Mr. Müller-Pietralla, when does the future begin?
I could make it easy for myself and say the future starts now. But that’s not quite right. The future begins a lot earlier. It begins with a decision we make that determines the way things will go. In this respect, the future comes from the past. Past decisions determine everything that will come in the future.
So with a bit of thought and reflection, we could make our decisions in such a way that the future becomes plannable?
With many of our decisions, we aren’t at all aware of how they will influence our lives. That is the problem. But I believe that we can learn from this realisation. We should hone our awareness and consider which consequences these decisions will have. Perhaps we could ask: What if? What would happen if we decided differently?
Can future researchers help point us in the right way?
What people often expect from us is a specific path to follow for a safe future. We can’t do that. What we try to do is to provide a road map with ways to get there. The map shows us certain paths where you move safely, you can recognise chasms to avoid or rivers you can only cross as a good swimmer. I see us in the role of guides along the way.
Your latest study, which included a lot of calculations, is titled “Stop and Go”. What exactly does that entail?
The scenario shows that we live in a world which is rapidly changing. First in one direction, then in the opposite. The stability that we have today is not etched in stone. Small changes of political nature or insecurities in the financial system can quickly lead to considerable changes of the overall system. A short recession or a brief political trade war can rapidly result in a drop in growth. Then a financial crisis is not far off. We calculate scenarios for these different futures.
Let’s move to cars: Does that mean that designers will become more important because they give things form and direction?
Absolutely right. Designers, and all creative people, are excellent seismographs for future developments. Designers have the unique ability of anticipating this future and expressing it as part of their work. Regarding cars, I expect that the automotive world will remain largely the way it is for a while. We will see cars with new features and new designs without the others dying out. New and old vehicle concepts will coexist.
Can you tell already now which concepts will catch on?
It has not yet been determined that the latest concepts will survive and displace all the others. And that’s a good thing. Nobody can deny that there will be new drive concepts. Beyond that, the SUV will remain in the picture for quite a while. Because our society is focused on values like safety, protection and a sense of security.
And there won’t be anything new after that?
I believe that the subject of the automobile is far from being at the end. Let’s get back to design: I see the new drive concepts as an opportunity for designers to develop a new design vocabulary that is more individual, more exciting and more encouraging. They will focus more attention on the car and elevate it to a position that it deserves in society. The car continues to be an excellent form of mobility. I think it’s neither right nor fair to just throw this form of mobility out with the bathwater, as is currently happening in the debate about mobility and mobility services. Cars don’t deserve that. Nor do the people who build and use them.
What role does the increasing digitalisation play in the car?
I firmly believe that the excessive focus on digitalisation is a mistake. Of course, the car will continue to develop in terms of digital experience. But it’s not necessary for sports cars to have the full range of digital electronics on board. And I don’t need a motorcycle that can’t fall down. I think responsible people don’t want technology to do everything for them. Digitalisation should support people in their desire for self-determination. If someone wants full autonomy, then by all means go ahead. With perfect technology and absolute safety. But everyone should have the right to decide the degree to which they use technology and digitalisation as an assistant. I don’t find it desirable to allow assistant systems and artificial intelligence to trump our own decisions so that we can no longer decide for ourselves what is good for us and what isn’t.
Ferry Porsche said that the last car ever built will be a sports car. Do you agree?
That’s not an easy question, but I think he’s right. The word autonomy implies automobile. In the sense of self-determination. Merging people’s capabilities with that of a machine continues to fascinate. The principle of competition, of progress and the fascination of speed and mobility will persevere. And this works best in a sports car.
Wolfgang Müller-Pietralla and his team analyse social and technological trends and describe their implications for Volkswagen Group. “We’re no clairvoyants, but we’re perfectly capable of estimating which trends will have the most impact on the world of tomorrow,” he says. Müller-Pietralla, who holds a degree in biology, joined Volkswagen Group in 1992. He introduced a sustainable environmental management system before holding various leading positions at Autostadt GmbH. Since 2002, he has been Head of Future Research and Trend Transfer at Volkswagen Group, a department he was instrumental in setting up.