In the new world automotive order dominated by China, there are many new names we'll soon become familiar with and the Tongji Automotive Design Research Institute (TADRI) is one destined for global prominence. TADRI was established in 2009 as a key to the Chinese (and Shanghai's Municipal) Government plan to create a center of automotive expertise that is intended to give the Chinese automotive industry a competitive edge – think of TADRI as China's automotive equivalent to America's MIT.

TADRI is part of a group of high capability institutions based in Shanghai's Automotive City, and is centered around Shanghai's elite Tongji University. The people who get to Tongji University are the best, and the employees of TADRI are the best of the best graduates plus foreign experts of the highest ilk in their relevant fields.

Just some of the closely located collaborative institutions of TADRI include the Clean Energy Vehicle Engineering Center, Shanghai Automotive Wind Tunnel Center, Shanghai Fuel Cell Vehicle Powertrain Company and the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) which in turn is part of the Chinese Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).

Every country has different cultures, and despite being the world's second largest country, most populous, and among most influential, China remains one of the least understood countries by foreigners. For much of the twentieth century, China's global presence has been on the rise, but since economic reforms in 1978, its economy has relentlessly grown to become the second largest in the world, and it is expected to become the largest within a decade. China is unquestionably about to reclaim its title as the most most powerful country on earth.

China is already the world's largest exporter and importer of goods, and its rapid industrial transformation has seen a population which, fifty years ago, was one of the world's poorest per capita, grow incomprehensibly rich compared to the previous generation.

Love at first sight

As China's population is accumulating wealth, it is going through the same love affair with the automobile that America and Europe did almost a century ago, and by comparison, it's love at first sight. In 2010, China had 90 times as many automobiles as it had in 1990.

This time though, the machine that represents prosperity and freedom is likely to be a different size and shape, more efficient and technologically far superior to the massive internal combustion engine powered cars which gave personal mobility to the western world.

In 2010, the Chinese automotive market became the world's largest, and it is still growing rapidly. The car parks of China's technology and manufacturing companies are full of cars which reflect the personal worth and dignity of a generation craving what its parents did not have – foreign cars.

In a country where "face" is all important, the automobile has become the most visible indication of prestige, wealth and success and even downmarket western brand names are being favored over local marques.

China has more than 100 car manufacturers, yet Chinese brands account for less than a third of sales, and the above list of the top selling marques in China last month, contains just six Chinese brands in the top 20 – Great Wall, BYD, Chery, Changan, Dongfeng and JAC.

At the same time this automotive phenomenon has been occurring, there has been an equally large personal mobility trend happening beneath it, as China also sells millions of electric bikes each year. Indeed, China has more than 2000 electric bike manufacturers, and accounts for more than 80 percent of the world electric bike market.

Just as scooters make up the majority of the personal transportation system in other developing Asian countries, electric bikes make up a sizeable chunk of the transportation spectrum across China's vast and quickly urbanizing landscape. America has nine cities larger than a million people. Europe has 31. China already has more than 120 such cities and while the rich drive cars, the man in the street uses an electric bike.

Electric bikes are the most accessible form of motorized transport available, for many reasons, partly due to price, partly to no registration being needed, and partly because every home has its own "gas station" in the form of a power outlet.

Electric bikes are everywhere in China, being used by not just millions of citizens for transport, but as the most common form of short distance delivery vehicle. No parking, no registration and because road laws are largely ignored (a 20 mph silent projectile will often catch you unawares and most disconcertingly, from any direction, on either side of the road and sometimes the footpath too), these electric bikes are being legislated against in many environs (to little effect). In many cities, they are also used by the police and many remote cities, they form the basis of taxi services.

China's citizens bought more than eight million such electric bikes last year and Pike Research forecasts that annual sales of e-motorcycles and e-scooters will reach 18.6 million by 2018.

Solving the transport equation

TADRI recognizes that as China grows, there exists a massive need for new forms of transport that fit between the traditional automobile that took shape in America, and the electric bicycle which has replaced China's traditional form of transport for the last century, the bicycle. Traditional-size cars are already creating massive problems across China, and the next generation of Chinese personal mobility will be smaller and more efficient.

