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Barcelona is famous for its outstanding architecture, great food and gorgeous weather. What is less well known is that this Mediterranean metropolis is becoming a city of smart mobility, thanks to young entrepreneurs and innovative companies. We paid the city a visit.

Text Tino Scholz  Photos Michael Englert

The future fits perfectly into Ignasi Vilajosana’s hands. The future weighs about 500 grams, has a diameter of 15 centimeters, and is black—it’s a sensor, among the thousands currently being embedded into the asphalt of the world’s metropolises, in Singapore, Moscow and Dubai. And in Barcelona, too, where Vilajosana was born, where he founded his company, Worldsensing, and from where he plans to conquer the world. With the aforementioned sensors, the first small steps of a technology with the potential to revolutionize mobility in many cities. As Vilajosana notes, “They’re small, but powerful.”

Vilajosana, 38 years old, is standing on the roof of the office building where his company has been headquartered for the past four years. He’s never been up here before. The sun is just setting, and Vilajosana has a view of the entire city: the Sagrada Família cathedral, the Gothic Quarter, all the way down to the sea. The man who telephones with customers from around the world grabs his smartphone to take a few photos and just pau-ses for a moment. “The development is fast and furious,” he says. “There’s a dynamic in our industry that we want to take advantage of. And we believe that Barcelona is the perfect place for it.”

 

The combination of high-tech and automobiles is currently a hot topic in five locations around the world—in Asia, the United States, Germany. Barcelona isn’t necessarily considered one of them yet. Nonetheless, a visit to the city offers striking indications as to why this metropolis on the Mediterranean could be making a name for itself in the future. That’s because the automotive industry is currently undergoing fundamental changes: it’s no longer the carmakers but rather the technology and infrastructure developers who are shaping the vision of the car of tomorrow. This is opening up opportunities for entrepreneurs such as Vilajosana, who was named 2015’s Best Young Entrepreneur in Catalonia, the region with the strongest economy in Spain.

Important Role in Europe

Vilajosana is actually more of a quiet type, but he can captivate audiences with his expert knowledge when necessary, like when he’s explaining why Barcelona plays an important role in Europe with regard to technology. “It’s a strong and innovative environment,” he explains. “You just have to look at the figures.” Of the 500 million euros in venture capital that flowed into Spain from foreign investors in 2015, 340 million went to Barcelona. Worldsensing has also indirectly benefited from this: founded in 2008 and with more than fifty employees, the company is forecast to double its workforce by the end of the year.

Even now, their office space in the building on Carrer d’Aragó is already much too small. It’s hot—because there are a lot of computers in the cramped space, screens flickering with charts, graphics and real-time displays of parking conditions. Employees flit to and fro, English is the common language. Worldsensing specializes in implementing wireless sensor networks in the fields of industry and mobility. Processes are monitored and optimized with the assistance of real-time data from those sensors. Big cities including Bogotá, Casablanca and Shanghai rely on Vilajosana’s solutions, using them to observe traffic flows or improve their parking systems. The company’s founder just returned from a business trip to Iran.

Bottleneck

Bottleneck

Avenida Diagonal is one of Barcelona’s most important streets with ten thousands of cars passing by everyday.

And now he’s smack dab in the middle of Barcelona. Direct on Avenida Diagonal, one of the noisy main traffic arteries that bore their way through the city, six lanes wide. Hundreds of thousands of honking cars are making their way into and out of the city. Camp Nou, FC Barcelona’s home stadium, can be seen off in the distance on one side of the street. On the other is the Hospital de Barcelona, one of the city’s largest infirmaries. Parking spaces are naturally in demand: all of them are currently occupied, even on this sunny winter day. 

Working with Worldsensing, the city has placed more than 500 parking sensors across the entire city—like they did here on the Diagonal. When a space becomes free, Vilajosana points out the sensor, nearly inconspicuous within the asphalt. “What’s decisive,” Vilajosana explains, “is the wireless technology behind it.” Thanks to that, and the sensor, cities can better analyze parking rotations and, among other things, adjust their fee systems accordingly. In turn, drivers can download the app and see in real time how busy a parking area is. Vilajosana opens the app on his smartphone: the street in front of the hospital is marked red. In contrast, the other side of Avenida Diagonal is lit up green—a signal for drivers to try looking there, where currently fewer than 84 percent of the parking spaces are occupied.

The smart transmission of parking information is only just the beginning. Ideas are already being developed for the use of sensors for highly automated cars—for cars that may be autonomously gliding along the streets in the near future. The sensors will be able to communicate with the cars and lead them directly to empty parking spaces. The ultimate goal is to increase traffic flow and to prevent unnecessary searches for parking, which clog the streets and cause more emissions. Vilajosana points over to the street where several drivers are inching their cars along, looking for a space—they probably don’t have the app. Surveys show that the sensors have already reduced average searches for parking from 16 to 14 minutes. 

 

 

“If given a choice, teenagers these days decide for smartphones instead of cars.”

