The California Department of Motor Vehicles recently issued Audi the first permit to begin testing autonomous vehicles on public roads. But it's just a piece of Audi's mission to begin re-engineering cities around the globe, with cars as just a part of the transportation equation.
"The car and the city need to enter into a new relationship. In this task we take account not only of technical, but also of social, political and aesthetic matters. This enables us to engage in new, sustainable thinking," says Lisa Füting, head of culture and trends at Audi AG.
Füting notes that the Audi Urban Future Initiative was founded five years ago, to question the critical role of mobility within and outside the world's major cities. For Audi -- and all car manufacturers -- integrating itself into questions of urban design is a matter of survival. Cities like London and New York are already experimenting with excluding cars as part of the overall transportation plan. In plain terms, that's is bad for a luxury carmaker's business.
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Audi established the Audi Urban Future Award in 2010, an ideas competition that brought urban planning and architecture firms together with Audi's interdepartmental think tank to begin the process of re-engineering cities for modern transportation.
The Audi Urban Future Award competition takes place every two years, between six major cities around the globe. One of the cities this year is Somerville, Massachusetts, which -- according to Philip Parsons, principal of Parsons Consulting Group and former Associate Dean and Director of Planning -- is truly the perfect city to re-think how cars are a part of the transportation mix.
From Slummerville to the Next Great American City
The history of Somerville is a textbook example of how transportation systems influence economic development. Following the Civil War, Somerville boomed thanks in almost exclusive part to the fact that it was a railway hub. First it serviced the meat processing industry, which built up around the railways. Then, in the 1920s, Ford Motor Company built a plant there.
But in the 1950s, interstate highways made access to railways -- and Somerville -- redundant. Companies that were once headquartered in Somerville, and cities like it near Boston, moved north, west and south along 128, which became known as Massachusetts Technology Highway.
In 1958, passenger rail service from the Lowell and Fitchburg lines stopped entirely. Ford closed its plant the same year, and the economic consequences were crushing. Simultaneously, traffic increased to choking proportions, thanks to the elimination of the railways, and the fact that Somerville was still on the way to the more economically viable cities of Cambridge and Boston.
The Alewife Brook Parkway, Mystic Valley Parkway and the Fells Connector Parkways were originally conceived in the 1890s for city residents to reach metropolitan parks, but they evolved into secondary arteries for suburban commuters by the time the Ford plant closed. The Federal Highway Aid Act of 1956 began displacing entire neighborhoods. In 1950, for example, the Brickbottom neighborhood was completely razed to prepare for a proposed Inner Belt Expressway. Construction of Interstate 93 decimated the States neighborhood in the 1960s.
The decline lasted well into the 1980s. Poverty and crime were the hallmarks of the center of Slummerville, as Somerville then became known.
In recent years, Somerville has resurrected itself. With 90,000 residents within 18 square miles, Somerville is the most densely populated area in New England. It also has the second-highest proportion of 24- to 35-year-olds in the United States.
One Solution: Piloted Parking
Yet Somerville's congestion issues remain. When Philip Parsons was invited to compete in the Audi Urban Future Award, he looked no further than Somerville as the perfect American city to modernize its mobility systems.
Parsons notes that parking is a major concern. "Thirty percent of traffic in any given city is due to people looking for parking," he says. "Forty-five percent of all available land within the city is used for cars."
One proposal to alleviate that issue goes hand-in-hand with Audi's autonomous vehicle program: Piloted Parking. Imagine pulling up to a parking garage and instead of grabbing your ticket and spending the time to drive around in circles looking for a spot, if instead you simply exited the car, went on your way and let the car park itself. That's the idea behind Piloted Parking.
"By eliminating drivers from the parking process, you can add as many as twice the cars inside a parking facility," says Parsons. That doesn't take into consideration the reduction in greenhouse gases of a car driving around looking for a spot, or the time wasted in people having to drive them.
One of the issues that Audi faces in California as it begins testing autonomous cars on public roads is the overwhelming legal considerations. In order for testing to commence, the State of California requires that Audi bond each car it tests with $5 million in insurance, have expert drivers in place at all times, provide extensive testing reports to the State, and report any crashes to the DMV.
Not that there aren't legal issues with Piloted Parking, but as Parson points out, "It can be a closed system," eliminating many regulatory hurdles simply because humans aren't a part of the equation. "You then begin to develop the urban center, moving parking into highly concentrated areas," he says.
Somerville became the very first city finalized as an entrant in the 2014 Audi Urban Future Award competition, with Parsons and mobility expert Federico Parolotto leading the team. Their approach is to create a market situation for intermodal mobility solutions between automobile manufacturers, real-estate developers and cities.
If their vision is correct, Somerville would experience a regulated, multimodal mobility marketplace, gaining space, enhancing value, and transforming urban life and work through automotive innovations such as piloted driving and parking, and networked communication between cars and traffic lights.
Somerville is competing with teams looking to re-engineer cities around the world, including Seoul, Berlin, and Mexico City. In October an international jury will decide the winning team, which will be awarded 100,000 Euro.
IMAGE SOURCE: Audi Urban Future Initiative