Audi Urban Future Initiative: Smaller, Smarter, Autonomous, Linked Cars

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poster from Audi Urban Future conference, Frankfurt, September 2011

poster from Audi Urban Future conference, Frankfurt, September 2011

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Put a group of urban planners, architects, and sociologists on a panel to discuss transportation in the cities of the future, and you may find they don’t spend much time talking about cars.

Instead, you get statements like, “The megacity of the future desires to be a generous knowledge partner to all elements of the transportation matrix.”

OK, then.

Tomorrow’s megacities

But despite some dense jargon, the Audi Urban Future Initiative seminar—held the day before last week’s Frankfurt Motor Show—highlighted issues that all car companies will face as they try to sell cars into new and growing global markets.

Its goal was to bring together a list of luminaries in separate fields for a day-long discussion on how we’ll live—and move around—in the new and increasingly urbanized century.

As Audi board chairman Rupert Staler said in his opening remarks, private space is a luxury in any city. If we project today’s trends into 2030, 1 square kilometer may house 5,000 to 10,000 people. The number of associated cars would increase from 1,000 to 1,200—making congestion, pollution, and parking problems even worse than they are today.

Audi Urban Concept launch, 2011 Frankfurt Auto Show

Audi Urban Concept launch, 2011 Frankfurt Auto Show

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“If that’s the megacity of the future,” Stadler said, “I would not want to live there.” Instead, he asked, how can we “urbanize technology” to provide the “mobility of the future?”

70 percent in cities

Today, slightly more than half the world’s population lives in cities. As global population expands from 7 billion today to 8 or 9 billion over the next few decades, that percentage will grow to 70 percent.

The biggest areas of growth won’t be today’s established cities—New York, London, Beijing, Tokyo, Rio de Janiero—but “megacities” of 10 million or more residents. Those include not only today’s Sao Paulo, Lagos, and others, but up to a dozen in China that have yet to be built from the ground up.

In other words, there simply won’t be enough room for even a tiny fraction of those residents to own and store what we think of as “cars” today, even if they’re compacts or subcompacts.

Embedding the car in the matrix

If we spent most of the last century adapting cities to the needs of the car, how will the cars of the new century adapt to the needs of cities and their residents? As Stadler put it, “the car must be embedded in the urban system.”

2010 GM EN-V Concept

2010 GM EN-V Concept

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Despite some of the dense jargon that followed over the next six hours, a number of themes emerged that sketched out a vision for what we now call cars.

Our comments here include material from subsequent interviews with Ricky Hudi, Audi's chief executive engineer for electrics and electronics, as well as his associate Andreas Reich. They were able to provide more concrete examples of some of the theories discussed during the panels.

Real-time data is key. Cars will be connected to the Internet, the surrounding infrastructure, and each other. They will receive and transmit not only real-time congestion and weather data, but also information on nearby vehicle flows, road features—stop signs, traffic lights, merging lanes—and even be able to pre-reserve an empty parking space near their planned destination.

Autonomy will make driving easier and more convenient. It may start with cars that park themselves on special floors of parking garages once the driver gets out. Soon, limited forms of autonomous driving will let future drivers avoid the grim chore of piloting a vehicle in dense urban stop-and-go traffic. Sensors and control software can already recognize, react, and adjust to a car’s surroundings far quicker than human drivers with hard-wired reaction times can.

Traffic in China

Traffic in China

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Throughput will increase. The only way to move more people faster through cities is to space cars more closely together and stop them as little as possible. With highly automated cars, “swarm behavior” is possible so vehicles can flow past each other with far tighter clearances. If conventional cars are entirely segregated, these new automated vehicles might occupy their own section of the road where stoplights aren’t necessary, the cars negotiating in real time to cross each others’ paths just inches away. It might be deeply unsettling to today’s drivers to blast through an intersection at 30 mph just 18 inches away from cross traffic, but perhaps to tomorrow’s passengers, it’ll be a facet of moving around that’s hardly worth commenting on.

Searching for parking will be a thing of the past. Like Tokyo today, where you’re only allowed to register a car if you have an off-street space in which to keep it, future cities will work hard to eliminate the wasteful and time-consuming chore of cruising around looking for a place to park. Pre-reserved spaces and garages where cars will park themselves will become common. Garage owners will love it: Self-parking cars don’t need to be separated to leave space for opening doors, so many more of them will fit into any given square footage—which means more revenue.

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Comments (4)
  1. Great detailed piece about the future of cities and transportation.

    I might like to add the MIT car concept.

    or personal transport in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi: Pods

  2. What a joke. Populations in Europe and the US are falling, not rising. If these yokels think urban square footage is valuable, go visit Detroit. Or Baltimore. I had to laugh at some of the more idiotic claims being made - especially the nonsense about how technology will create space fore vehicles. And the idea of "pre ordering" a parking space, as if that will make one magically appear. Almost as flaky as GM's World of Tomorrow during the 1939 World's Fair. Same sort of nonsense.

  3. @Kent: Had you bothered to read the article, you would have seen the sentence in which I pointed out that the technologies being discussed here are not predominantly intended for North America ... or for that matter Europe. But it's obviously easier for you to spew misinformed bile. I can now pretty much ID your comments from the text alone (in my moderation software) without seeing who wrote them. Sad.

  4. I like some of the small car options, especially the tandem-seating ones that look like open wheel race cars. I do like the idea of having a snooze on the way home from work while the car does all the driving for me. However, i still enjoy driving when it's not the daily commute. I'm a suburb kind of guy, and most city-dwelling people here in Australia live in the suburbs, too. Though i know that we should move towards greater population density - We have heaps of land but most of it is desert, so best not to take all the farmland up with houses.

    There is one thing not mentioned here, though. Motorcycles. I'd much rather ride a bike than drive a two-seat bubble car. Especially if it was an electric bike, those are awesome.

    My 2c. :P

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