José Miguel Garcia (Director of Automobile)

Data-Driven People

Around ten traffic-free minutes by car from the Diagonal is Plaza Sant Jaume, in the middle of the Gothic Quarter, where countless tourists squeeze through the alleyways like the cars through the streets. The centerpiece of the plaza is Barcelona’s city hall. Here, in this magnificent building with a neoclassical façade and courtyard in the Gothic style, is the administrative center of the Barcelona of the future. 

The city is attempting to position itself as a Smart City, using intelligent solutions to improve the lives of its citizens. Barcelona has been suffering quite a bit since the 2008 economic downturn, as has all of Spain. The crisis was a warning shot across the bow, and has thus led the city to make massive investments in innovation centers over the past six years and to support start-ups. Politicians want to connect people and data, with the vision of an open-source city in which residents can access a multitude of different data. 

Mobility also plays a role in this, even if the current government isn’t quite as intensively focused on sensors as the previous one was. The current solutions being pursued involve more public transportation and fewer private cars—to help decrease air pollution. The connected car, however, could be of assistance, as it can easily be linked to promising transportation forms such as car sharing. 

For José Miguel García, the city government’s efforts are so far just the beginning. He wants to take things further. “Barcelona,” he says, “should become the world capital of the connected car.”

On Plaza España, one of the city’s most representative plazas, where the locals are driving to work and the tourist buses are rolling into the city on the roundabout, García is planning ways to promote the smart car even further. García is director of Automobile Barcelona, an automotive trade show held every two years that attracts the world’s most important carmakers. Yet the show will be undergoing significant changes this coming May. “What we’re doing is unique worldwide,” García says. “There are traditional car shows, and there are technology trade shows such as the CES in Las Vegas. But we’re bringing these two worlds together, and it’s about time. The car show will still go on, but it will also be about expanding it with the Connected Hub.”

García’s desktop is buried beneath a heap of documents and brochures. As always, carmakers from around the world have been contacting him—but only recently have technology companies also been doing the same, including IBM, Microsoft and T-Systems. García describes it as follows: “If you put a car key and a smartphone on a table in front of an eighteen-year old, chances are that she will almost always go for the smartphone nowadays. The world is undergoing massive changes—and recognizing that is essential.”

 

“It’s important to establish trust for this new technology.”

Luis Maria Perez-Serrano (Managing Director of TÜV SÜD Car Business Services in Spain)

García leads us through the exhibition halls and is bubbling in anticipation. There will be four new areas at the trade show in May: e-mobility, the connected car, autonomous driving, and new business models such as car sharing. He points out an area, flooded with light, where the so-called catwalk will be: technology to touch and experience first hand. García explains: “You can compare it to tapas: a lot of elements which, little by little, make driving smarter. And we want to be the ones where these innovations are presented.” 

Something else goes almost without saying: where new technology is created, heralding radical change, new questions arise—particularly with respect to safe implementation. It’s a topic that TÜV SÜD and its Spanish affiliate have been thinking long and hard about. “People are often faced with uncertainties about new technologies such as the connected car,” says Luis Maria Perez-Serrano, managing director of TÜV SÜD Car Business Services in Spain. The conversation is taking place in an office building on Carrer Viladoma, just a few minutes away from Plaza España. “Even though they simplify everyday life. Our job is to establish trust in this technology over the long term.” 

Perez-Serrano has identified two meta-questions that TÜV SÜD will answer: process reliability for one, which means whether the technology functions as planned—can drivers be certain that a smart parking system isn’t leading them to a parking space that’s already occupied? Along with this, another focus is specifically about data security: for instance, protecting infrastructure and connected cars from hacker attacks, but also preventing car owners from tampering with the software themselves.

 

Market Leader in Spain

Market Leader in Spain

More than 1,300 people work for TÜV SÜD in Spain. The market leader for the regular, legally-mandated technical inspections of cars, trucks and motorcycles, the company operates 35 vehicle testing stations nationwide, and also completes safety audits and reviews for industrial and chemical plants, amusement parks, elevators and wind-turbine installations. The topic of “highly automated driving” is one of the company’s focal issues in the area of mobility. TÜV SÜD has been active on the Iberian Peninsula since the 1990s. In February 2016, the company made its largest acquisition ever by purchasing the Spanish services provider ATISAE.

An EXCITING FUTURE

TÜV SÜD in Spain is involved as a consulting partner and auditor—from planning to certification to monitoring—for all of these issues, and is strongly networked, even within the worldwide TÜV SÜD Group; in Sing-apore, the local government is pressing ahead with the development of test tracks for highly automated driving with support from TÜV SÜD, while in Garching, near Munich, a group of company specialists is dealing with vehicle IT security.

At any rate, Vilajosana is enthusiastic about the opportunities of connected infrastructure. Even late in the evening, he is still bust-ling about the office, planning the future. During a quiet moment, he also recalls the past, in 2007, when he graduated with a doctorate in physics from the University of Barcelona. The world was his oyster at that moment—he could have gone to just about any country in the world and started working for important companies. But instead he founded his own, in Barcelona. “I’d do it all over again,” he says. “It was a good time to found a company. Now we’re in the middle of an exciting period, playing an active part. It’s very exciting.” Asked about what exactly the future will bring, he answers, “Let’s see!” and disappears through a doorway—the next appointment is calling.

How TÜV SÜD works in Spain (in Spanish).