Electric mobility, autonomous driving, artificial intelligence – the automotive industry is in the throes of a major upheaval. At a recent talk in Beijing, Volkswagen Group CEO Herbert Diess remarked that the sector is going through a “disruptive innovation.” These developments are thoroughly changing existing segments, and giving rise to new markets, products and connections.
That’s why Volkswagen is seeking to break with traditional modes of thought and take new paths, the latest example of this being the Future Center Asia in Beijing, which opened in January. Located in the northeastern part of the Chinese capital, this interdisciplinary center is developing new approaches to mobility. It currently has 30 specialists from different fields, and that number is expected to rise to 50, says its director Torsten Schonert. But as Schonert emphasizes, the figure itself is not the key factor. “We have local DNA here at Future Center Asia,” he notes. Some 60 percent of the employees come from China or the region. And even the foreigners on the team are embedded, “which means most of us have been in China anywhere from three to ten years. We speak the language, and know the country and its culture.” Precisely that is what makes Future Center Asia special.
Future Centers in Europe, North America and Asia
The Volkswagen Group has three of these centers worldwide: in Beijing, Potsdam, and Belmont in Silicon Valley. Future Center Europe in Potsdam is primarily dedicated to developing mobility concepts, while Future Center California draws on influences from Silicon Valley to provide the best digital user experiences. Future Center Asia will be concentrating on the Chinese and Asian markets, and adapting the Volkswagen Group’s future mobility services, designs and products precisely to the needs of customers there who tend to be considerably younger and digitally well connected. “People in China are very open to new technologies,” explains Schonert. “Digitalization has become a routine and integral part of their everyday lives. They use digital services to communicate with each other, stay informed, make payments and shape their entire lifestyles.”
In 2017 the Volkswagen core brand sold more than three million cars in China alone – a figure roughly equivalent to the total car market in Germany. Group members Audi and ŠKODA are also posting outstanding results in China, and the total Volkswagen Group sales in 2017 surpassed four million cars there. The Volkswagen brand alone accounts for more than 13 percent of the market in China. “China is our second home,” said CEO Diess at the Volkswagen Group Media Event in Beijing.
Future Center Asia is therefore of great importance. This think tank in Beijing is expected to be a source of crucial ideas for mobility strategies of the future. “Our projects here are set up for periods spanning more than a decade,” explains Schonert. “We want to think far beyond the cars of tomorrow. We’re looking to identify and solve the challenges of the future, and to meet the mobility needs of future generations.”
Experts from many disciplines are needed to study the future
Looking into the future requires breaking new ground. An interdisciplinary team of user experience experts, creative designers and specialists in artificial intelligence, smart cities, scouting and engineering is expected to accomplish this. “We are breaking down the traditional barriers and promoting intensive collaboration among our experts from different fields,” says Schonert. The team also includes a psychologist. Peter Ortlieb (Head of Design at Future Center Asia) explains how different types of expertise converge in a car. “A 6-cylinder engine forms the technical foundation, speed and performance are the results, and customers want to experience dynamism and sporty qualities which we for our part try to express in the car’s design.”
So much for theory – visitors to Future Center Asia can also assess the actual outcome. When the white sliding door opens on the first floor above ground, the future of mobility suddenly appears before their eyes. It has a jet-black body, dark-blue strip lighting around the windows, an enormous OLED display in the interior and a pink couch. “This is SEDRIC,” says Johann Jungwirth as he caresses the chassis.
SEDRIC means mobility for all
Jungwirth, the Chief Digital Officer of the Volkswagen Group, is interested in “mobility for all.” SEDRIC stands for “self-driving car” – yet it encompasses much more than that. “SEDRIC is the expression and implementation of our vision of all-inclusive mobility,” says Jungwirth. Available to users around the clock, the car can be summoned at any time via the Volkswagen OneButton, the mobility app, or the digital assistant to provide its customers with convenient door-to-door transportation. Its digital embeddedness makes it a vehicle for everyone, explains Jungwirth – for the young and the old, the environmentally conscious, the blind and children. Even for those who do not wish to own their own cars, because SEDRIC is completely electric, self-driving, and can easily be shared with other users in connected communities. SEDRIC has thus far appeared in its original version, as a school bus, and now as this jet-black vehicle with blue strip lighting – the Nightlife edition designed for the vibrant cities of Asia. Right now it’s still at Beijing’s Future Center Asia – but the first models are expected to hit China’s streets in 2021. Welcome to the future.