Volkswagen Magazine

Innovation

In the land of the future.

China is reckoned to be the most important automotive market of today – and the superpower of tomorrow. But how do its citizens envisage life in the year 2030? We visit the Science Tunnel 3.0 exhibition in Beijing.

Text Xifan Yang
Photos David Høgsholt

How will people live in the year 2030?

 Wang Han, 11 years old, imagines the future like this: “Cars will drive at speeds of 1,000 kilometres per hour,” says the primary school pupil with starry eyes. “The people in Beijing will zoom around on motorways built like race tracks in the middle of the city.”


It's a warm afternoon in the city of Beijing. Outside the entrance of the Chinese Science and Technology Museum, rush-hour traffic crawls its way through the capital, which boasts a population of 20 million. Han and his mother have come to the opening of Science Tunnel 3.0, a multimedia exhibition by the German Max Planck Society (MPG), which is supported by Volkswagen. The fifth-grade pupil stands in wonder before the “People's Car”, a prototype of the car of the future, which students from all over China designed together with a Volkswagen design team. It’s a sleek, environmentally friendly seven-seater with the appearance of a futuristic SUV, tailored fully to the needs of the archetypal Chinese family, a tomorrow’s world vehicle with plenty of space and comfort for mother, father, one child, and four grandparents. Four “In-Wheel” motors accelerate the electric car. While it drives, a solar roof system feeds additional power to the car battery.

The prototype of the “People's Car” is one of the Volkswagen exhibits at the show.
Meiyi, five years old, admires the futuristic model of a Mars probe.

Future scenarios for the year 2030: this is the theme of the international touring exhibition. In the 1,200-square-meter exhibition space, German and Chinese scientists present their latest research findings – on large multi-touch displays with the aid of videos and interactive computer simulations. They address major, pressing questions, such as where will we get our energy from in future as resources become increasingly scarce? How can we feed a world population of nine billion people and more? Will there be enough space on earth? How do we get clean drinking water? What will we use to cure the diseases of tomorrow?

 

The Science Tunnel exhibition has been successfully touring the globe for 14 years, attracting millions of people on four continents, from Lima to Mexico City, from Singapore to Johannesburg. In Beijing, currently one of the most dynamic megacities worldwide, the issues being addressed by the work of the MPG researchers are particularly contentious. The capital is growing so rapidly, the authorities can no longer keep pace with the environmental protection requirements. A smoggy haze hangs above the city centre practically every day, and a blue sky is rarely seen. The city’s seams are already bursting with the annual immigration of around 700,000 workers, farmers, and students. The situation is similar in most of the country's other 160 or so cities that have populations exceeding one million inhabitants.

“We are a huge country with 1.4 billion people. Many of the challenges of the future – population growth, environmental protection, energy supply – are already affecting us to a considerable degree,” says Dr Zhou Dejin, Director General of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). His institution has been cooperating with the Max Planck Society in basic research for 40 years now. Researchers from both countries are using the exhibition to try and show what possible solutions could look like. The Max Planck scientists from Göttingen have for example succeeded in predicting the path of epidemics with the aid of online computer games. Researchers from Greifswald are working on a new form of energy generation, in which the process of nuclear fusion, which takes place in the sun, is to be technically reproduced. Chemists from Mainz are developing nanocells by means of which they can transport medical neurotransmitters to sick parts of the body. Chinese science is also presenting new findings in the field of nanotechnology: CAS experts have produced bubble-like nano molecules, which can filter arsenic and other toxic substances from polluted drinking water. Other nanocells are suitable for deriving energy from natural gases such as methane.

Professor Martin Stratmann, President of MPG, first went to China in 2001. At that time, he recalls, German scientists were primarily perceived as teachers by their Chinese colleagues. “Now, China is growing into a leading scientific nation, and at breathtaking speed”, says Stratmann. “Chinese researchers are on the way to becoming world leaders.” New findings from China on topics such as urbanisation and environmental protection are not only of importance to the world's most populous nation, but also to developing countries across the world. National economies around the globe are paying more attention to China. The country is regarded as the leading superpower of the future and is already the key market as such in many economic sectors. In 2013, the Volkswagen Group delivered almost 3.3 million vehicles in China, around one-third of global sales. And in the first quarter of 2014, deliveries of the Volkswagen brand in China (including Hong Kong) rose by 17.5 percent.

 

There’s good news for the rest of the world, though. Despite all these current problems, most Chinese people are looking ahead with optimism. According to a study by the American think tank Pew Global, 83 percent of Chinese questioned view their future positively. In Germany, the home of Volkswagen, only three-quarters of the people do so – the global average is just 27 percent. “The Chinese have expectations for the future. Most of them have been able to experience how life can change for the better,” says Stratmann.

The 420-metre Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai symbolises China's rapid transformation.
Martin Stratmann (r.), President of the Max Planck Society, at the exhibition opening in Beijing.

» My daughter all too rarely sees what a clear sky looks like. «

Zhang Qian, age 40

Take Zhang Qian, for example, who is 40 years old and the mother of a five-year-old daughter. Zhang grew up in Shenyang, a city in the far north of China. At home there was no fridge or TV, and meat was only put on the table once a month. She moved to Beijing in her early 20s, today the housewife lives with her husband and child in their own comfortable apartment, and the family have recently bought a new car. “I don't have any financial worries,” says Zhang, as she walks through the Science Tunnel exhibition with daughter Meiyi. But much remains to be improved in China: health care, the educational system. She looks back on her childhood with a touch of nostalgia. “The vegetables tasted much better back then,” says Zhang. “And my daughter all too rarely sees what a clear sky looks like.”

