To explore technologies and discover trends that will shape the future – that is the mission of Florian Neukart, Director of Advanced Technologies and IT Innovation at Volkswagen Group of America.
This morning, the streets of downtown San Francisco are full of people wearing conference badges attached to blue lanyards, hanging around their necks. A leading online marketing software company holds its annual tech conference not far from the famous Market Street, which runs right through the heart of the shopping and financial district. Thousands of visitors are on their way there. In addition to industry giants such as Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, former US President Barack Obama and actress Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) will also be in attendance. Even by San Francisco standards, the ratio of digital experts per square meter is likely to reach an unusually high level on this day.
Trends that will shape the future
Just ten minutes’ walk away, Florian Neukart is standing at his high-desk, opening his laptop. “We are here in Silicon Valley, where technology is booming,” says Neukart. The 37-year-old Austrian is a computer scientist, an internationally renowned expert on artificial intelligence and quantum computers. As Director, he heads the Volkswagen Group Advanced Technologies team in San Francisco. Neukart and his colleagues have an ambitious mission: to discover the technologies and trends that will shape the future. “Our goal is to make things better for the Group. Better for our customers,” says Neukart.
San Francisco is certainly a good place for this project. The actual Silicon Valley is located about 50 kilometers further south and consists of a string of cities such as Mountain View, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Cupertino and San Jose. Apple, Facebook, Google parent company Alphabet and thousands of start-ups have their headquarters here. But San Francisco, home to Twitter, LinkedIn and Airbnb, has been a favorite of local tech-scene experts for years. These are exactly the people with whom Neukart and his team are looking for an exchange with. This is why Volkswagen opened an office for Advanced Technologies here, as early ago as 2016.
Volkswagen Technology Development in the USA
Volkswagen Group’s Advanced Technologies Team is spread across several locations. In addition to San Francisco, these include Belmont, Auburn Hills and Herndon in the USA. Group-wide cooperation takes place across national borders, for example with the Volkswagen Data:Lab in Munich. The team has a total of around 110 employees.
The Innovation and Engineering Center California (IECC) of Volkswagen Group of America in Belmont (California) employs around 300 people who research new technologies and their use in the company for all Volkswagen Group brands. As early as 1998, Volkswagen founded the Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) in Sunnyvale, California, which was merged with the IECC in the summer of 2019.
Regular contact with the tech scene
“Meanwhile we are already established,” says Neukart. What’s important here in San Francisco is the meet-up scene, the informal get-together after work where everyone talks about what they’re working on, which may lead to joint projects. Neukart’s team has grown steadily and has just moved into a new office. This morning, about half of the dozen or so employees based here are there, the others are at appointments, on business trips or at conferences. In terms of networking, sitting in the office takes second place.
“We are still in the process of unpacking everything here,” explains Neukart as he tours the office floor in the heart of the city. The rooms exude the charm of a typical start-up: Employees sit together in one of the small meeting rooms in front of a thoroughly scribbled whiteboard, and sofas encompass monitor workstations in the middle of the open office space. On one desk is a colorful unicorn, on another a self-constructed toy gun. Any tech nerd would probably have a heart attack.
Strategic benefits for the Group
As unconventional as the atmosphere here may appear, the strategic objective of the work of Florian Neukart and his team is just as tangible. Technologies that may still sound like science fiction today can, if used correctly, give an automotive group like Volkswagen a decisive edge tomorrow. This truer in a world in which cars are increasingly becoming fully networked devices and mobility is becoming a digital service. Quantum computers are a good example. For a long time, the potential of these computers, which function completely differently from binary computers, was only discussed in theory. When Google announced in the autumn that a quantum computer had succeeded in solving a mathematical problem within a few minutes that would take conventional computers thousands of years to solve, computer scientists all over the world paid attention. “This has caused a lot of excitement and also enthusiasm in the community,” explains Andrea Skolik, a colleague of Neukart. There have been very close contacts with Google on the subject of quantum computing since 2017.
