ERL: Where revelations are explored

Drew with VW

I recently visited Belmont, CA, where I was able to get an insider’s look at the Volkswagen Electronics Research Lab. Here, a dedicated team develops performance and infotainment technologies to possibly make their way into future vehicles.

The first vehicle to catch my eye was a 2005 Touareg V10 TDI that was modified for autonomous driving and looked like it was ready to scale K2. This Touareg, named “Stanley” (when a vehicle can drive itself, it deserves a name), won the 2005 Grand Challenge. VW teamed up with Stanford University for that year’s challenge, which was essentially a race through 132 miles of desert without anyone pushing the pedals or turning the wheel.

I then learned about the modified Passat dubbed “Junior,” the runner-up in the 2007 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge. This more advanced challenge required Junior and the other 84 competitors to drive 60 miles in under six hours on closed-off suburban streets. This time, the vehicles had to cross intersections, merge with moving traffic, park themselves and obey stop signs.

From there, I entered a room where I sat in a vehicle simulator the engineers use to test dangerous driving situations, like distracted and fatigued driving. They refer to this as “Human Factors Research.” This video game-like machine had three 50” flat screen monitors surrounding the front of a Jetta.

It was incredible to see the next generation of safety systems with the simulator. I assumed that improving braking performance would be a key component, but actually, the advancements are in warning systems like audible signals and steering wheel vibrations. These are better for alerting the driver of impending hazardous conditions and decreasing reaction intervals.

Personally, I get nervous when hearing about these kinds of systems that take any control from me as the driver. While the average motorist will surely find these to be valuable stress relievers, as a purist I enjoy the connection with the vehicle and feel confident in my abilities. I discussed this with an engineer who acknowledged my concern is shared by many. He said the challenge in developing these systems is that they must be carefully integrated so that the car complements the driver’s behaviors rather than becoming overwhelming or frustrating in normal conditions.

Finally, I was taken to a gated parking lot behind the lab so I could check out the new fleet of e-Golfs, a Jetta Hybrid and a handful of Golf Rs (Candy White was my favorite color by far!). Check out some pictures I snapped.

Tell us: if you could add any technology to cars today, what would it be?



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