Indeed, I spent some time at the TADRI stand at Auto Shanghai and the literature there left me in no doubt that the Intelligent Electric Vehicle on display will be the first of many new forms of transport that emanate from the institution.

While Toyota, Honda and Nissan are leading the charge of traditional auto makers with their own one- and two-person mobility prototypes, TADRI is likely to be providing expertise in this area to many Chinese automotive and mobility companies, and its budget and expertise is being supported by a Government which fully recognizes the need for new, clean, efficient and small personal mobility devices and eco-systems.

Within two decades, China will have 250 cities of more than a million people, and concrete plans are already in place to ensure its vehicles do not require ever-growing supplies of oil. China already consumes more oil than any country but America, and within the next year or two, it will consume more than the entire EU each year.

With a GDP growing at 10 percent per annum, China's need for oil is growing by 7.5 percent per year, seven times faster than the US and a trend the Chinese Government is intent on curbing. TADRI and its growing expertise will be key to finding personal transportation technologies which reduce China's dependence on foreign oil reserves.

I scanned a few of the brochures and documents they gave me at the TADRI exhibition and some of the concepts coming from Tongji University's student design competitions make wonderful fodder for thought.

It hasn't taken long for TADRI to begin to make its mark, and at Auto Shanghai this month, there were three fascinating concept cars on show that TADRI had been intimately involved in.

1 - Volkswagen People's Car Project 4FUN

The most prominent TADRI-related vehicle on display at Auto Shanghai was the Volkswagen 4FUN, the winner of the 2013 Volkswagen People's Car Project.

Drawing on its proletarian roots (Volkswagen is, after all, German for the "People's Car), the People's Car Project began in 2011, seeking the on-line ideas of the public as to what it wanted in the personal mobility area.

Since then, 35 million Chinese citizens have visited the site, and 210,000 innovative personal mobility designs and ideas have been contributed.

The People's Car process was refined somewhat this year, taking the many ideas from the crowd sourcing process, then refining them by taking the ideas to TADRI and formulating a game plan for how to distill them into the most meaningful end result.

In this year's process, TADRI worked with Volkswagen to identify and define the parameters of the vehicle – a seven-seat MPV designed for the now traditional Chinese family of four grandparents, two parents and one child.

The parameters then formed the basis of a student design competition held between the students of two of China's most respected design institutions (Tsinghua University and the China Central Academy of Fine Arts) to give the concept shape.

The best designs were then further enhanced by VW's design team in China plus TADRI, with a pop star (Zhou Bichang) and film director (Jia Zhangke) thrown into the mix, presumably for a bit of marketing collateral.

In the world where internet and social communication is key to engaging with the next generation, surely the crowd sourcing concept is the most dignified and sincere vision possible – a company seeking to develop and nurture a meaningful dialogue with its customers.

For most of the last century, the shape and function of cars sold globally has been dictated by the needs of the American marketplace. For much of the next half century, it will be dictated by the countries that don't already have motorized personal transportation – China, Brazil, Russia, India and most of the countries of Asia.

From the perspective of the developed world, cars are taken for granted. It's worth remembering that globally, the automobile has NEVER outsold the bicycle, and all those people who could afford nothing better than a bicycle for personal transport, may not see the wisdom in buying a big, costly four-seater.

Hence Volkswagen is ideally placed to leverage its privileged position in China and take advantage of the new communications revolution to communicate directly with its massive audience. In a country brimming with national pride, Volkswagen is on dangerous ground if it continues to treat the Chinese public as naive and uneducated.

Volkswagen was the first overseas car company to set up in China 30 years ago, as 50 percent partner with the Chinese Government. It may have taken a long time for that investment to pay dividends, but it is now paying more than handsomely.

As the first, best known, and top selling brand in a country where car ownership levels are roughly equivalent to those in America at the end of WW1, Volkswagen is almost assured of success regardless of what it does.

