Stanley the Touareg
Stanley the Touareg. Click image to enlarge

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By Bob McHugh

In the famed “Silicon Valley” just north of San Jose, California, is Volkswagen’s Electronic Research Laboratory (ERL). This dry, sun-drenched region is computer geek territory of the very highest order. It’s where you’ll find Google, Adobe, Facebook, Yahoo and just about every name associated with computer systems. It’s also a place where new ideas flourish, grow and become reality. And it’s this mindset and business culture that drew VW to the region.

The area is also the home of Stanford University, with which the ERL has a tight working relationship. In collaboration with Stanford, ERL entered an autonomous VW Touareg called “Stanley” in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge and it finished first in the driverless race across 132 miles of desert.

In 2007, another android vehicle, this time a modified VW Passat wagon called “Junior”, was runner-up in DARPA Urban Challenge. Entries had to cross intersections, merge with moving traffic, obey stop signs and park themselves. Only six of the 85 original contestants made it to the finish line.

The ERL works within VW’s global research and development network and it’s also a bridge between traditional automotive engineering and cutting edge ideas, systems and devices from outside traditional automotive sources. It’s a way for VW to tap into outside-of-the-box thinking and young minds that can shape new ideas into usable products.

Automated autos aside, the ERL has four main research areas:
1) The connected vehicle. 2) Human factors. 3) Drivers and systems. 4) EV mobility development.

The ERL strives to push known boundaries in each area, and envisions the vehicle as being part of the network that’s connected to the outside world. In addition to the latest traffic and weather information, drivers could also be connected to traffic control systems. For instance, you could receive an advance warning of a traffic light change ahead or roadwork detours etc. It’s also working on more interactive navigation systems with more user-friendly features.

Another function of ERL is to help its European counterparts adapt VW navigation systems to North America. Our destination format is different, when compared to Europe, and the search behaviour and culture is different. For instance, we tend to search for brand names like Starbucks or Sears or a specific restaurant chain. ERL worked on the new generation navigation systems (coming in 2011 model year vehicles), which have an additional SD card slot. This system allows you to transfer a planned trip or multiple destinations that you have pre-selected on you home computer, via a website that formats the information to match the system in the car.

Another tool of this system is called “picture navigation”, which allows you to upload pictures you’ve taken at a location. Later if you want to go back to that location you just click on the picture and the navigation system will direct you there.

The ERL is also working on advanced navigation systems with Google. Using Google Earth and a 3G connection to the Internet, high resolution imagery can be downloaded that gives a driver a much clearer picture of where he/she is and the surrounding area. The driver will also be able to access Google’s online database, which can give rich point of interest information.

Volkswagen is also a sponsor of the non-profit Stanford Solar Car Project (SSCP), which is a team comprising mainly undergraduate engineering students. It also allows SSCP team members access to the expertise of Electronics Research Laboratory.

Environmentally sustainable mobility is a goal of this project and the team first raced their solar car ‘Apogee’ (photo) in this year’s American Solar Challenge (finished fourth). It’s currently building a new vehicle from the ground up to compete in the 2011 World Solar Challenge – a 3,000-km race from Darwin to Adelaide though the Australian outback.

The Apogee uses a honeycomb carbon fibre chassis and weighs about 200 kg – the new car is expected to weigh about 160 kg and will have solar cells that are more efficient. This will allow a top speed of over 100 km/hour. The sweltering heat in a cabin with minimal outside air ventilation will be a challenge for its drivers, who are also members of SSCP.

In another corner of ERL is a driving simulator, which is used to test both drivers and their interaction with assistance systems. Drowsy driving and distracted driving are two of the issues tackled in this area. There are obvious safety advantages to testing driver fatigue and different types of alert methods on a simulator, instead of real roads.

Although not well liked by participants, a sudden tightening of the seat belt was apparently a very effective way of getting a drowsy driver’s attention. The tricky part is perfecting technology that can accurately recognize when a driver is drowsy. Changes in steering conduct and what’s called “blink behaviour’ are two of the more effective recognition methods used to date.

One of the more radical projects that ERL is working on is the “full dash touch-screen”. The entire dashboard is one enormous touch screen display that can change colour, icons and functions with actions similar to a touch-screen mobile phone. At some point, it may become less expensive to produce a dash similar to this than the current sort.

The ERL also is also involved in electric vehicle (EV) battery pack development, called the eTron and eGolf projects. Small cylindrical cells (over 8,000 of them) are used inside the EV battery pack. This allows it to be shaped in various different configurations, upgrades are easier when new cell development comes along and the failure of a single cell has little impact on overall performance, which makes it more reliable.

By the way, research and testing is done by ERL not just for VW, but also for Audi, Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini, other vehicle lines within the VW group.

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