Last September, I found myself with a free Sunday in Hannover, capital of the German state of Lower Saxony. I’d been to Hannover several times before and had done a fair bit of exploring of this city already, so I decided to use the free time to go and see something new.
I dropped my bags at the hotel and headed over to Hannover’s Hauptbahnhof (main station), then boarded a DB train for the city of Wolfsburg, about 75 kilometres away. This was to be a day all about cars.
Turning left out of Wolfsburg’s main station, you soon encounter a rather spectacular building, the Science Center phaeno. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to explore inside, although I’m told it’s well worth a visit, as I was on a mission, and had only three hours to spend in Wolfsburg.
When you emerge on the other side of the phaeno, you immediately get your first indication of the sheer scale of Wolfsburg’s main employer – Volkswagen AG, one of the world’s leading automobile manufacturers and the largest carmaker in Europe.
On the left, across the water, is the iconic four-chimneyed power plant of the Volkswagen factories, built in the 1930s and sometimes referred to as “Hitler’s Power Station.”
Behind the power station looms the enormous sprawl of VW’s car production operations, which span an incredible 5 square kilometres. Apart from producing hundreds of thousands of shiny new cars each year, I was rather tickled to learn that Volkswagen’s currywurst is also produced here.
Ahead of me was the Autostadt, where I was heading, and to the right the Volkswagen Arena, where Bundesliga club VfL Wolfsburg play their home matches.
Autostadt is perhaps best described as a communications platform for the Volkswagen Group – it’s part theme-park, part educational centre and is also the world’s largest new car delivery centre. With over 38 million visitors since it opened in 2000, it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Germany.
The site is devoted to VW’s many brands – VW itself, Audi, Porsche, Bentley, Seat, Skoda, Bugatti, Lamborghini and several others. Each brand has its own exhibition pavilion and the site also features the ZeitHaus car museum.
The Autostadt campus is spacious, green and beautifully landscaped. Some of the pavilions have very striking designs – the Porsche pavilion in particular. I guess the campus has been designed so that people will come and spend the whole day there. There are lots of places to eat and there’s also an upscale hotel (Ritz-Carlton) onsite. A pity for me that I couldn’t explore as much as I had wanted to, due to the pressing need to catch a train back to Hannover for a dinner appointment.
Having walked around the campus and popped into a few of the pavilions, I headed over to buy a ticket for the thing I had really come to see in Wolfsburg – the Car Towers. These are the heart of Autostadt’s new car delivery system.
Inside each of the fully-automated high-rise stacks, there’s space for up to 400 vehicles. The cars themselves are “rolled over” from the VW plant next door via a robotic pallet system mounted on rails. The cars are loaded into bays, and retrieved from them, using fully automated “car shuttles.” This is the fastest fully-automated high-rise parking system in the world.
When a car’s new owner comes to collect the vehicle, a customer service agent presses a button and the shuttle selects the correct vehicle, moves it to the centre of the tower and brings it down to the ground floor. The vehicle rolls into the Car Distribution Centre via a tunnel, has number plates attached and then the customer can just drive it away. All very impressive.
Visitors can purchase tickets to ride up to the top of the Car Towers (cost: €8). I joined a group of tourists from China in a shuttle and after an introduction from our amusing guide we were whisked quickly up to the top of the tower (20th floor). There’s an Observation Deck up there where you can look out over the whole VW factory complex and the city of Wolfsburg.
When I emerged from the Car Tower, I could hear announcements being made about the imminent closure of Autostadt’s attractions and amenities for the day. I headed back to the Hauptbahnhof to catch a train back to Hannover.
I had bought a cold beer at the station and was quietly sitting in my seat drinking this, when my thoughts were rudely interrupted by a ticket inspector who started berating me very loudly. Turns out you’re most definitely not allowed to drink beer on German trains.