In 2010, it sold 1.4 million cars in China. In 2012, it sold 2.8 million cars, generating profits of US$10.86 billion and that awesome growth can be expected to continue for decades.

The end result of the second iteration of the People's Car Project is very impressive and highly relevant, resulting in the scaled model on display at Auto Shanghai.

The 4FUN is a seven-seat electric vehicle with wireless charging underneath and a solar panel roof adding energy from above.

One of the most interesting aspects of the vehicle is its ability to display emotions externally with lighting and instead of the static corporate design language which helps us to recognize a BMW from a Mercedes Benz at a distance, the pseudo human visage of the 4FUN, will be animate, using lights to communicate the emotions of those within.

This external display of emotion using lighting has been seen several times before, most notably in a series of Toyota concepts such as the PM (pictured above) and POD (pictured below), a decade ago, and even patented a technology for cars to express the driver's feelings, but it's interesting that this time, the ability to express emotion externally on one's vehicle appears to have come as a suggestion from the masses, not the designers.

As essentially a car for family outings, the 4FUN makes significant use of leading edge information technologies, being fully internet connected, and also offering an augmented reality capability to the car's occupants via transparent screens that swivel down from the roof. These semi-transparent information screens don't obstruct the view, but carry relevant information on the surroundings of the vehicle dependent on location.

The minimalist seating in the car is seating is reconfigurable courtesy of an ingenious mounting system – the seats are suspended from the roof, not mounted on the floor as with conventional vans.

2 - Tongji Auto Fuel Cell Volare

Tongji University has long been a global leader in the development of fuel cell systems, and although very few details were released regarding the purple Volare Roadster which graced the TADRI stand at Auto Shanghai, rest assured the internals would have been very special.

Tongji fuel cell cars competed in the Michelin Challenge Bibendum in 2004 (finishing in the top 10 percent of fuel cell vehicles by any measure) and in the 2006 Bibendum, a Tongji-designed FCV delivered the best fuel economy of the class.

Tongji worked in conjunction with Volkswagen and SAIC to develop the Passat Lingyu and Roewe vehicles which were part of the Energy Partnership Berlin and California Fuel Cell Partnership demonstration initiatives and were used to ferry guests at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Shanghai Expo 2010. Tongji oversaw the entire fuel cell fleet of buses, cars, delivery vehicles, street sweepers etc., that was used for Shanghai Expo 2010.

The subsequent formation of TADRI and its intensive collaboration with the Clean Energy Vehicle Engineering Center in developing automotive hydrogen fuel cells is just a small part of the role TADRI will play in China's coming hydrogen economy. TADRI is working on every level of the Chinese and Shanghai Government plans, from the promotion of fuel cell and hybrid vehicles, the design and building of prototype hydrogen refueling stations, to the technical development of fuel cells for automotive usage.

The Volare is known to have a newly developed hydrogen fuel cell – we just don't know any details. What is known is that the car has wheel motors on all four wheels (and is hence four-wheel-drive), and a top speed of 150 km/h (93 mph).

3 - Tongji Auto Intelligent Electric Vehicle

The TADRI IEV was also one of the many cars on stands around Auto Shanghai that had a scarcity of information available.

The IEV is just one of many designs TADRI has been working on in this area, and several such designs, one very similar to Toyota's i-REAL prototype, were pictured in TADRI literature.

An earlier version of the IEV was on display at Auto China in Beijing last year. I spent time speaking with the engineers on the stand at Shanghai, and though many of the capabilities of the IEV have been kept purposefully vague, mainly because they are forever changing and evolving, I was left in no doubt that the IEV is a very important project with significant implications for the future of transport in China (and hence, for the rest of the world's urban areas too).

The IEV, by design, has a top speed in vicinity of 25 km/h and a range around 40 km.

Like the Toyota PM prototype of a decade ago, it angles backwards to create a longer wheelbase at speed, giving it greater stability, while standing more upright at lower speeds to reduce its footprint.

Put the Tongji name in your memory banks – it will become increasingly relevant whenever personal mobility is discussed in coming years.

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