What concrete use can quantum computers actually have? Florian Neukart and his team have been researching this for years. They were able to demonstrate it in Lisbon in November in a pilot project that is unique in the world: During the WebSummit tech conference, Volkswagen equipped MAN buses belonging to the Lisbon municipal transport company CARRIS, with an in-house developed traffic control system.
This system uses a quantum computer from D-Wave, another of Volkswagen’s technology partners, and calculates the individually fastest route for each of the nine participating buses and the optimum distribution of the fleet in almost real time. The buses were thus able to detect and avoid traffic jams at an early stage. In this way, it was possible to reduce the travel time of passengers – even during peak periods – and improve the flow of traffic in the city, a project that can be transferred to any municipality and to any size of vehicle fleet.
Volkswagen sees itself as being within direct reach of commercial capability here. “The pilot project for bus routing in Lisbon is the first application in the world to use a quantum algorithm productively – end-to-end, starting with the analysis and forecast of traffic behavior, determining routes on the quantum computer, and finally communicating these routes back to the bus drivers via app,” says Florian Neukart.
And this is only one of many conceivable applications. “Where quantum computers can really shine is in the simulation of materials, individual molecules,” explains Andrea Skolik. This could enable decisive progress in the development of new materials. In battery research, Volkswagen is using quantum computers to simulate chemical processes at the molecular level. This could pave the way to even more powerful batteries – a crucial building block for the next generations of electric cars.
Artificial intelligence detects pedestrians
Another promising technology is artificial intelligence, or more precisely machine learning. Volkswagen experts are also working on this in San Francisco. Here, algorithms are fed with data until they can independently recognize patterns and perform complex tasks. Neukart's employee David Von Dollen demonstrates it on his screen. There you can see how the system dynamically learns to distinguish between two classes of data, red and blue.
In concrete terms, this may mean for example, the artificial intelligence is shown pictures of cats or cars until the system automatically recognizes the difference. What at first sounds banal opens up far-reaching possibilities. “There are numerous applications for this,” says Von Dollen at his computer. “In an autonomously driving car, for example, the system can use the images from a video camera to deduce whether there is a pedestrian or something else to be seen.” Such powerful AIs, such as those being developed at Volkswagen’s Data:Lab in Munich, are the key to safe, autonomous cars – the road to future mobility is led by cat images.
Virtual Reality in design
The technology on which Frantisek Zapletal is working is already in concrete use at Volkswagen. The Czech native, who studied in Germany and moved to California with his family, works for the Volkswagen Virtual Engineering Lab and develops virtual reality applications for vehicle design. These are used, for example, in Belmont, some 40 kilometers away, where the Volkswagen development team of around 300 people works for all Group brands.
Zapletal starts a video on his laptop to demonstrate what it’s all about. VR glasses and data gloves are used here, just like those used by gamers on game consoles. With these glasses, designers can view digital prototypes in 3D and interact with them through the gloves. They can change shapes and components, try out different materials in the interior and experience the result in a virtual test drive. Volkswagen calls this technology “Virtual Concept Car”. “This allows us to try out many more variations in a shorter time without having to build a new prototype every time,” explains Zapletal. This significantly reduces development costs. Volkswagen also uses this technology at its Wolfsburg plant, for example in the development of the new Golf 8.
The work of Shan Lyons is also very concrete and practical. The developer was involved in the implementation of new functions on the Audi USA website, such as the vehicle configurator. “These new features are now to be implemented across the Group’s other brands as well, and much faster than before,” says Lyons. The key to this is a process in which the developed software is developed, tested, adapted and optimized very quickly. “We not only want to deliver new features for the customer and added value for our business, but we also want to do so always with proven quality,” explains Lyons.
Technology for specific applications
The “Advanced Technologies” that Florian Neukart carries in his job title thus always becomes more concrete through the work with his team. The search for innovations is linked to concrete usage scenarios within the Group. “When we find something that could help us, the first thing we do is call here in the USA and then call Wolfsburg or elsewhere to try to find stakeholders,” says Florian Neukart, describing the process. Then the developers usually program a software prototype. “Once we have a prototype, we go straight to the departments where we think it might be of interest to them.” And so many good ideas and developments really do catch on – from the US West Coast to Germany, into the car and all the way to the customers.