Inside Volkswagen's Silicon Valley Gadget Lab

By  |  Monday, August 9, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Volkswagen never wants you to forget that its cars are engineered in Germany–hey, its current slogan is “Das Auto.” But cool Web tools,  innovative gizmos, and digital entertainment aren’t exactly synonymous with German engineering. It’s Silicon Valley that’s the world’s headquarters for that stuff. And so it’s not that startling that much of VW’s work on new and future electronics, gadgetry, and interfaces happens at its Electronics Research Laboratory in Palo Alto, California, in close proximity to electronics engineering talent the company might want to hire and tech companies it might want to work with. The ERL is also a quick drive away from Stanford University’s Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab, where VW collaborates with university students and researchers on new technologies. (I wrote about VAIL’s self-driving Passat a few months ago.)

As part of VW’s press event for the 2011 Jetta, I took a tour of the ERL last week. Herewith, some photographic highlights.

Here’s a test version of a GPS navigation system with a killer feature: It’s really an automotive version of Google Maps, designed in collaboration with the ERL’s Silicon Valley neighbor Google. The system can get Internet access on the go by tethering wirelessly to a 3G phone. It’s available in some Audi models in Europe already, and should show up in the US eventually.

This driving simulator looks a lot like an arcade racing game with a particularly impressive display. VW staffers–including an in-house psychologist–use it to study how real people react to various automotive features and driving scenarios.

The company also studies the behavior of motorists in the real world., to learn about issues such as distracted driving Here’s a VW employee whose face is outfitted with electrodes that record data about reactions on the road. (Um, it looks like he may be using an electric razor behind the wheel…)

What if your dashboard was kind of like a giant iPhone? VW is experimenting with a touch-sensitive user interface that covers the entire dash and can change on the fly to match your current needs. (I took the photos below seconds apart; I suspect that the BP reference in the second view has been there for a while…). The dash has textured spots so you can reach for features and find them with your fingers without looking; this prototype uses rear projection, but if the idea ever makes it into a production car, it might another technology such as LCD or OLED.

No doubt about it: This was the weirdest demo we saw. It’s a robot who pops out of your dashboard and reacts to your use of the car. If you drive in an unsafe fashion, the bot may try to set you straight by looking alarmed. Very EPCOT Centerish…

Here’s a solar-powered car designed in collaboration with Stanford students. Those are solar panels plastered all over the body of the car, which recently placed fourth in a solar-car race.

Most of the stuff we saw isn’t available in cars you can buy today–at least in the US. But Volkswagen has a site called that offers services to current owners. Here’s a tool that lets you plan driving trips in your browser, then sync the instructions onto your car’s navigation system via an SD card. (At some point, you’ll be able to perform the job wirelessly.)

Here’s the (optional) touchscreen system for the 2011 Jetta, which is due to reach showrooms in October. It melds navigation, radio, digital music, phone connectivity, and other features into an interface which worked pretty well when I tried it. (It certainly made the GPS in my 2004 Mazda 3 look like the antique that it is.) The car also has iPod/iPhone integration–there’s a dock connector in the glove compartment–but my favorite feature is the built-in SD slot, just to the left of the screen. Load  up a cheap SD card with songs or podcasts, pop it into the slot, press the MEDIA button, and the system acts like an MP3 player with a humongous screen.

Historically, the automotive industry has moved a lot slower than the rest of the tech business. But I like to think of 21st-century cars as gigantic consumer-electronics devices on wheels. I can’t wait until they’ve all got high-speed Internet connectivity, sophisticated operating systems, and user interfaces with iPhone-like slickness–and the ERL tour gave me new hope that it won’t take all that long.


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3 Comments For This Post

  1. Andy R Says:

    It's all moved on a but since the Type 2 Campervan came out!

  2. 2011Jetta Says:

    I really like the idea of connecting to the internet through your 3G service provider — get real-time updates, traffic and information.

  3. bims Says:

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