The car of the future is fully connected. Developing cars is the domain of engineers, but they are working more and more frequently and closely together with software developers.
Marie Puhle is helping the young man in the VR glasses. He has taken his place in the driver’s seat of a simulator; in front of him, a typical highway scenario is running on three screens. Whereas the real cockpit is limited to steering wheel and fittings, the test pilot sees a lot more through his VR glasses: all the details of the interior, displays and control elements. The “driver” can look around, try everything out and quickly finds his way around this virtual car. He starts the car and weaves his way into the highway traffic. Marie Puhle is satisfied.
Engineering psychologist Puhle is part of one of the teams of five to ten people working with the car of the future here in the UX laboratory in Hall 90b. Hall 90b is a multi-story, glass-clad complex at the heart of Technical Development in the Wolfsburg plant. Increased security precautions are in place in the building, since this is where the Volkswagen brand’s teams of experts are developing the innovations of tomorrow and beyond.
Among them is the so-called User Experience: UX for short. That’s why psychologist Puhle, with a team of designers, engineers and software developers, is investigating how the car of the future can be controlled. “We will not suddenly change the mode of operation,” says Marie Puhle. She and her colleagues make sure that tried and tested elements are retained and the car can be handled intuitively. Development is carried out carefully, and the team’s concepts will be implemented in a few years’ time in series production vehicles.
Innovations under the bonnet
Many innovations by EE Development, however, will remain invisible to the future user. The car of the future will be a fully connected device, linked up to the Internet of Things, involved in constant data exchange and always kept up to date by regular updates – like a smartphone on wheels. The basis for this is being laid by the 1,400 employees in EE Development.
“Engineers and software developers are already working very closely together and complement each other,” says Rolf Zöller, head of EE Development. “What we have here is real teamwork.” In the next few years, that will intensify even more, he says, emphasizing that the demand for software developers and IT experts will increase tenfold in the next three years.
The start-stop function for a car alone requires around 20 subsystems with various types of software. The aim for the future is to standardize and connect the many different technical systems which currently run in parallel in cars. Volkswagen wants to steer and promote this step itself; in other words, the operating system for the mobility of the future is being written by Volkswagen itself.
With its transformation from automobile manufacturer to mobility provider with a connected vehicle fleet and digital services, Volkswagen is entering new terrain – and has to be able to compete with companies such as Apple or Google when it comes to digital expertise. “In the competition for the smartest brains, Volkswagen scores high with good arguments,” says Susanne Scholtyssek, head of HR in Technical Development at the Volkswagen brand. “We are internationally active, we have sites in many countries around the world, our cars are technologically at the forefront, and Volkswagen is internationally known as a good employer,” says Scholtyssek.
The average age in EE Development is the early 40s, and thus significantly lower than in many other areas. Many teams are international and interdisciplinary. Flexible working hours, mobile working, modern communications technology, short decision-making paths, flat hierarchies and more autonomy are welcomed by the best in the industry. With training and further training courses, external seminars and cooperation with scientific research institutions, the company ensures that its expertise remains up to the minute.
We are internationally active, we have sites in many countries around the world, our cars are technologically at the forefront, and Volkswagen is internationally known as a good employer.
“Technologically, too, we can compete with the internet giants,” says head of EE Development Zöller. In the area of internet software, there is perhaps room for improvement, “but we are getting closer,” Zöller says. The expectation of an automobile manufacturer like Volkswagen, he explains, is that applications such as CarNet should work reliably, not only in cities with LTE networks but also in regions with bad or almost non-existent network coverage, as well as in long highway tunnels. For services such as voice control in the vehicle, Volkswagen does not rely on standard solutions but works with local partners such as Mobvoi in China. And when it comes to vehicle systems such as brakes, “we have considerably more experience than Google or Apple”, Zöller says.
During a tour of Hall 90b, Zöller demonstrates how this looks in practice. At a test bench on which various vehicle components are tested for their functions and interaction, he shows us a flat device which resembles a hard drive. “This small element controls the braking system of a car – in milliseconds and always reliably,” says Zöller. “This is where our expertise lies: a wealth of experience which sets us apart from others.”
Connecting systems, examining all the scenarios, excluding error sources – in EE Development, this all happens a million times every day. It becomes visible in the “integration command center”, as Rolf Zöller calls a large wall screen. It shows in real time which test is currently running and where, whether in Wolfsburg or at another site around the globe. “Here, we see the interplay of the systems,” Zöller explains in front of the screen. Each of the symbols stands for a test bench on which, for example, all the components of a vehicle’s lighting system are connected up, i.e. the real electronics and the real LEDs, as well as the elements of a dissected vehicle. The elements undergo endurance tests in order to clarify exactly whether the software and hardware really do function together faultlessly in every conceivable application case.
On some test benches, the inspection already takes place exclusively in the virtual domain. Stefan Lück, an e-technology engineer, stands next to a head-high testing bench into which the GPS system of a future Volkswagen is incorporated. The GPS receives traffic information like a real vehicle which is currently driving along the road and is regularly provided with updates. The GPS screen shows a car icon, according to which the car is currently “driving” through a residential area in Paris. It encounters building sites and traffic obstructions, and the GPS offers alternative routes. “I used to carry out these test drives in the car myself,” says Lück. Today, he sends the car out on its routes from Wolfsburg virtually. This saves time, effort and costs, while producing the same results.
After all the testing procedures, the software and components finally merge in EE Development into a real car. In a workshop on the ground floor of Hall 90b, there are half a dozen vehicles which do not yet exist on the roads. If visitors arrive, they are therefore covered up – to maintain confidentiality. Under a black tarpaulin, the silhouette of an SUV can be identified, and under another the silhouette of a saloon. “This is where the prototypes are brought to life,” says Nicklas Hoch, overall project manager for the Connected Car.
His teams bring all the elements together in a real car for the first time. Here, too, teams comprised of UX experts, designers, engineers and software developers work together in close interaction with the aim of producing a uniform and faultlessly functioning overall system from a multitude of elements. This integration takes several weeks, including the associated test cycles. And even then, the car is by no means finished. It will take around two years until the first production vehicle of the new model rolls off the production line for the first customer.