Wolfsburg, Germany - The world is changing so quickly, says head of Volkswagen Group Research Axel Heinrich, that the only way to cope with the pace of change in the mobility scenario is to drive it yourself.
And that’s the reason for the existence of his division - a strategic partner for all the brands of the group, helping to design the mobile world of tomorrow by encouraging its engineers to imagine the impossible - and then make it possible. VW Research is involved in a huge range of topics and projects about possible mobility scenarios for the megacities of the future, from new drive technologies to new materials and processes, to autonomous driving concepts such as Sedric.
Heinrich and his engineers gave the world a glimpse of what they do - which is usually strictly confidential - at a recent Media Day for Future Mobility. New technologies are impacting on lifestyles so quickly, he said, and customer aspirations being modified so rapidly that any tech-based industry needs to identify these trends at an early stage, distinguish between a fashion and a trend and identify which topics are going to be important in which regions of the world.
And the timing has to be right, he pointed out; being first mover is not always the key factor - it’s important to be prepared for any situation. And that’s why, although his office and the group’s headquarters are in VW’s home town of Wolfsburg, it has research laboratories and subsidiaries in Germany and Europe, as well as the United States, China, Spain and Japan.
There’s a second level in the network of joint ventures with teaching and research institutions around the world, from prestigious universities such as a Stanford in the United States and Tongji in China, to the Fraunhofer Society, the German Aerospace Centre and the Max Planck Institute.
Cooperation with the Brands
But even more important is collaboration with the 14 brands of the group. Group Research is primarily an ideas generator, a driver for innovation, in collaboration with the brands’ own development initiatives. It starts with a blank sheet of paper (or, these days, a blank computer screen) and the questions: Where is this topic going? Who else is working on this proposition? What will it take to make it a reality?
The second phase is all about research development: Which way do we want to go? What new technologies will need to be developed to make it possible? Then: Is it feasible for commercial use? What are the chances of success, where are the stumbling blocks? And finally, when all those questions have been answered, the project is handed over, either for development by one of the group’s brands, or to a unit that will look after it for the group as a whole.
As early as 2005, a team from Group Research was working together with a group of early-career specialists at Stanford University on the VW Touareg that became the autonomous vehicle called "Stanley", and went on to win the Darpa Challenge for self-driving cars in the American desert.
An autonomous Passat known as "Junior" was the second fastest car at the Urban Challenge in 2007; since then, all that knowledge and experience has gone into the Sedric research vehicle that was shown at this year’s Geneva motor show in 2017.
But fully self-driving cars won’t arrive overnight; they have to be developed step by step. The latest driver aids are important steps towards enhanced safety on the roads and soon the first production cars such as the upcoming Audi A8 will be driving themselves on the open road. Heinrich sees fully autonomous vehicles, for both passengers and goods, in some of the world’s big cities within a few years - probably in dedicated lanes.
His group is working towards a clear goal - Vision Zero: accident-free driving, mobility without any traffic deaths. He believes that fitting the safety systems already available as standard across the board and gradually introducing automated driving will significantly reduce the number of crashes and their severity - right down to none at all.
Group Research is still working on a lot of projects related to autonomous driving, but the management of this field has now been taken over by the newly established Audi Intelligent Driving in Munich.
One example of a universal trend is increasing urbanisation, creating bigger and better traffic jams; solutions need to be found urgently, said Heinrich, to make mobility in these megacities more efficient, safer and more environmentally friendly.
That includes networked transport systems and well-informed road users, autonomous driving and not running empty seats, so as to cut down on the number of trips.
New drive technologies will come to the fore, said Heinrich, but combustion engines - petrol, diesel and especially natural gas - will continue to dominate for some years, either by themselves or in hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Nevertheless, electric cars, powered by either batteries or fuel cells, will steadily assume more importance, particularly in crowded first-world countries.
Group research is working intensively on fuel-cells, high-performance batteries and natural gas-fuelled power plants, since they’re the cleanest burning combustion engines currently available.
Group Research is busy with projects in artificial intelligence, deep learning and big data cluster, as well as virtual reality and augmented reality. But in spite of all the rapid developments in electronics and software, carmaking is still about the materials - what’s best for each and every component, and how it is formed and joined to become part of the car.
Completely new materials are being tested - mechanically, chemically and electrically - in simulations that go right down to molecular level, to create flexible and efficient production processes.
And a dedicated group of researchers is working on the car’s effect on the environment - not just while being driven, but through the manufacturing process, the materials used and even the impact of recycling the materials at the end of the car’s life.
There’s a particularly important topic here: the group is already working on the impact of recycling the materials that will be used to manufacture of future batteries because, while battery cars form a tiny percentage of current production, as that percentage rises in the future, disposing safely of the rare-earth metals used to make batteries will become an issue.