Your personal space-time continuum

Time is a precious commodity today. And promises to be even more so tomorrow. Because there never seems to be enough of it. Audi is working on intelligent solutions that let you put a more personalized spin on using time and mobility. Making the case for the 25-hour day.

Michael Köckritz (copy) & Sebastian Schwamm (illustration)

Our world’s race toward the future is today more dynamic and complex than ever before. An endless barrage of new desires and needs jostle for our energy and attention. The result of the breakneck pace of modern life is that time is in short supply. In fact, time is always running out. Time to accomplish not only the things we need to do—life’s necessities—but also the things we want to do—me time. It’s not hard to see that our lives are shaped by the way we deal with time. If we could live our days in sync with our biorhythms, a cycle would preferably be 25 hours instead of 24. Now more than ever, a 25th hour would be a real treat. Whichever way you look at it, time is becoming more and more of a luxury. What else is life, if not time?

Sociologist and time researcher Prof. Karlheinz Geissler agrees that, for humans, time is like water to a fish. The difference between us and fish is that we have the capacity to contemplate this substance we move through. People don’t have time. We are time. So saving time is putting aside a little extra life. But what is time actually? It’s the most frequently used noun in, say, the German language. And beyond that? This question opens chapter six of Thomas Mann’s novel, The Magic Mountain. Here’s what it says, “What is time? A secret—insubstantial and omnipotent. A prerequisite of the external world, a motion intermingled and fused with bodies existing and moving in space. But would there be no time, if there were no motion? No motion, if there were no time?”

The focus of the Audi AG showcase at this year’s Design Miami/ is also very much on the 25th hour and the concept of greater personal freedom.

When it comes to time, scientific opinion is divided. Some might even say it’s helpless in the face of time. For physicists, time is a fundamental variable, while social scientists regard it as way of bringing order to what is transient. Economists offer a very simple view of it—as Benjamin Franklin put it, “Time is money.” Ask philosophers who investigate the nature of time, and you’ll get some very divergent answers. Some scientists have even formulated rather laconic responses to the conundrum. The physicist John A. Wheeler, for instance, liked to quote the definition of time he once found as graffiti in the men’s washroom at the Old Pecan Street Cafe in Austin, Texas: “Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening all at once.” Albert Einstein also added his two cents: “Time is what you measure with a clock.” At first, this may seem a rather flippant take on time. But in truth, they encapsulate years of grappling with the principles of space and time. In fact, this pragmatic approach was key in developing the theory of relativity, which introduced a radical rethinking of space and time. By simply focusing on the clock and blocking out all subjective interference, it becomes clear that only the measurable units count. Time is life because an individual can only experience themselves in time, explains Dr. Marc Wittmann, a neuroscientist at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany. During his studies, Wittmann completed an internship under the tutelage of time researcher Ernst Pöppel and began to take a scientific interest in the topic. He has been investigating time’s existential momentum and human perception of it ever since. Together with colleagues, he has succeeded in identifying the insular lobe—a specific area of the cerebral cortex—as the primary center for body awareness. It’s here that all the sensory input received at any given moment—feelings of cold, thirst, even emotions—merge with our awareness of time to create a sense of self. In other words, the way we perceive ourselves and time are inextricably linked. And it’s not just the perception of external stimuli that shapes our subjective experience of time but also the sensations originating in our own bodies that set our biological clock.

As human beings, we are conscious of two different ways of experiencing time—living moment to moment, and memory’s retrospective recall. We vividly remember the first time we do things in life—our first kiss, first party, first car—and other exciting moments. The more experiences we accumulate, the longer those episodes appear with hindsight. It’s as if time is expanding. As new experiences grow increasingly familiar and less exciting stuff happens, fewer memories are formed so that, when remembered, those periods feel briefer. By breaking with routine, we allow new experiences and impressions to make their mark. In everyday life, that’s easier said than done. Especially if you’re stuck in a traffic jam.

Whether commuting to work, on the job or during our time off—people spend more than 90 minutes a day on the road. Anyone currently living in London needs to give serious consideration to time as a resource as they fight their way through gridlock at an average speed of 19 kilometers per hour. Berlin’s residents are lucky enough to crawl along five kilometers per hour faster than that. Typically, we spend about two and a half years of our lives stuck in traffic—despite the original idea behind cars being about freedom and independence. Cars were about longing and road-movie feelings. And now? Now, cars are being transformed into wonderful time machines.

Sophisticated sensors, cameras and optimally networked on-board computers with high-resolution maps are helping to teach cars to drive themselves. Audi, too, is continually pushing the envelope with its pivotal piloted driving technologies. The long-term vision is fully automated vehicles capable of independently navigating traffic. Since it seems daily bottlenecks are here to stay, the Audi engineers thought it would be much nicer to spend the hours lost getting from A to B on more pleasurable activities. One day, drivers will have the option of simply being passengers who can individually choose how best to use the newfound free time a journey provides. Audi is calling this the “25th hour,” alluding to the new freedom and ability to take control of your time.

Before going ahead with this, Audi wanted to know exactly how people spend their time and what’s important to them. The findings initially revealed five ways we use our time on a day-to-day basis. Quality time refers to those periods we reserve for enjoying ourselves together with family and friends or pursuing hobbies. In our productive time, we work. This is where we give priority to our careers and professional life. Necessity time is devoted to carrying out life’s general chores and duties. When we finally get to relax and put the day’s pressures behind us, that’s what we experience as down time. Transition time refers to the intervals where we shift gears, switching over from one time mode to another.

Nowadays, when driving usually means negotiating bottlenecks, it’s inevitably categorized as necessity time. We’re simply en route from one place to another. Getting to our destination is all that matters. Audi engineers believe we should have the say over how we spend our time in the car. With the car driving itself, we’d be free to choose any time mode we please. The car could autonomously pick the kids up from school. Or we could take the opportunity to learn a language. Or relax while reading a newspaper or a book. Or phone friends and family. Or watch a movie. For those so inclined, this could also be productive time, dedicated to getting some work done, participating in conference calls or virtual meetings. Or why not just indulge in a bit of daydreaming while listening to music or watching the countryside float by—what psychologists call random episodic silent thinking (REST)? Just doing sweet nothing and letting your mind wander. After all, it’s precisely this state of mind that frequently produces those unexpected eureka moments. The secret is to just be inspired to switch off for a while. Think of it as flextime redefined and make the journey the destination.

Tomorrow’s Audi cars will also welcome us into very different interiors. As operating logic and amenities on board evolve in tandem, they will afford drivers greater scope to use their new free time as they please. Intelligent filters will flexibly structure information and communications according to passengers’ individual preferences. Everything will be very much the embodiment of an informed, modern-day interpretation of luxury that fuses inspiration and experience with self-perception, self-fulfillment and time for yourself.

The car is morphing into a personalized world of experience—a kind of time machine where we not only meet with ourselves but above all are finally granted that symbolic extra hour in the day. This marvelous 25th hour lets us regain our hold on and freedom within time and space.