Whether it wants to or not, Germany’s auto industry is embracing the hottest technologies. In the Bavarian capital, start-ups and higher-education institutions are driving the shift.
Munich’s Digital Product School isn’t your ordinary school. Since its opening in April 2017, employees from major automotive groups and the digital sector have been attending to get hands-on training. The project is run by the Centre for Innovation and Business Creation at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). According to Thomas Zeller, the project’s chief digital officer, “We’re working on real problems encountered in the automotive industry using a customer-based approach”.
One team, for example, worked on a solution enabling drivers to make the most of the time they spend stuck in traffic. Another is using artificial intelligence to attempt to improve the driver-passenger experience after an accident. “But our programme isn’t just about technologies and services related to cars,” insists Zeller. “It’s also about drone security and mobility within buildings.”
The German Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy chose Munich as the home of the Digital Hub Mobility project in November of 2016. The goal: to set up a testing ground for new mobility concepts and bring together major automotive and digital companies, service providers, start-ups and scientists for the very first time. BMW, Audi, Daimler, IBM and Facebook have signed on as partners.
This has put Munich at the helm of the German automotive industry’s digital transformation. The stakes are high. Amidst the wave of smart and self-driving cars to come, German car manufacturers are having to revisit their industrial models to compete with heavyweight competitors like Google and Apple. Not to mention the undercurrent of electric cars, which manufacturers have embraced since the scandal known as Dieselgate.
Munich is leading the shift due to its unique ecosystem. “Bavaria is a hub for the global auto industry,” says Wolfgang Hübschle, executive director of Invest in Bavaria, a state agency which supports companies looking to settle there. Three major manufacturers – BMW, Audi and MAN (manufacturer of trucks and buses) – have their headquarters there and continue expanding in the region. BMW is planning a major extension of its Research and Innovation Centre to start a “new idea factory”. It has begun construction on a €400 million complex set to hold 5,000 additional employees.
Munich is well-equipped for innovation, boasting thousands of tech companies, 15 higher-education institutions and nearly a dozen incubators. The city is also ranked number one on the European Information and Communications Technology Locations list, meaning that it fulfils all the conditions for a successful transition to a digital economy.
Big data and self-driving cars
Universities and schools of higher learning are a cornerstone of this burgeoning environment, generating both qualified labour and new ideas. Professor Markus Lienkamp, chair of the Institute of Automotive Technology at TUM, underscores the eagerness of the students. “In the master’s programme, 400 of them are in the electric mobility class, which is optional. When they graduate, 99% of our PhD students get a job in the industry right away.”
The most recent testament to Munich’s draw? Auto manufacturers from other regions and even other countries have come to prepare for future challenges. Volkswagen came to tackle Big Data and the Internet of Things, and Volvo and Autoliv are looking into self-driving cars. The new Chinese brands Nio and Future Mobility Corp have also set up development and design centres. Munich’s ecosystem is operating at full throttle, becoming the backdrop for the auto industry’s attempt to recover its once untarnished reputation and also make a play to be a world leader of innovation.
Electric taxis take flight
The start-up Lilium hopes to fight urban pollution and traffic congestion from the air. Its product is the Lilium jet, a silent, electric drone with a 300-km range that can seat five people. It features vertical take-off and landing, making it compatible in cities, and reaches a speed of 300 km/h.
Lilium’s idea will require a network of landing pads and a mobile application enabling users to reserve a flight quickly just as people today book
a taxi. Established in 2015, Lilium successfully conducted its first test flight in April 2017. In the wake of this achievement, the company raised $90 million. Among the investors were Skype founder Niklas Zennström and Jawbone founder Alexander Asseily. The first manned flight is expected in 2019, with service launch in 2025.
Konux helps railway companies plan their maintenance work. Established in 2014, this start-up is based on three key elements: sensors to measure the equipment’s condition, AI-based algorithms to detect and predict anomalies, and an interface to send results to the user and suggest a plan of action.
The 35-strong Munich-based company, hailed by Forbes as “bring[ing]
rail maintenance into the 21st century,” recently raised $16 million, which it plans to use to expand in the European market. Konux has already forged a partnership with Deutsche Bahn.
A car for developing countries
TUM’s Institute of Automotive Technology has designed the aCar, an electric vehicle for use in rural areas of developing countries. “We noted during our evaluations in Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania and Kenya that people living in the countryside encounter major mobility issues, making it difficult to bring their crops into the city,” explains Executive Director Markus Lienkamp. “The roads are of poor quality and petrol stations are hard to find.” That’s why researchers tried to come up with a small, fully electric, all-terrain lorry.
Lienkamp says the lorry is “very hardy and inexpensive, and can be manufactured locally because assembly is easy.” More than 150 students contributed to the design, which generated buzz at the most recent International Motor Show in Frankfurt. Evum Motors, a TUM spin-off, is now responsible for the manufacturing and marketing phases of the project. The aCar should to come out in 2018.
By Sophie Gaitzsch