Visions of a digital future
Most visitors to Silicon Valley land at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. From there, it’s around a 40-minute drive to Volkswagen’s Electronics Research Laboratory, located about halfway between San Jose and San Francisco. The journey is like a whistle-stop tour through the 50-year history of the digital revolution. If you take a short detour to Cupertino rather than heading straight onto the famous Highway 101, you’ll get a chance to marvel at Apple Park, the headquarters of digital giant Apple (designed by star architect Norman Foster). At almost 500 metres in diameter, it’s impossible to miss. The route then continues through Mountain View, where Google’s head office is based, and past Hewlett Packard’s headquarters in Palo Alto. The city is also home to the world-renowned Stanford University, whose alumni include Marcian Edward Hoff, inventor of the microprocessor. The incredible wealth of ideas, pioneering business culture and unparalleled diversity of industries, start-ups, investors and young talent in Silicon Valley help to foster innovations that will shape the face of the future.
In Silicon Valley, there are digital pioneers on every corner – so as a leading innovator of digital mobility, e-mobility and autonomous driving, it’s only logical that Volkswagen should have its own research facility here too: the Electronics Research Laboratory. “Silicon Valley is a place filled with kindred spirits and inspiring individuals who are constantly collaborating and sharing new ideas,” explains Chuhee Lee, Vice President of Technology and Strategy at the Electronics Research Laboratory. It’s this potential that makes Silicon Valley such a fertile breeding ground for technological innovation. But that’s not the only factor that makes the world’s most famous valley attractive to Volkswagen. In the words of Nikolai Reimer, Executive Director of the Electronics Research Laboratory: “In this highly creative, forward-looking environment, we can already get a glimpse today of society’s future trajectory, and identify the solutions we will need to deliver for the mobility of tomorrow.” Reimer has been working in R&D at Volkswagen for 16 years. In mid-2017, he was appointed Executive Director of the innovative Electronics Research Laboratory in Silicon Valley.
Specialists from various disciplines explore the future of mobility
Innovate to Drive Change
“Our core goal can be summed up as ‘innovate to drive change’. For two decades, the Electronics Research Laboratory has consistently managed to collaborate with the right partners and focus on the most relevant ideas”, Reimer says. Since its opening in 1998, the lab has become firmly established in Silicon Valley. Today, it employs around 200 experts from a whole range of disciplines: engineers, designers, computer scientists, psychologists and sales specialists. The inside looks nothing like a conventional office. The meeting rooms have informally arranged clusters of seats and large glass walls on which people can directly scribble down their ideas using special pens. Scattered between the desks are a whole host of technical gadgets and digital devices: fitness trackers, Bluetooth speakers, Wi-Fi scales, 3D-printed parts. These prototypes are testament to the incredible speed with which new ideas are tested, discarded and reworked in the Electronics Research Laboratory – and to the Silicon Valley philosophy of delivering practical solutions rather than getting bogged down in theory. Or, as Payton White, Head of Software Platforms, puts it: “It’s a melting pot of ideas, where people from countless different disciplines work in tandem to develop concepts that are then turned into products.”
A clear focus on customer benefits
The Electronics Research Laboratory often tackles problems in an unconventional way, and encourages visions and ideas that might sometimes seem a little out there. But the ultimate goal of this untrammelled creativity, which is fostered by the porous team structures and interdisciplinary way of working, is always to come up with production-ready products that offer genuine benefits to customers. “One real advantage in Silicon Valley is that we have the freedom to try out crazy, unconventional approaches and ideas in our search for a solution. But eventually, we gather all the findings back in and use them to develop a tangible product for our customers,” says Ryan Williams, Head of UX and Mechatronics at the Electronics Research Laboratory. The goal of delivering tangible customer benefits – Volkswagen’s number one priority – is combined with a visionary daring to innovate and offer customers something entirely new. And these radical innovations aren’t just confined to technical solutions, or even necessarily to cars themselves. “We work on future mobility solutions for our customers,” says Nikolai. “In this work, we look at the complete customer experience, which begins long before they step into the car itself. Our aim is to do something that really makes a difference.” The focus is on networked mobility, autonomous driving and holistic user experience. The aim is to improve the driving experience and promote meaningful innovations.
Thinking outside the box
The international Volkswagen team in Silicon Valley also draws inspiration from the quintessentially American ideal of refusing to accept limits, whether in technology or in ways of thinking. The Electronics Research Laboratory develops innovations in one of two ways: either by refining technologies that are already present in vehicles, or by thinking outside the box and trying out completely new approaches. Nikolai describes the current period of transition, which is being driven by digitalisation, as “one of the most exciting times there has ever been. The main focus of the car industry is shifting from manufacturing to providing services.” Volkswagen has embraced this challenge, and its Electronics Research Laboratory is developing hardware and ideas to facilitate the transformation. The lab doesn’t merely copy the ideas of other Silicon Valley innovators, but reinterprets them and infuses them with the company’s own distinctive DNA. By the time they head back to San Jose, visitors to the lab will be in no doubt that Volkswagen belongs here in Silicon Valley just as much as the other digital pioneers and the big internet giants – and is just as integral a part of the digital revolution.