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Interview with Walter Hirche

Walter Hirche: Erfahrungen zum Thema Nachhaltigkeit

Mr. Hirche, you have acquired wide-ranging experience over a lengthy career in politics, as a VW Supervisory Board member and with UNESCO, for example. Looking back on everything you have experienced, how do you assess the issue of sustainability?
There’s no getting away from the fact that our prosperity today depends substantially on resources from other regions of the world, and that to some extent we are exporting environmental impacts to those regions. Meanwhile, social munificence by domestic politicians comes at the expense of the next generation. Both modes of action lead us up a blind alley. We need to preserve decision-making leeway for future generations, otherwise our children will have no future. So we have no alternative to heeding the principles of sustainability.

Based on your observations, how has the significance of the topic changed and evolved?
There has been a marked rise in awareness in German society of the need for sustainable lifestyles and actions. Questions regarding food supply and mobility serve to illustrate the point. The issue now is not simply about avoiding waste or emissions, but about how we can consume less yet still improve the quality of life. By the same degree that the teaching content at our schools and universities is educating people more intensively than before in sustainable development, future generations will develop an even deeper interest in dignified conditions for humans in all parts of the world.

In your lecture you talked about social expectations with regard to responsible mobility. What does society and what do customers want?
In future, society will demand a better-coordinated transport concept encompassing public and private transport. Despite the growth in communication options based on new IT devices, people will still want physical mobility. Growing time constraints will dictate timetables and travelling habits even more. The drive towards ideally zero-emission vehicles goes on relentlessly. That will gradually influence the entire value chain.

Will the future bring a change in customer wishes? Will people continue to drive cars?
Customers’ individual requirements will continue to grow. That doesn’t just apply to the traditional features such as colour, size, engine power and drive type, but also to utility/scope for combining with other individual private mobility offerings (scooter, cycle) and public transport. I believe people will still want to drive a car of their own in the future – a little piece of privacy in the public domain, with more communication options than today. A greater spread in demand between rural areas and urban regions is to be expected.

Car manufacturers are seeking to master a wide range of technical challenges. Which drive type do you believe offers the brightest prospects for the future? Is there a single “best” drive type?
In the future too, car manufacturers will still have to meet a variety of preferences, some of them contradictory. The customer of the future will still want a reliable, fuel-efficient and preferably low-cost car. Even leaving government regulations aside, expectations for low-emission or zero-emission cars will increase. It is currently unclear whether such a thing as the “best” drive type will emerge. Though vehicles with hybrid, gas or electric drive should gradually gain the upper hand on petrol and diesel models. I can’t predict how far cars with fuel-cell drive will catch on. Car manufacturers would be well advised to identify alternative products.

The title of your lecture at Audi is “Success beyond 95 grams”. This target refers to the CO2 emissions of vehicles during the phase of use. Is that enough?
It’s not enough when discussing CO2 emissions to only talk about the use of cars. We should instead consider the entire value chain in the production of a vehicle and the environmental footprint for the production of the energy used to operate it. On the other hand car manufacturers need to base their entire corporate philosophy around sustainability as the key theme. Based on our experience, the consistent application of this key theme to all phases and details of the manufacturing process can be expected to lead to new innovations that in turn will result in new customer benefits when compared to competitor products, in the way the slogan “Vorsprung durch Technik” has previously been doing.

It isn’t easy to look at the value chain as a whole. Whose job is it to provide the general framework or formulate demands? Business, politics or society?
They all need to take action. Society’s expectations develop differently in the world’s regions. Producers tend to be particularly successful if they recognise future conditions and social trends at an early stage. To state the obvious, demand can only be realised with the market. Thus the manufacturer bears the greatest risk because the right time always entails risks. And yet, those that make the most of their opportunities will have an advantage.

What course would you recommend to AUDI AG for continuing success ten years from now?
Audi’s excellent engine specialists have to become promoters of sustainability. That means: not only do they need to work with IT experts to find new engineering answers, but they also have to work with traffic planners, urban developers and road engineers, and, most of all, with the young generation – future buyers of mobility offerings. The very name Audi conveys a dual obligation: to listen and to dare.