When you think "Volkswagen," you might not think much further than the New Beetle. Or maybe the old one, for that matter. After all, VW only has about 1.5% of the U.S. market. Even if you add in the other Volkswagen Group companies that have products available in the U.S.-Audi, Lamborghini, Bentley-it still doesn't represent a whole lot of space in the overall parking lot.
However, if you were to consider the parking lot on a global level, Volkswagen Group's requirements are a whole lot bigger because it is the fourth-largest vehicle manufacturer on the planet, with 9.8% of the total market. That's right: Toyota, GM (or vice versa-at this point it is tough to call), Ford, and VW. VW expects that its market share will grow through the remainder of '08 so that it will reach the number-three spot. (There are two VW Group brands not available in the U.S.-SEAT and Skoda, but they're not solely responsible for the difference between the diminutive U.S. presence and the global podium place.)
A point is that VW is a company with significant size, scope, and capability. Which brings us to the facilities at Ehra Lessien, near Wolfsburg, to get a view of the work that VW researchers are undertaking to advance the state of mobility. Note that this is the Volkswagen Group-the whole organization-not just the VW portion.
According to Dr. Jürgen Leohold, executive director, Group Research, the approximately 700 personnel located in Germany, the U.S., Japan, and China, are working in the following areas:
Of these areas, one of the ones emerging in importance is that of "intelligent electronics."
The electronics have, or will have, an effect on all aspects of the vehicle, from development through driving to accidents or the avoidance thereof. They are working extensively with sensors of various types and the fusion of those sensors through control hardware and algorithms. An obvious example of this is the technically tricked out clean diesel Passat wagon that the Stanford Racing Team entered into the DARPA Urban Challenge in Victorville, CA, in November, 2007, wherein the vehicle had to autonomously navigate and drive through an urban environment that included other vehicles over the 60-mile route. No driver, just an array of sensors, multiple Intel Core-2 Duo processors, and software developed by Stanford's Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Although "Junior," as the car is named, appears to be a science experiment (because, in effect and practice, it is), the researchers are working toward integration of systems that is seamless with the vehicle, such as the Automatic Distance Control and Side Assist features available on the European versions of the Passat CC. (Junior, incidentally, finished second.)
Here is a look at some of the technology that is being developed by VW Group researchers.
This is Caroline, which was entered in the DARPA Urban Challenge by the CarOLO team by the Technical University of Braunschweig with the assistance of Volkswagen Group Research. (Think of it as the kid sister of Junior, the official Volkswagen Electronics Research Laboratory/Stanford University entry that placed second overall. Caroline had an accident and took seventh place; only six of the 11 vehicles running the route finished the race.) Note the various sensors deployed on the vehicle-lidar, radar, lasers. While this is not a look of design integration, it is indicative of the type of sensors and related processors that Volkswagen is working to put into production vehicles in the near- and not-so-near term to address issues ranging from traffic congestion (e.g., if vehicles are capable of communicating with one another, their speed and/or route can be adjusted) to safety (e.g., if vehicles can communicate with the traffic infrastructure, be it traffic signals or emergency vehicles, they can avoid accidents) to monotony (e.g., if vehicles have the necessary sensors and actuators, in the case of long freeway driving, they can operate without driver involvement).
Although this looks rather innocuous, it is actually something quite the contrary. It is the "PyroBrake," as in "pyrotechnic." The PyroBrake is attached to the standard ABS system in a vehicle. It is an additional piston, in effect. What it does is fire in the case of an unavoidable accident (yes, there is an explosive charge inside), thereby running up the maximum brake pressure within a window of 100 to 300 milliseconds. It goes well beyond the capabilities of conventional emergency braking systems. Of course, the PyroBrake isn't something that should be activated unless the accident is truly unavoidable. So there is the use of multiple sensors-a stereo camera, 77-GHz radar and 24-GHz radar-and a fast processor that fuses the information so that a controller is able to make the appropriate decision (fire/no fire). The hard braking is initiated within 80 milliseconds of the determination to fire. VW researchers have determined that the PyroBrake reduces impact velocity by 5 km/h. There is still an impact. It is less severe than it otherwise might be.
If you look closely into that Passat wagon, you may notice that there is no one behind the wheel. What you can’t tell, of course, is whether the vehicle is moving or not. It is. And that man standing there isn’t just a bystander. He is actually parking the car. The key fob that he is holding in his left hand is essentially a transmitter that is telling the car to park—not how to park. The car figures that out. There are two cameras in each of the side view mirrors. It measures the parking space that has been selected. The driver selects “P” and can exit the vehicle or stay inside. There is a 2-GHz computer that is responsible for performing the calculations from the video input from the two side cameras as well as from cameras and ultrasonic sensors located at the front and rear of the car. The computer also controls the electromechanical power steering, electronic braking system with an active brake booster, twin-clutch transmission (DSG), and the engine. The car changes gears and turns the steering gear as needed to back into the parking space.
This is the back of the "iCar," a Passat wagon. Obviously, there isn't a whole lot of room for luggage or anything else. The computer platform, consisting of conventional PCs that are networked, is responsible for taking in the data provided by the sensor platform-radar, laser, and cameras-that provides a nearly 360° view of the vehicle's surroundings, as well as from the navigation system. It is also takes the information and drives an actuator platform that, in turn, controls the accelerator, braking, and steering. The iCar, which was developed along with the Technical University of Braunschweig, isn't exactly an autonomous car, but it can actually steer (lane keeping, even on curves) and adjust its speed without human intervention.
One of the things that is done during vehicle development is to run routes repeatedly in order to setup steering, chassis control, and various driver assistance systems. Reproducibility is key. Often, there is a great deal of monotony. Which led to the development of KART. This is a portable system that can be moved into and out of various cars. The steering wheel and pedals are controlled electromechanically in response to commands from a control computer that is programmed with the sequence of events that are to take place. In effect, it is a robotic system to drive without any driver in the car.