SAN FRANCISCO -- As vehicles get more advanced electronics and the industry tries to solve the driver distraction problem, Volkswagen has opened a larger Electronics Research Laboratory here.
The lab, with a $20 million annual budget, will work on driver assistance, human-machine interaction, multimedia and connected vehicles, said Burkhard Huhnke, the lab's executive director.
The lab will be staffed by 100 designers, engineers and psychologists, and VW is still hiring. VW began this type of work in California's Silicon Valley in 1998 in Sunnyvale with three staffers. The operation later moved to a larger building in Palo Alto. But the new Belmont lab is VW's largest research unit outside Germany, Huhnke said.
In collaborating with technology partners such as Google Inc., Oracle Corp. and Nvidia Corp., the VW lab is working on the following projects:
-- A car that can navigate itself through a parking structure to find a parking place, and return to the structure's entrance when summoned by the driver's smart phone.
-- Sensor systems that can "see" objects in three dimensions. The whirling sensor is the size of a coffee can, and VW wants to shrink it to the size of a pack of cigarettes.
-- Driving awareness systems that detect traffic-signal and speed limit changes and can accelerate or decelerate vehicles as conditions warrant.
-- A car monitor that tracks driving patterns that can be uploaded to a smart phone or computer, allowing a driver to make more efficient driving decisions while commuting.
-- A navigation aid that uses Google Earth, including using "street view" so that a driver knows what a destination looks like, not just its address. This might be expanded to show nearby electric vehicle charging stations if the vehicle is running low on a charge.
Among infotainment projects:
-- A center console that can wirelessly charge smart phones, similar to power mats now sold for home use. The project, in development with Qualcomm Inc., also could power rear-seat entertainment or ambient lighting systems.
-- Floor mats developed by Audi on which the car's logo is illuminated. Making sure the electronics don't short out when stomped on by snowy or wet boots is a big hurdle.
And those were just the programs that VW was comfortable showing journalists on a tour of the lab.
In an interview, Jonathan Browning, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, discussed customizing a vehicle's settings based on which occupant's smart phone was activated inside the car.
When asked if that program was being developed, Browning smiled and said, "We don't always show you everything."