Time is our most precious resource, even if we do waste it on a daily basis. It’s not renewable or exchangeable, we can’t stash it away, and our only choice is how we spend it not whether we do. German luxury automaker Audi is treating time as the ultimate luxury with a project it calls 25th Hour, whose purpose is to figure out how the autonomous cars of the future might be able to restore the time that commuting takes away.
I’m in Barcelona this week to try out the 25th Hour test for myself. Audi, in collaboration with scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute — one of Germany’s foremost research incubators — is administering this test to volunteers in order to quantify human reactions to various in-car stimuli and thus fine-tune its designs for the premium Audi cars of the future. “Premium” is a word I heard often while talking to Audi project lead Christian Guenthner, Audi head of culture and trends communication Melanie Goldmann, and their Fraunhofer collaborators. This is a somewhat distant-future vision that Audi is setting out, anticipating it would be 2030 before the full infrastructure of advanced AI and ubiquitous 5G will be in place, but even then this 25th hour would be a thing limited to those who can afford it.
The way Audi’s math works, Americans currently spend an average of 50 minutes of each day in their car: commuting to work, dropping off and picking up the kids, buying groceries, and so on. That time is essentially wasted, though Audi’s polite term for that is “necessity time.” What the company wants to achieve with its future vehicles is to convert that necessity time into one of the more desirable modes, of which it identifies three others: productive time for work, quality time with one’s family and friends, and down time that’s defined by watching a movie or playing some game. Each of those becomes a new or improved possibility for the driver — or, in the newspeak of self-driving cars, captain — of an autonomous vehicle.
Before constructing the three-meter-tall hemisphere housing its futuristic driving simulation, Audi did a study of its drivers across three continents, spending up to a day with each individual across the varied cities of Tokyo, Hamburg, and San Francisco. It learned how people acted both inside the car and out of it, and it applied those lessons to its experimental lab that’s been relocated from Stuttgart to Barcelona for the week.
Thirty millennials (defined as people born after 1980) have taken the 25th Hour test before me, with their brain activity measured via the delightfully Kubrickian EEG helmet pictured above. A galvanic skin response (GSR) test was also applied in order to calculate how stressed each participant felt during each segment of the test. The participants were asked to perform a series of tasks while riding inside Audi’s simulated autonomous car, and their measurements, performance, and personal feedback all fed into the data assembled by the researchers.
The version of the test that I experienced was contracted and simplified: no EEG helmet, which apparently requires additional lubrication, and no in-depth testing. All I had to do was sit through a simulated drive through a Barcelona nightscape with a GSR measuring device on my fingers, and remember a series of letters shown in front of me while also being tested by a growing crescendo of notifications and alerts thrown up on the seven (yes, seven) large displays surrounding me.
Audi’s minimalist car mockup is just four barren seats with large projection screens on all sides. The three major stimuli adjusted by the company in its testing are light, sound, and the density and frequency of information being displayed on the screen. The setting itself is classic sci-fi fodder, but it’s also highly effective, because when Audi flipped it to the focused mode, where the screens turn opaque to minimize the outside world and mute distractions, I truly felt relaxed. The normal “driving” mode is basically a taxi ride with digital readouts everywhere, and the cognitive overload setting is like blowing up all your phone’s notifications in a 360-degree cacophony.
Here are my main takeaways from the test experience and the things Audi said to me:
- Audi sees in-car advertising as inevitable, and the only question for the automaker is whether commercials should penetrate into its premium car range, and if so, what might be the most elegant way of integrating them. The company’s research, as illustrated well by my GSR graph above, shows that people find ads annoying, so it might just be the case that Audi’s premier range distinguishes itself by not falling into the same commercial pitfall that apparently awaits all the rest of us.
- The autonomous car won’t find its fullest realization and fulfilment, at least as far as Audi is concerned, until it becomes a fully integrated component of a totally networked road system. Audi’s automated cars would communicate to each other as well as nearby infrastructure, restaurants, shops, and so on. I asked if the car’s autonomous driving would be dependent on its connection to the cloud, to which Audi said there would always be a fallback system in place, but yes, the full experience and benefit of autonomous driving will essentially be defined by the car’s connectivity. As Melanie Goldmann remarked, the car is going to be the ultimate mobile device.
- When it comes to privacy, Audi takes an approach closer to Google’s than Apple’s. Apple puts an emphasis on keeping its users’ personal information on their personal devices (though that’s starting to slowly change in recent times) whereas Google prefers to load everything up into the cloud. Audi considers the user the absolute gatekeeper of all the relevant data collected by its cars, but it too would look to keep it stored in the cloud rather than the car.
- Data collection would be a huge component of Audi’s future autonomous car proposition. Goldmann describes a car that would be infinitely adaptable, learning your habits like where you drive when as well as who you call from where, and then making suggestions and taking proactive measures based on those things. It would, for example, recognize when you’re in your productive mode and decline incoming calls to keep you focused. The eventual goal for Audi is to make the car an even more productive place than the office, by virtue of it being an entirely controlled environment.
- Though all of this visionary stuff may seem fluffy and insubstantial, Audi’s research is pulling out some concrete findings that the company can iterate upon. Blue light, for instance, has shown up as a positive stimulant for keeping people focused and working — which one of the Fraunhofer researchers tells me is because that frequency of light is known to suppress a hormone that stimulates a feeling of tiredness (which is why you want less blue light when going to bed). Audi is also testing various levels of white noise to determine the ideal productivity scenario.
- While Audi’s productivity concepts appear well developed, there’s a lot less to be said about its two other pillars: down time and quality time. I see down time as somewhat self-explanatory: just pick one of the many screens, grab a pair of headphones, and binge on whatever movie or game takes your fancy. But the quality time, as Goldmann acknowledges, is an extremely personal aspect of time spent in a car, and so it requires the deep level of adaptability and personalization that she outlines. In other words, Audi wants to be as snoopy about your life as it can be in order to more accurately predict and respond to your needs and desires.
Stepping out of Audi’s big bubble of future car captaincy, I’m left feeling more like I stepped out of the living room of the future rather than the smartphone of the future. The four seats, all facing each other, had no steering wheel or headrests getting in the way — it was a space designed for interpersonal communication. Which is funny when you consider another stat that Audi cited: the average riders on any car ride around the world are less than two, somewhere closer to 1.4. So all these large premium saloon concepts of the future of driving — with magnetic flooring and adjustable seating — would require revolutionary changes not only in technology but also in the way that people move around.
Audi’s 25th Hour project is one part an effort at generating good PR for being a forward-thinking company, one part an internal vision to set expectations of the company’s designers and engineers. Goldmann told me that the real-world constraints that circumscribe the work of Audi designers developing current models don’t apply to her team’s work: what they want to develop is the ambitious goal first, and then take it, step by step, back to a realistic method of implementation.