BELMONT, California — For more than 20 years, innovations have flowed from Volkswagen Group's lab in the heart of Silicon Valley and into the lineups of the automaker's global brands.
The Google Earth-based onboard navigation system? It came from this lab. The automaker's advancements toward autonomous driving? Those came from here, too.
In all, 175 patents and dozens of products can trace their roots to this lab, which this month has been renamed the Innovation and Engineering Center California. It is Volkswagen's second-largest vehicle research facility, behind its counterpart in Germany. Beyond the name change, the lab will divide its mission between shorter- and longer-range projects.
As Volkswagen transitions toward a lineup with scores of battery-electric vehicles, the lab between San Francisco and San Jose will be responsible for making those products technologically advanced and customer-oriented.
And that is due in large part to the neighborhood, says Nikolai Reimer, the lab's executive director.
"If you're in Silicon Valley, you're competing against everybody. The variety of industries attracts so many talented people here to Silicon Valley that, while hiring is a challenge, it also is an opportunity because we get access to people that we wouldn't otherwise get access to in automotive," Reimer told Automotive News last week.
Founded in 1998 with just three employees, the lab now boasts more than 180 engineers, social scientists, researchers and product designers studying different aspects of vehicle development and customer desires.
Its employees through the years were pioneers in early autonomous driving demonstrations. In 2005, a team from what was then the Electronics Research Laboratory became the first to successfully complete the U.S. Department of Defense's DARPA Grand Challenge, when their robotic SUV, built in cooperation with Stanford University and others, navigated 132 miles across the desert without human intervention.
The rebranding of the lab also bifurcates its mission: The Engineering Center California will focus on short- and medium-term technologies such as connected-car, intelligent cockpits and automated driving. The Innovation Center California will focus on "lighthouse projects" — long-term leaps that might be decades away.
"Technology today … can bring people closer to family and friends," Reimer explained. "We've been part of this movement from the beginning, and we still are."