customer's perspective.
You just spoke about the revolution in automotive design – what will vehicles of the future look like?
Mauer: I do not yet know where this development will lead. But there is one fact of life that we already know very well: Technical requirements play a major role in the design of today's cars. You need space for the engine, the transmission tunnel, the steering system and the pedal system. Electric mobility and autonomous driving will radically change these requirements. Why shouldn’t a child be able to sit in the front seat? In front of his or her parents, with the best view, a box seat, so to speak? Self-driving cars will make such changes possible.
In addition to the facility in Potsdam, the network of Group Future Centers includes the Future Center California and the Future Center Asia in Beijing. Why do you need three locations for this work?
Mauer: The Future Center California draws many important ideas from Silicon Valley, and the Future Center in Beijing develops special design concepts for Asian markets. Potsdam focuses particularly on mobility in Europe. But this does not mean that we work independently of one another. The teams of the three Future Centers remain in constant contact and learn from one another. This really helps us.
What do you learn from one another – from your colleagues in Beijing, for instance?
Wouda: Thanks to our intense dialogue, we have a very good understanding of the differences between customers in Europe and customers in China. For instance, many Chinese love to stay online and to be in touch with the outside world – even when they are riding in a car. This type of behavior is much more widespread there than here in Europe. Air quality plays a major role as well because many major Chinese cities are plagued by smog. For this reason, car customers in China want the air in the vehicle to be better than it is outside the vehicle. This hardly matters to a German customer. We like to drive with the windows down when the weather is nice and even have convertibles.
What do you personally think the car of the future should offer?
Wouda: As a designer, you constantly live in the future to a certain degree. What we design today will define the character of our streets in five, six or 10 years. I want to have a broad range of beautiful cars that are fun to ride in. My trips should not be nerve-racking or stressful. Rather, they should be a valuable time that I gladly and consciously experience.
Mauer: I want flexibility and the opportunity to make my own decisions. If I am stuck in traffic, the car is welcome to take over the driving while I focus on other things. If I am traveling down a beautiful coastal highway, then I want to be able to decide for myself whether I want to do the driving myself. That would be great.
As a designer, you constantly live in the future to a certain degree. What we design today will define the character of our streets in five, six or 10 years.
Mauer and Wouda stand up, go down the stairs and walk through the hallway. The young woman in black is standing at a table, collecting paper and colored pencils. In addition to the romp in the car, she offered some juice to the three young visitors and asked them to let their imaginations run free: “I asked them to draw a picture – of their dream car of the future.”