» If scientists succeed in cracking the mystery of the human brain, it will revolutionize our world. «

Wang Lixin, age 47 , IT engineer

Wang Lixin, 47, IT engineer, firmly believes in progress: “If scientists succeed in cracking the mystery of the human brain, it will revolutionize our world,” he says. He imagines the world in 2030 to look like this: artificial intelligence will replace people in all spheres of life. Robots will be secretaries, carers for the elderly, and cooks.

Computers will undertake independent research, and much more efficiently than humans. “The one-child policy will become unnecessary as the population will decline in the long term. Our cities will become emptier, which can only be a good thing”, says Lixin. “As soon as everyone drives electric cars, there will be more trees and more green in the cities again”, says Zhao Jixiang, 20 years old and a student at the Technical University in Beijing.

» As soon as everyone drives electric cars, there will be more trees and more greenery in the cities again. «

Zhao Jixiang (right in the photo), 20 years

» Don't worry, the car is here to stay. «

Wolfgang Müller-Pietralla, Volkswagen visionary, explains how we will get around in 2030.

Addressing the topic of mobility, Volkswagen experts on the future demonstrate their vision of a “MicroCity” in Beijing with a computer animation. Automobiles with the aerodynamics of racing cars speed smoothly and silently through skyscraper canyons. On-board computers alert the driver to free parking spaces. Shopping is performed by robots which go to the supermarket and load the luggage compartment while the driver meets friends at the cinema or goes to the office.

Eleven-year-old Wang Han would just love to design cars like this himself one day. His dream job is to work as a car engineer, and he believes that people will lead a comfortable life in the year 2030. “Whenever we enter a house, the door will open by itself. When we are hungry, robots will provide us with food.” The best thing about it is: everyone will have a lot more time for books and hobbies. “You just have to be careful that you don't get too fat.”

» Whenever we enter a house, the door will open by itself. When we are hungry, robots will provide us with food. «

Wang Han, age 11

» The young know only progress. «

How do the Chinese see the future? And what does mobility mean to them? Five questions for Sven Patuschka, Head of Volkswagen R&D in China.

Mr Patuschka, China's role in the world is becoming increasingly important. From your experience: do the Chinese view the future differently than Europeans or Americans?

 

The Chinese people look to the future with more confidence. The younger generation of 20-year-olds in particular have only ever experienced breathtaking progress and increasing prosperity. Millions of rural people are moving to the city, farmers are finding different work there, child workers are turning into students. The Chinese people today can choose their profession much more freely and travel the world more easily. In contrast to the West, where a higher standard of living has already been achieved and the markets are mostly saturated, the Chinese feel their economy and society have potential for further development.

 

Which emerging technologies are Chinese citizens particularly enthusiastic about?

Mobile technologies are a big trend. Many Chinese people commute long distances to work every day. If they want to visit their families, they have to travel hundreds, or even thousands of kilometres. Smartphone apps, which provide information and entertainment, are therefore extremely popular. Furthermore, the Chinese are becoming increasingly interested in environmentally friendly home technologies such as energy-efficient air conditioning and heating equipment. The Chinese are already trend setters when it comes to e-mobility: electric scooters dominate the street scene of the megacities across the country.

 

China is a country facing great challenges. What do the citizens have the most concerns about, in your eyes?

 

Environmental pollution is the number-one topic for many Chinese people. The government has made great efforts to find appropriate solutions. The increase in prosperity is also placing greater demands on each individual, both in the professional and family environment.

 


Cars have long played a subordinate role in China and sales only started booming in the past two decades. What does the Chinese people's different world view mean for Volkswagen?
Our customers clearly expect us to take their specific needs into consideration when developing our vehicles. They want tailor-made solutions from us. Since we have already been satisfying this wish for over 30 years, as a brand we are gaining more recognition in China, too. Over the past three decades we have sold 20 million vehicles to men and women alike. Out of all of the automobile manufacturers here in China, we offer the broadest product range and the right solution for each customer requirement. And we will continue to pursue this in the future, too. Our aim is to produce even more products locally and continue building cars that suit the preferences of our Chinese customers.

» The Chinese are already trend setters when it comes to e-mobility. «

Sven Patuschka

What do the Chinese attach particular importance to?

Many Chinese have only recently been able to afford a car. On the other hand, however, there are also many customers in China who already have many years of experience with different brands and models. This target group has increasingly differentiated and individualised requirements. Young Chinese people appreciate special exteriors and bright colours which allow owners to express their personality. SUVs such as our Touareg are very popular. The family is of tremendous importance in China. For this reason, large interior compartments and storage spaces are particularly in demand: after all, a lot of people and their luggage need to fit in the car – so it's not surprising that notchback “family cars” are very popular on the market here. The Volkswagen models Lavida, Sagitar (Jetta) and Bora are our biggest sellers. And finally: mobile technologies will play an increasingly important role in the future – for example, to transfer music from mobile phones to sound systems or navigate by means of a mobile phone app.