New quality of life
Mobility in Change
Digitalisation, networking and Big Data have become key concepts of the 21 st century, and they are by no means fully developed. On the contrary: they will continue to grow over the next few years, especially in large urban areas. Urban planning and transport networks are part of this overall concept, and with them, modern means of transportation. Concept vehicles like the Audi e-tron quattro concept and Audi e-tron Sportback concept are already providing an insight into how the future of mobility might soon look at Audi. And what they are showing is that modern vehicles are no longer merely a means of getting from A to B. They have become mobile devices that assist their drivers with a variety of systems while they are on the move. Audi is also working to develop this technology, so as to relieve drivers of more and more responsibility while driving – and then at a certain point to bring that into series production.
Making this happen requires vehicles to have complex electronic components that can collect and evaluate data and derive actions from it. Cameras, sensors and the central control unit (zFas) are constantly talking to each other. The data they collect is processed and shown to drivers and passengers using infotainment components. This real-time communication model is being extended in tomorrow’s mobility so that not only vehicles and passengers communicate with each another, but vehicles and their surroundings, vehicles with vehicles – and even vehicles with their urban environments. This may seem a long way off, but there are several projects already dealing with the various disciplines involved which will, in the more distant future, be brought together as one.
For example, these projects include investigating how we can enhance roads with additional benefits. In the field of electric mobility, wireless charging technology (inductive, in other words) offers an exciting opportunity. This technology is currently designed for static charging in a fixed location, but at some point it could become more dynamic – wireless charging roads that charge batteries in suitably equipped electric vehicles as they drive along longer sections equipped with wireless charging plates. Projects like this are already being tested.
There are other future plans afoot in Somerville near Boston in the USA, where Audi is actively involved in urban planning. Together with the city authorities and property developers there, Audi is working on the intelligent integration of technologies and services in an integrated mobility system. For instance, Car-to-X communication enables traffic flows in cities to be improved, while piloted parking1 can reduce the space needed for individual mobility. Experts like Carlo Ratti firmly believe that this technology can drastically reduce not only traffic congestion but also accidents. The Italian architect is the director of Senseable City Lab at Massachusetts Technology Institute (MIT) and founder of Carlo Ratti Associati design practice. If there is a leading address in the world for innovation in future cities worth living in, then it is Ratti’s lab in Cambridge. In our interview he provides an insight into his view of things.
Editor: Digitalisation and networking in urban areas: the term ‘smart city’ is showing up everywhere. It’s almost as if it’s being used excessively. What exactly makes a city smart?
Carlo Ratti: It is true that the word is being used excessively – and I do not like it at all. However, behind it is the manifestation of a broader technological trend: The internet is entering the spaces we live in, and is becoming the Internet of Things – a network of physical devices, vehicles, home appliances, and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity which enable these objects to connect and exchange data. As a result, many aspects of urban life are being rapidly transformed: From energy to waste management, from mobility to water distribution, from city planning to citizen engagement.
The way we get around will change drastically over the next few years, including the way we drive in urban areas. Are alternative drive systems such as electric cars really big game-changers?
Carlo Ratti: Electric Vehicles could play a crucial role in terms of energy source, as they can be run on renewables and make our transportation systems more sustainable. But I think that the biggest transformations will happen with Autonomous Vehicles. "Your” autonomous car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot, give a lift to someone else in your family – or to anyone else in the neighborhood. This could potentially blur the distinction between private and public modes of transportation.
However adoption of sharing will depend on how our values will change – and in particular on the role of the automobile as a status symbol. I believe that this is possible. It was Norwegian sociologist Thorstein Veblen, over 100 years ago, who coined the term conspicuous consumption. Veblen had realized that families at that time bought cars or other valuables only to show off their social status. Today things are changing. The advent of the Internet and social media, along with an important urban revolution, have being determined new ways of showing one own social status, starting from the sharing paradigm.
What do you think of the current state of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles?
Carlo Ratti: I think that today’s infrastructure still needs work, but that it is changing fast! In a recent study, we tried to optimize Electric vehicle charging stations location in the city of Boston, starting from a massive cellular phone data sets covering mobility of 1 million users over 4 months. Results show that by analyzing users’ behavioral data we can find the best solutions in terms of drivers' discomfort and the number of charging stations required.
What effects will the change have on our everyday lives?
Carlo Ratti: If we focus on the design of each single vehicle, with Electric Vehicles and Autonomous Vehicles we can imagine our cars becoming an extension of our houses. And while traveling we will be able to do lot of other activities – reading a book or taking a nap.
You are familiar with these topics through you work at the MIT. How do you perceive awareness and acceptance in an environment which is less closely involved? And how do you respond to sceptics?
Carlo Ratti: I believe in the autonomy of technology – which will enforce human reaction. Skeptics will be won over easily – as it happened with the steam engine or the 20th century automobile.